When I was living in Taiwan I became familiar with the “four-character idioms” (chengyu) the Chinese love to toss into conversations. (A selection involving animals, with the related stories, can be found in this article from Chinese Monthly; scroll down past the Chinese text for the English version.) Now I learn, via No-sword, that similar idioms occur in Japanese, where they are called yojijukugo; see this article in the Japan Times‘s Kanji Clinic. At the end is a collection of such sayings from both Japanese and Chinese.


  1. There’s a book out, also, called Kanji Idioms ( that covers some of them. I don’t know how much overlap there is between the Chinese and the Japanese ones, but most of the Japanese four-character idioms seem to have been taken from the Chinese classics, so.

  2. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon may be the most famous here in the west:
    “The phrase ‘Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon’ (Wuo hu zhan long) is a chinese idiom in which the words ‘Tiger’ and ‘Dragon’ directly refer to people with special hidden talents. This idiom is used to remind people to never underestimate anybody.”

  3. My favourite these days is “Sai Wang shi ma.” sai-wang-loses-horse.
    A man named Sai Wang loses his horse but doesn’t care since every action has a reaction. Eventually the horse comes back with a stronger horse but he doesn’t care. Then that horse breaks his sons leg but that gets his son out of the military draft.
    My Chinese Communisty Party instructor introduced it to our class as being an example of Hegelian dialectics which I doubt that she came up with on her but rather as part of her Party inculcation. So you see there, the Chinese also invented dialecticism (just joking).

  4. In addition to the kind of examples listed here, with nice stories and morals attached to them, there are also many four-character expressions that don’t have such a history. Moreover, there seem to be new ones coined all the time. Mao was a master at coining four character expressions. I wonder where linguists stand on the differences between different types of four character expressions in Chinese.

  5. I didn’t realize it was such a productive type, though I knew Mao was fond of them. I imagine sociolinguists would be most interested in the differences between them, since in a purely linguistic sense they function the same whether or not they’ve got stories to go with them.

  6. If you don’t want si kou liu xue (4 holes losing blood), you better agree with Mao and the Communist Party (Mao was only 80% right, goes the Party line).
    The Chinese Linguistics program at the University of Victoria’s Linguistics Department (which is trying to make a name for itself by promoting its program), where I was studying, is dominated by the Party. And of course, in Chinese linguistics, experts don’t even talk of different languages in China, just different dialects. A political academic nightmare.

Speak Your Mind