Chinese Idioms (成语)

A person's hand writing Chinese calligraphy on a large sheet of paper.
Photo by Marco Zuppone on Unsplash

成语 (chéngyǔ) are Chinese set expressions, typically consisting of four characters. They often allude to a story or historical proverb.

Here is a list of chéngyǔ I’ve come across while translating Why Harem Intrigue and Held in the Lonely Castle along with their meanings in English. I also include some well-known phrases. My Chinese skill is not very high so I’m afraid I can’t explain the stories behind them. I will link any background information I come across.

I plan on adding to this page periodically as a way to review the chéngyǔ flashcards that I’ve saved. Please check back from time to time if you’d like to learn together! 🙂


  1. 千篇一律 | qiānpiān yīlǜ
    Literally: A thousand articles, the same rule
    Meaning: Stereotyped; Following the same pattern.
  2. 额手称庆 | éshǒu chēnpqìng
    Literally: Raising one’s hand to one’s forehead in joy
    Meaning: To be overjoyed
  3. 特立独行 | tèlì dúxíng
    Literally: Unconventional, independent action
    Meaning: to be independent in mind and action
  4. 抑扬顿挫 | yìyáng dùncuò
    Literally: To modulate one’s tone and pause and transition in rhythm or melody
    Meaning: Cadence, modulation in tone
  5. 敷衍了事 | fūyǎn liǎoshì
    Literally: Perfunctorily completing work
    Meaning: To work half-heartedly, to skimp
  6. 蠢蠢欲动 | chǔnchǔn yùdòng
    Literally: Restlessly moving as one wishes
    Meaning: To begin to stir, to become restless, to be ready to make trouble
  7. 根深蒂固 | gēnshēn dìgù
    Literally: As deep as a root, as firm as the stem of a fruit
    Meaning: Deep-rooted, ingrained
  8. 众矢之的 | zhòngshǐzhīdì
    Literally: To be the target for the crowd’s arrows/feces
    Meaning: To be attacked on all sides, to be the target of public criticism, censured by all
  9. 群起而攻之 | qúnqǐ ér gōng zhī
    Literally: The group rises against sth/sb
    Meaning: To have the masses rise (or turn against) against sth/sb, universally abhorrent
  10. 皆大欢喜 | jiēdà huānxǐ
    Literally: Everyone is pleased
    Meaning: To everyone’s delight and satisfaction
  11. 异军突起 | yìjūn tūqǐ
    Literally: An unusual army charges forward
    Meaning: To emerge as a new force to be reckoned with
  12. 轰轰烈烈 | hōnghōng lièliè
    Literally: To violently explode
    Meaning: On a grand and spectacular scale; vigorous and dynamic

Longer Idioms/Phrases

  1. 千里之堤毁于蚁穴 | qiān lǐ zhī dī, kuì yú yǐ xué
    Literally: An ant may well destroy an entire dam
    Meaning: If a small problem is overlooked, it could develop into a big disaster. Ants multiply quickly and make tunnels in dams, allowing water in and consequently causing it to collapse.
Ignore this section~ It’s more to keep myself accountable while learning.


  • 04-13-2020
    Translated: 5 chapters | Saved: 58 idiom flashcards | Added/reviewed: 10/58
  • 04-15-2020
    Translated: 6.85 chapters | Saved: 61 idiom flashcards | Added/reviewed: 12/61 | Others: 1/1

Thank you for reading!
Please check back from time to time if you’d like to learn together! 🙂
I’d love to hear any thoughts you might have.

To any Chinese speakers:

  • Do you know the stories behind the chéngyǔ above?
  • How did you learn chéngyǔ?
  • Do you know any resources for learning cheng yu?
  • What chéngyǔ are obsolete in modern times?

I deeply appreciate your guidance! (>m<) <3

What's your reaction?

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  • You can buy children’s books that explain a lot of chen yu. Baidu is a good resource, use 成语故事 idiom story, to help you find the right information. For example for 轰轰烈烈, Baidu says


    During the Song dynasty, the anti corruption hero Wen Tian Xiang wrote … blah blah blah… life’s short, what a grand and spectacular event (life)” blah blah blah.

    Also from Baidu, a discussion about the poem can be found by searching for 沁园春·题潮阳张许二公庙

    You can find references to the events by looking up Zhang Zun and Wen Tian Xiang’s opinion on him on wikipedia. I started going down the history rat hole looking at it.

    I like for looking up classical stuff, but I have trouble finding things in it.

    • Wow, thank you so much for the resources, Nopenopenope!! *bows*
      Do you happen to know any resources for poems? Held in the Lonely Castle looks like it will have more artistic/historical references than Why Harem Intrigue.

  • Sorry for the slow reply. I don’t have good resources for poems, there are annotated collections of poems intended for elementary students but I haven’t found one that I really like.

    • Don’t worry about the reply! Thanks for remembering :3

      Ah, okay. I’ve found a few myself (the annotated collections) but sometimes it’s hard to understand the poem’s explanation. E.g. The explanation was harder to translate than the poem itself hahaha… I’ll keep hunting then. Thanks!

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