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Power of Chinese idiomatic expressions

By Alex Chan | | Updated: 2018-07-01 14:47

Chinese idiomatic expressions, or better known as 成语 (chéng yǔ), are short sayings typically consisting of four characters. Besides being widely used in classical Chinese, chéng yǔ are often derived from either historical facts or myths and may be used to describe situations, people or objects as well as to express feelings and emotions.

Learners of Chinese language have certainly all came across a variety of less complex and more common chéng yǔ, such as 马马虎虎 (mǎmǎ hǔhǔ), which literally means “horse horse, tiger tiger”, but it actually stands for “so so” or “not bad”, or 人山人海 (rénshān rénhǎi), which through the combination of three different characters, people, sea and mountain, it is used to describe huge crowds of people.

Chéng yǔ such as 得天独厚 (détiān dúhòu) can be used to explain an environment with optimal or unique conditions. It may as well be translated as “gift of nature” to express an ideal condition to achieve accomplishments.

There are also much deeper ones to describe feelings of love, such as 情非得已 (qíngfēi děyǐ) or 情不自禁 (qíngbù zìjīn), which I learned through listening the song 情非得已 (qíngfēi děyǐ), the theme song of the 2001 version of Meteor Garden (流星花园 - liúxīng huāyuán), written and sang by the famous Chinese singer-songwriter Harlem Chengqing Yu.

He makes use of qíngfēi děyǐ and qíngbù zìjīn to depict deep and complex feelings of falling in love with someone, who he is unable to cope with. Qíngfēi děyǐ, in fact, refers to something that was originally intended but it had to be done according to the development of things and environment. While qíngbù zìjīn is the inability to control emotions. Both chéngyǔ are highly romantic and passionate, yet at the same time they also possess a unique sense of inability to deal with love.

Chéng yǔ are not only an essential component of Chinese language, they are crucial for foreigners to grasp the sublimity of sounds as well as the cultural essence that is embodied in these expressions.

To conclude, as most of us may have our own 情非得已 and 情不自禁, below is my own translation of Harlem Yu’s song, in order to better allow us experience the strong poetic power of Chinese chéng yǔ to express love.







I can’t forget the first time I met you.
Your mesmerizing eyes.
In my mind,
images of you,
can’t be erased.

Holding your hands,
I feel your warmth.
It truly takes my breath away.
I would like to treasure your innocence.
I equally feel your sufferings.

I am afraid to fall in love with you.
I am afraid to get too close to you.
I am afraid I can’t give you enough.
I am afraid I may need more courage to love you.

I am afraid to fall in love with you.
One day, I may not be able to control myself anymore.

I feel pain when I think of you
I truly can’t help falling in love with you.

What’s the reason that I unexpectedly met you again?
I can’t help to fall into love’s entrapment.

The author is a graduate of China Studies and International Relations at Peking University and the London School of Economics. Currently, he is working in the fields of development and public policy.


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