I liked Noir’s list a lot, but I’m also interested in modern usage. That’s why I have tried to check whether and how the chengyu chosen by him are used in Modern Mandarin and Modern Japanese.
(Since it's a bit hard to hard to read in this format, I'll also post a more legible version that also includes all the links
on my blog.
As far as the pinyin goes, I have tried following the rules set out in the book Chinese Romanization – Pronunciation & Orthography. The bit about chengyu is accessible online here
As far as whether the chengyu in question is commonly used or not, I consulted two sources:
The Far-Eastern Chinese-English Dictionary (4,000 characters with 40,000 entries) had 6 out of 24: 同舟共濟 (1), 靑出於藍 (4), 四面楚歌 (9), 刮目相看 (13), 溫故知新 (15), 他山之石 (20)
The Taiwanese Ministry of Education has published a chengyu dictionary and has an appendix containing over 48,000 chengyu forms, from 30+ sources. Each form was assigned a number signifying in how many sources the form appears. A high number doesn’t necessarily mean that it is all that frequently used in daily speech, and some commonly used forms may fall by the wayside if they’re not considered by all sources to be chengyu. The numbers appear throughout the text under the rubric of “MOE Index”. However, I think it is fair to say that any form that does not appear in this list can safely be regarded as obscure from the Chinese point of view.
In Japanese, most Chinese idioms are part of the highly literary language, the number of Chinese idioms that appear in colloquial speech are exceedingly low. However, there are two possibilities for the Chinese idioms to be rendered into Japanese: either as four-character-combinations (in Japanese the term yojijukugo 四字熟語 ‘four-character compounds’ is preferred over seigo成語) or in a peculiar type of Sinicised Japanese, which is also known as 和漢混交文 wakan-konkōbun
, which I will point out throughout the text.
As far as frequency goes, since they’re much less frequently used to begin with, I have checked a drill book used by Japanese high school students to prepare for their university entrance exams, which happened to have a list of 139 key yojijukugo, classified into four levels of difficulty: 39 ‘basic’, 50 ‘very important’, 29 ‘important’ and 22 ‘difficult’ ones. From the 24 presented by Noir so far, four were on the list: 吳越同舟 (1) ‘important’, 曲學阿世 (2) ‘difficult’, 巧言令色 (5) ‘very important’ and溫故知新 (15) ‘very important’.
1. 吳越同舟 (吴越同舟)
‘Enemies collaborating in the face of a common problem’.
Chinese: The episode of the fighters from Wu and Yue crossing the river together has generated many different chengyu variants, 同舟共濟 tóngzhōu-gòngjì ‘cross (the river) together in the same boat’ being the most common one in Chinese. Others include風雨同舟 fēngyú-tóngzhōu ‘in the same boat at wind and rain’, 吳越同舟 Wúyuè-tóngzhōu etc. Another four-character expression (not necessarily a chengyu) with the same meaning is 共渡難關 gòngdù-nánguān ‘get through difficulties together’. This Chengyu was also cited by Hillary Clinton in a recent chengyu exchange between the Secretary and the Chinese Prime Minister. (I’ve written a blog entry about this
, unfortunately it is in German, but I’ve linked to news stories about this in English and Chinese). This is an interesting example of context: even though literally it might just mean “two groups crossing a river together” this must usually apply to two groups originally hostile to each other. There was a debate between some pundits when Hilary Clinton used this word, since Wu and Yue go on to wage war on each after, the crossing of the river notwithstanding, and the war finally ends with one destroying the other. Does this have to be taken into consideration when using this chengyu? Some people seemed to suggest this, but for most Chinese speakers, this does not seem to be necessary. One could analyse it like this:
LITERAL MEANING: two groups cross river together in storm
NARROWER CONTEXT: two groups that are at war set aside their differences and work together.
WIDER CONTEXT: later the war continues and one group defeats the other.
It seems that in order to use this chengyu correctly, the narrower context has to be true, but the wider context can be disregarded.
Japanese: indeed has呉越同舟 goetsudōshū ‘Wu and Yue in the same boat’
官: Wú Yuè Tóng Zhoū
-- From Sūn Zi (《孫子》〈九地篇〉)
2. 曲學阿世 (曲学阿世)
qūxué-āshì. ‘To compromise one’s principles in order to attain wordly gains’
Chinese: Learned Pronunciation qūxué-ēshì . However, many dictionaries also use the pronunciation given by Noir.
Japanese: indeed has 曲学阿世 kyokugakuasei.
官: Qū Xué Ā Shì
-- From Records of the Grand Historian, Bk. 121 "Biographies of Confucians" (《史記》 卷121 〈儒林傳〉 )
3. 背水之陣 (背水之阵)
‘fight with water on one’s back; fight to the death’
General: this chengyu involves Han Xin. There is a very similar chengyu involving Xiang Yu, 破釜沈舟 pòfŭ-chénzhōu ‘break the kettles and sink the ships’. At the battle of Julu, where Xiang Yu’s troups were outnumbered one to ten, he had the ships sunk and the kettles destroyed, leaving the troops with no more provisions than for three days, finally leading his troops to victory. This chengyu can only be applied to situations where the desperate measures taken lead to success. It would be interesting to compare it to the chengyu relating to Han Xin. As Noir gives the intepretation “conquer or be conquered” (which reminds one of another chengyu (albeit from the Song period), 你死我活 nĭsĭ-wŏhuó ‘you die, I live, i.e. to the death’).
Chinese: Mandarin usually uses 背水一戰 bèishuĭ-yīzhan ‘fight with water on the back’. Either way, the first character in the fourth tone.
Japanese: Indeed it is 背水の陣 haisui no jin
官: Bēi Shuǐ Zhī Zhèn
-- From Records of the Grand Historian, Bk. 118 "Biography of Hán Xìn" (《史記》 卷121 〈准陰侯列傳〉)
4. 靑出於藍 (青出于蓝)
qīng chū yú lán. ‘to surpass one’s teacher’
Chinese: The Chengyu dictionaries I consulted have青出於藍,而勝
於藍 qīng chū yú lán, ér shèng
yú lán ‘blue comes from indigo, and yet wins over indigo’, which can be shortened to just the first half.
Japanese: Most dictionaries list the full和漢混交文 wakan-kankōbun version:愛は青より出でて藍より青し ai wa ao yori idete ai yori aoshi ‘blue comes from indigo and is bluer than indigo’. As Noir says, it is in fact the case that the second, ai yori aoshi, seems to be used more. This expression has alson been popularised as a title of a TV series and a comic, but as far as I understand the plot of the comic, the connection to the chengyu is quite strenuous… In Japanese, there is also a more learned expression that refers to the same chengyu:出藍の誉れshutsuran no homare ‘the honour of coming from indigo’.
官: Qīng Chū Yú Lán
-- From Xún Zi (《荀子》,〈權學〉)
qiăoyán-lìngsè / kōgenreishoku. ‘clever words and a deceitful face (describing people who want to appear more virtuous than they are’
(4th tone for the third character, not 2nd)
官: Qiǎo Yán Líng Sè
-- From Analects of Confucius Ch. I and XVII (『論語』, 學而 3, 陽貨 17)
‘trust in keeping one’s words and promises’
Chinese: I could only find this in the Taiwanese Education Ministry Dictionary, which nevertheless says that 徙木之信 xĭmù zhī xìn ‘trust of moving the true’ (徙 means ‘move’ as well) is more common. Another variant 移木立信 yímù-lìxìn ‘establish trust of moving the tree’.
Japanese: indeed 移木の信 iboku no shin.
官: Yí Mù Zhī Xìn
-- From Records of the Grand Historian, Bk. 68 "Biography of Lord Shāng " (《史記》 卷68〈商君列專〉)
7. 韋編三絶 (韦编三绝)
wéibiān-sānjué. ‘study dilligently’
Japanese: either ihensanzetsu or 韋編三たび絶つihen mitabi tatsu (和漢混交文 wakan-kankōbun)
官: Wéi Biān Sān Jué
絕韋編, 韋編絕: 1
-- From Records of the Grand Historian Bk. 47 "Annals of Confucius" (《史記》 卷47 〈孔子世家〉
yăotiăo-shūnǚ. ‘elegant lady; the perfect woman’
Chinese: 淑 2nd tone in Taiwan.
Japanese: Daijirin only has 窈窕 yōchō “elegant” and 淑女 shukujo ‘lady’ as two lemmas. Other 四字熟語yojijukugo resources did not have this. Daijirin however had an example with the former being marked as an adjective modifying the noun following it: 窈窕たる淑女yōchō-taru shukujo ‘elegant lady’
官: Yǎo Tiǎo Shū Nǚ
-- From Shī Jīng, "Guān Jū" (《詩經》 〈國風〉 周南 01 "關雎")
sìmiàn-Chŭgē / shimen-Soka. ‘all alone in a desperate situation, beset from all sides, without being helped by anyone’
General: this of course, is one of the most famous chengyu of all time… A Japanese dictionary gives a nice definition for it: 孤立無援 koritsu muen ‘solitary and helpless’, a Chinese one gives 危急無援 wéijí-wúyuán ‘in a critical situation without help’. (Also, I personally don’t think the quote is too long, if you discuss this chengyu, how can you not mention the poem
官: Sì Miàn Chǔ Gē
-- From Records of the Grand Historian Bk. 7 "Chronicle of Xiàng Yǔ (《史記》 卷7 〈項羽本紀〉)
10. 克己復禮 (克己复礼[中簡], 克己復礼[日簡])
kèjĭ-fùlĭ / kokki-fukurei. ‘overcome oneself and return to Morals (conduct oneself in accordance with Morals)’
官: Kè Jǐ Fù Lǐ
- From Analects of Confucius 12:1 (《論語》 〈顏淵〉)
11. 讀書百遍 (读书百遍[中簡], 読書百遍[日簡])
‘read the book a hundred times, and the meaning will become clear (RTFM)’
Chinese: usually in the long form 讀書百遍,其義自見. dú shū băibiàn, qí yì zì jiàn ‘read the book a hundred times, and the meaning will become clear by itself’.
Japanese: the longer version is then rendered in和漢混交文 wakan-kankōbun as 読書百遍義自ら見られる dokusho-hyappen gi onozukara arawareru.
官: Dú Shū Bǎi Biàn
MOE Index: not to be found!
-- From Sānguó Zhì, Bk. 13 "Biographies of Zhōng Yáo, Huá Xīn, Wáng Lǎng" (《三國志》卷13 〈鍾繇華歆王朗傳〉)
liángshàng-júnzi / ryōjō no kunshi. ‘the gentleman on the roof; a thief, burglar’
Chinese: according to some sources, in Modern Mandarin this can now also mean 'a person divorced from reality'
Japanese: It is unclear if this the Japanese word retains the connotation of fanciness. Daijirin remarks that this can also be used to refer to rodents in the house.
官: Liáng Shàng Jūn Zi
-- From The Book of Later Hàn Bk. 62 (《後漢書》卷62 〈荀韓鍾陳列伝第五十二〉)
‘to rub one’s eyes and see in a new light’
Chinese: in Chinese it seems to be preferred to replace the last character 待 ‘wait, treat’ with 看 ‘see’, since it makes it more semantically transparent: 刮目相看 guāmù-xiāngkàn ‘rub one’s eyes and see in a new light’. The long version is士目三日,刮目相待/看 shì mù sānrì, guā mù xiāng dāi/kàn ‘when scholars see each other after three days, they rub their eyes and see each other in a new light’. Another, more colloquial way of putting this in Chinese is 另眼相看 lìngyăn-xiāngkàn ‘see with a different eye’.
Japanese: Daijirin only has刮目 katsumoku ‘rub one’s eyes’, which can also mean ‘rub one’s eyes and see in a new light”, thus Japanese having shortened the four character combination to a two character one. Other sources suggest刮目して見る katsumoku shite miru ‘rub one’s eyes and look (anew)’ and刮目相待katsumokusōtai ‘rub one’s eyes and see in a new light’.
官: Guā Mù Xiāng Dāi
-- from Sānguó Zhì, Bk. 54, "Biographies of Zhōu Yú, Lǔ Sù, Lǚ Měng (《三國志》 卷54 〈周瑜魯肅呂蒙傳〉)
14. 七去之惡 (七去之恶[中簡], 七去之悪[日簡])
‘the seven evils to justify divorce’
General: neither Chinese nor Japanese sources indicated any kind of sarcastic component describing an ‘out-of-date macho’. This seems to be unique to Korean, something Noir seems to acknowledge himself.
Chinese: I could not find this in any source used. The Taiwanese Education Ministry Dictionary has 七出 qīchū defined as folllows: “一為無子，二為淫佚，三為不事舅姑，四為口舌，五為盜竊，六為妒忌，七為惡疾。” Many sources point to Korean usage, and it is in question if this phrase can be rightly said to be a 成語. 七去之惡 per se is not a term from the classic literature. This is not to say that this is not a valid concept, it certainly is.
Japanese: saru nanatsu no aku is not a phrase that occurs anywhere else online. Daijirin has 七去shichikyo and 七出shichishutsu, though.
官: Qī Qù Zhī È
-- From Greater Classic of Rites Ch. 39 (《大戴禮記》 〈本命〉)
15. 溫故知新 (温故知新)
wēngù-zhīxīn/ onkochishin. ‘review what has been studied and learn something new (from/through it)’
General: one of the more common chengyu in Chinese. I am a bit confused about the explanation of this chengyu though. As far as I understand, this chengyu is meant in a positive way, and most of Noir’s explanation seems to be in line with this. How does the last sentence describing the usage, ‘a part of the common classicist complaints’ fit in all this?
官: Wēn Gù Zhī Xīn
-- From Analects of Confucius, 2:11 (《論語》 〈爲政〉)
16. 泣斬馬謖 (泣斩马谡)
‘to lay aside private emotions for the sake of the law’
Chinese: There is no chengyu like that in Mandarin (from what I can see, however, it is the name of a chapter in Sanguo Yanyi).
Japanese: there is a saying based on this episode (in form of 和漢混交文 wakan-kankōbun): 泣いて馬謖を斬るnaite Ba Shoku o kiru ‘Cryingly execute Ma Shu’. One pointer as to obscurity of the phrase: on this blog, kyūzanbashoku is given as an example of a question on the 1st (and most difficult) level of the 漢字検定試験Kanji kentei shiken (Kanji knowledge exam).
官: Qì Zhǎn Mǎ Sù
Moe Index (even though they appear in the index, they are not in the actual MOE Chengyu dictionary):
-- From Romance of the Three Kingdoms Episode 96. (《三國演義》 第九十六回)
Yúgōng-yíshān. ‘the Foolish Old Man moves the mountain; the determination to win victory and the courage to surmount every difficulty.
General: the Bible has a somewhat similar saying in a positive vein: faith can move mountains (Mark 11:22-24, Matthew 21:21-22)
Interestingly this chengyu was used by Mao Zedong in October 1957 during the Great Leap Forward: 愚公移山,改造中國 Yúgōng-yíshān, găizào Zhōngguó ‘Transform China in the spirit of the Foolish Old Man removed the mountains’.
Japanese: prefers the 和漢混交文 wakan-kankōbun version: 愚公山を移す gukō yama o utsusu
官: Yú Gōng Yí Shān
-- From Lièzĭ Ch. 5 (《列子》 〈湯問〉)
18. 傾國之色 (倾国之色[中簡], 傾国之色[日簡])
General: As for Western paralells, Helen of Troy comes to mind.
Chinese: usually 傾國傾城 qīngguó-qīngchéng ‘overturning country and city’ (less frequently also傾城傾國 qīngchéng-qīngguó) .
Japanese: 傾国 keikoku alone seems sufficient (and that is what Daijirin has), but webidence suggests that it usually occurs in a collocation like 傾国の美女/人keikoku no bijo/jin ‘beautiful woman overturning the country’、not necessarily傾国の色 keikoku no iro ‘colour overturning the country’.
官: Qīng Guó Zhī Sè
-- From the Poetry of Lǐ Yánnián
19. 胡蝶之夢 (蝴蝶之梦)
‘butterfly dream (What is the Matrix?)’
Chinese: The word for butterfly in Modern Mandarin, both traditional and simplified scripts, is written 蝴蝶, however in Classical texts and Japanese it is written 胡蝶. Now as far as the chengyu goes, Mandarin uses 莊周夢蝶 Zhuāngzhou-mèngdié ‘Zhuangzi dreams of a butterfly.
Japanese: it is 胡蝶の夢 kochō no yume。
官: Hú Dié Zhī Mèng
-- From Zhuāngzǐ (《莊子》〈齊物論〉)
tashān zhī shí. ‘to learn from the mistakes of others’.
Chinese:他山之石,可以攻玉 tāshān zhī shí, kĕ yĭ gōng yù ‘Stones from other hills can be used to polish the jade of this one’ or他山之石,可以為錯 tāshān zhī shí, kĕ yĭ wéi cuò ‘Stones from other hills can be used as grindstone (錯)’ Probably because 錯 also means ‘mistake’, there is also a mixed version: 他山之石,可以攻錯tāshān zhī shí, kĕ yĭ gōng cuò; also shorter 他山攻錯 tāshān-gōngcuò. Sometimes the first character is rendered as 它 and given the reading pronunciation tuō.
Japanese: both a short version and a long version exist: 他山の石 tazan no ishi, 他山の石以って玉を攻むべし tazan no ishi o motte tama o osamu beshi, which is a和漢混交文 wakan-kankōbun version of 他山之石,可以攻玉 (with 可read as beshi)。
官: Tā Shān Zhī Shí
-- From Shī Jīng (《詩經》 〈鶴鳴〉)
1. ‘to live in reclusion’ 2. ‘unwilling to admit mistakes, engaging in sophistry’
Japanese: this is usually read in和漢混交文 wakan-kankōbun fashion: 石に漱ぎ流れに枕す ishi ni kuchisusugi nagare ni makurasu ‘brush with stones and make the stream one’s pillow’. sōsekichinryū exists as well. In Japanese this has indeed the meaning of sophistry.
Chinese: While the Japanese saying has the meaning of sophistry, the Chinese dictionaries do not have any of this, merely having the meaning intended by Sun Chu, namely “to live in reclusion”. What’s even more interesting, in Chinese there are several variations of this, which mean all the same thing, regardless if they are reflecting Sun Chu’s mistake or the correct intended version: 漱石枕流 shùshí-zhĕnliú ‘brush with stones and make the stream one’s pillow’, 漱流枕石 shùliú-zhĕnshí ‘brush with flowing water and make the stones one’s pillow’,枕流漱石 zhĕnliú-shùshí ‘make the stream one’s pillow and brush with stones’, 枕石漱流 zhĕnshí-shùliú ‘make the stones one’s pillow and brush with flowing water’.
官: Shù Shí Zhěn Liú
-- From Book of Jìn Bk. 56 "Biographies of Jiāng Tǒng and Sūn Chǔ" 《晉書》〈江統 孫楚傳〉
‘constant renewal, daily progress’
Chinese: this is known as 日新 rìxīn ‘every day anew’ or sometimes also as日新又新 rìxīn-yòuxīn ‘day after day anew’, but not as 日日新.
Japanese: indeed uses日日新which is read as hibi ni arata nari.
General: Neither the Chinese nor the Japanese sources mention a usage “in a moral sermon telling people to change their bad habits”, but rather refer to “constant renewal” or “daily progress”. For me there’s quite a leap from people trying to constantly renew themselves, improving themselves to ‘daily reminder of changing their bad habits’.
官: Rì Rì Xīn
-- from Great Learning (大學)
‘seek fish in a tree: a useless search, a futile attempt’
General: there are some nice sayings in English: cannot get blood from a stone; milk the bull; seek roses in December; wring water from a flint.
Chinese: Normally 緣木求魚 yuánmù-qiúyú ‘to climb a tree in search of fish’, but there is also a variant with the order reversed: 求魚緣木 qiúyú-yuánmù ‘to search for fish and climb a tree’, and another variant 緣山求魚 yuánshān-qiúyú ‘to climb a mountain in search of fish’. Chengyu with similar meaning: 刻舟求劍 kèzhōu-qiújiàn ‘carve the boat marking where the sword was dropped’ (Chunqiu), 水中撈月 shuĭzhōng-lāoyuè ‘fish for the moon in the water’ (Song era).
Japanese: The Japanese uses 和漢混交文 wakan-kankōbun: 木に縁りて魚を求むki ni yorite uo o motomu. (uo is an alternative term for “fish”)
官: Yuán Mù Qiú Yú
-- From Mencius (《孟子》 〈梁惠王上〉)
24. 率獸食人 (率兽食人[中簡], 率獣食人[日簡])
shuàishòu-shírén. ‘to lead beasts to have them eat people (describing tyrannical and despotic rule)’
Chinese: a nice four-character definition from the Taiwanese Education Ministry dictionary: 虐政害民 nüèzhèng-hàimín ‘tyrannical rule harming the people’.
Japanese: This is not in the Daijirin, but webidence suggests the Japanese is as follows: 獣を率いて人を食ましむるなり kemono o hikiite hito o hamashimuru nari ‘to lead beasts to have them eat people’ (食むhamu is an old verb for “eat”).
官: Shuài Shòu Shí Rén
-- From Mencius (《孟子》, 〈梁惠王上〉)