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I'm interested particularly in the 4-character idioms/chengyu's.

Some that I've learnt recently:

  • 独一无二 - unique
  • 由此可见 - this shows that
  • 一般来说 - generally speaking

I've realised they come in really handy, but often they are difficult to understand when heard for the first time.

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Do you to be able to look them up, or do you want to have an overview? –  BertR Jul 3 '12 at 15:19
from the discussion below it is clear that it is unclear what you mean :-) 独一无二 is also a Chengyu. –  BertR Jul 5 '12 at 13:49
If 4 character idoms are Chengyu's then my question is for chengyu's. If not then any idiomatic term (or hypotactic as mentioned below). Effectively, I'm interested in these units of language as they are not easy to understand as a chunk when first heard. –  jaffa Jul 6 '12 at 14:43

5 Answers 5

(As BertR pointed out, 独一无二 is a Chengyu; the other two are not.)

Unlike Chengyu, 4-character idioms don't have any significance over 3-character idioms, 5-character idioms or any other idioms, in any means other than the rhythm role it plays in the sentence. They're just valid combinations of words, you can totally replace parts or make your own, and there are millions of them. For example 由此可见 is literally from this (we) can see and we also say 由此可知, 由此可得, etc. Similarly, for 一般来说 we also say 一般来讲, 总的来说, etc.

If you want to look them up, there are some good websites mentioned in the other answers or Bing/Google translation (I personally find Bing translation more accurate). If you're looking for a list of them, I am almost sure there isn't one, as they can be created ad hoc during a conversation.

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Why is 独一无二 as Chengyu, and the other 2 are not? –  jaffa Jul 6 '12 at 14:45
@jaffa, check out the definition of Chengyu: "Chengyu are mostly derived from ancient literature. The meaning of a chengyu usually surpasses the sum of the meanings carried by the four characters, as chengyu are often intimately linked with the myth, story or historical fact from which they were derived. As such, chengyu do not follow the usual grammatical structure and syntax of the modern Chinese spoken language, and are instead highly compact and synthetic." 独一无二 is Chengyu because it has an origin. –  NS.X. Jul 7 '12 at 0:42

Chinese-Tools.com offers a dictionary of them that you can search by character or pinyin. You can even search by ones with English translation/descriptions.

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jaffa explicitly wrote he doesn't want Chengyu :-) –  BertR Jul 4 '12 at 5:37
@BertR I think jaffa's logic is flawed here: 4-character idioms ARE Chenyu. 独一无二, 由此可见, and 一般来说 ALL are considered to be 成语. All four-character idioms are chengyu, but not all chengyu are four-character idioms. –  Krazer Jul 5 '12 at 0:25
@Kraver: I far as a know 独一无二 is a Chengyu, but 一般来说 and 由此可见 are not. Can you refer me to a Chengyu dictionary that has these two as an entry? Maybe jaffa meant that he didn't want any 成语典故 (Chengyus with a classical story), but my original guess was he really didn't want any Chengyu (so actually he should exclude 独一无二). –  BertR Jul 5 '12 at 12:29
@BertR My mistake, it was late when I typed that (I wasn't in the right state of mind). You are indeed correct that phrases such as 一般来说 and 由此可见 are not Chengyu (at all). They are in fact hypotactic phrases, which people often confuse as something else since the Chinese language is a (mostly) paratactic language. 总而言之 is another example of such a phrase. –  Krazer Jul 5 '12 at 13:41
No problem. Anyway, Jaffa should explain what he means. –  BertR Jul 5 '12 at 13:49

I'm not sure if you're looking for a way of learning them or if you're looking for a dictionary where you can look up those you don't know. If it's the first, you should check out FluentFlix.com, which has as "Essential Chengyu" section that teaches and explains Chengyu in an entertaining and informative way (something I haven't really found elsewhere).

If it's dictionaries you're after, Zdic has a pretty good one (Chinese-Chinese). Many good explanations with examples can also be found on Baidu (just search for the Chengyu, here is an example). This dictionary from Taiwan's MoE is quite good, too. If you want explanations in English, your choices are more limited, but MDBG works most of the time, along with the one on Chinese-Tools already recommended.

Finally, if you can't find a Chengyu, I suggest using Google. Just as in English, if you search for rather uncommon search terms, the first few hits will be dictionaries explaining the search term (in Chinese, most likely). If you still don't find anything, try adding 什么意思 or something, because it's very likely that someone has asked (and answered) your question already.

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jaffa explicitly wrote he doesn't want Chengyu :-) –  BertR Jul 4 '12 at 7:17
Ok, my bad. Reading the title, most of the words and the first example, it was very easy indeed to think he meant Chengyu. –  Olle Linge Jul 4 '12 at 9:28
Sorry i've changed the wording to be more clear. I don't really care about the differentiation of the 2 terms. I'm more interested in learning these 4 character lexical chunks. –  jaffa Jul 6 '12 at 14:46

The dictionary of Chinese idioms from the Ministry of Education of Taiwan is a very good resource if you can read traditional Chinese:


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You might also like to look at this discussion on Chinese-Forums. They list several different on-line resources plus a downloadable list of idioms from the Singapore government. I point this out as it seems that you might be more interested in idioms than in chengyu per se.


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