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There are tens of thousands of chengyu, many of them are historical in nature, whilst others are loaned from foreign sources such as Buddhism. Which period or dynasty in Chinese history produced the most though?

I suspect the earlier ones such as Warring States or Spring and Autumn periods to be the most productive but I have no sources to back that up.

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See this paper. Your guess is incorrect :) –  Stan Oct 2 '13 at 14:18
    
Maybe. Though truly productive, most works come up during the time of Warring States and earlier are believed to get burned as early as the reign of Qin Shi Huang.... –  congliu Oct 2 '13 at 15:35
    
@Stan I found an interesting comment about how in more recent dynasties, people have created new chengyu for older stories, which could explain my misconception :) Anyway please turn your link into an answer! –  congusbongus Oct 3 '13 at 0:39
    
You can answer this question too. Recently my work becomes more and more so I'm sorry I don't have time to compose an answer :( –  Stan Oct 3 '13 at 1:55
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2 Answers

up vote 7 down vote accepted

I'll answer based on the article provided by @Stan. From what I can tell, it is a transcription from a 1999 article that appeared in 《语文建设》, the raw data of which came from 汉语成语考释词典 by 刘洁修, 1989.

Period                           | Number | Percent
---------------------------------+--------+--------
春秋以前 Before Spring and Autumn |     88 |    1.21
春秋 Spring and Autumn           |    320 |    4.41
战国 Warring States              |    232 |    3.19
秦 Qin                           |      1 |    0.01
两汉 Han                         |    479 |    6.59
三国 Three Kingdoms              |     96 |    1.32
两晋 Jin                         |    198 |    2.73
南朝 Southern Dynasties          |    270 |    3.72
北朝 Northern Dynasties          |     71 |    0.98
隋 Sui                           |     16 |    0.22
唐 Tang                          |    711 |    9.79
五代 Five Dynasties              |     75 |    1.03
两宋 Song                        |   1251 |   17.22
金 Jin (Jurchen)                 |     36 |    0.50
元 Yuan                          |    401 |    5.52
明 Ming                          |    854 |   11.76
清 Qing                          |   1494 |   20.57
Modern/Unknown                   |    671 |    9.24

totals

But these numbers aren't all directly comparable; some dynasties such as Qin only existed very briefly, others such as North/South dynasties co-existed. I've therefore combined some and produced a graph showing number of chengyu per year:

per year

Caveats

  • For the number of years "before Qin", I started counting from the Zhou dynasty.
  • It's probably unfair to show the "Modern/Unknown" category as-is; strictly speaking, the source material only categorises up to Qing dynasty, but according to the source, "most" of those in this category are probably modern.

On determining the source of a chengyu

It's not easy determining the source of a chengyu, since like the rest of the language, it evolves and even changes meaning over time. The method used in these statistics is the first record of a chengyu in its modern form. This would necessarily bias the data towards more recent ages, even though those chengyu either had different forms earlier, or were modern chengyu based on older origins.

To use an example from the article, the chengyu 镜花水月 is recorded as appearing in Ming, however it had appearances earlier:

  • In Jin, there is the passage "如镜中像、水中月,见如有色,而无触等,则非色也"
  • In Tang/Song, there is "水月镜像"; at this stage it is not quite chengyu as its form has not yet stabilised

However, even in Ming, this chengyu had a different meaning to its modern meaning. Its modern meaning only appeared in Qing.

Therefore, the results may differ quite a lot depending on how you determine the origin of a chengyu.

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chengyu Comes from people’s daily life. It’s difficult to distinguish which period produced the most chengyu. chengyu in Chinese is something like slang in English even in nowadays people make many chengyu for a example “不明觉厉” is a newborn chengyu translate into English is "although i don’t understand but still fell it’s very cool"! my english is very poor maybe you can help me improve my English as return I can help you in Chinese. :)

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哈哈,不明觉厉都出来了。To be honest, 不明觉厉 cannot be called Chengyu, it's just a word used on the Internet now, and LOOKS like a Chengyu. It is short for 虽然不明白你在说什么,但是感觉好厉害的样子, often used as sarcasm. And it is more like English expressions like BTW, AFK. –  leetom Dec 10 '13 at 2:11
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