Most chengyu and xiehouyu have a literal meaning and a figurative meaning.

Take 鸡飞狗跳 for instance, it literally means [the] chicken[s] fly [and the] dog[s] jump, figuratively it stands for chaos and confusion.

Or 孔夫子搬家——净是书 literally means Confucius moves house —— there's nothing but books, but figuratively books sounds the same as loss or lose (输) giving the meaning of always losing.

With these xiehouyu and chengyu the emphasis is always placed on the figurative meaning and not the literal meaning.

Are there chengyu that only have a literal meaning with no figurative meaning at all?

Perhaps 泥菩萨过河 would count as one - it seems that its literal meaning already does the trick of conveying what it wants to say without any other necessary added meaning.

Are there others?

  • 一敗塗地。 一視同仁。 一言九鼎。 一諾千金。 不學無術。 不恥下問。 不求甚解。 假公濟私。 先發制人。 出奇制勝。 出類拔萃。 剛愎自用。 名不虛傳。 咄咄逼人。 因勢利導。 妄自尊大。 孤陋寡聞。 居安思危。 後來居上。 忍辱負重。 排難解紛。 有備無患。 民不聊生。 流芳百世。 病入膏肓。 矯枉過正。 群策群力。 老當益壯。 舉一反三。 見異思遷。 言不由衷。 If these are counted, there are many more.
    – SLS
    Commented Oct 31, 2017 at 2:48

3 Answers 3


I think all chengyus should have their figurative meanings.

xiehouyu usually has two kinds:

  1. 逻辑推理式 // logical type, For example, 哑巴吃黄连, 有苦说不出.

  2. 谐音 // homophony, For example, 外甥打灯笼, 照旧(舅)

泥菩萨过河 should fall into logical type. So, there are lots of that type if you go Baidu.

Couple of links for your reference:




Sorry to be very late, but only now do I know the answer to this question!

There are plenty of chengyu that mean only their literal meaning. I don't have an exact number, but here are just a few examples:

It's helpful to know that many chengyu come from lines in well-known or influential works of literature, theater, or poetry. As such, there isn't always a back story for the chengyu, and I find that it's often (but absolutely not always) the back story that gives a chengyu its layered meanings.

If you visit the links for the chengyu listed above, you can see the respective chengyus' place of origin and whether they have a corresponding back story or not.

Let me know if this isn't clear!


An expression would not be chengyu(成语) or xiehouyu (歇后语) if it didn't have additional layers of meaning. Imagine one asks "Can't metaphors be taken literally?"

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