I was discussing 成语 (a type of Chinese idiom) with my teacher, and she seemed to indicate that around the HSK5 level, there is a sharp increase in the number of 成语 that the student is required to learn. She also indicated that it was a common complaint by students that 成语 are difficult and tedious to learn, and somewhat boring.

I'm not sure if the following is accurate, but it seems like 成语 are seldom used outside of literature:

...by their nature, formal/literary constructions and so are not commonly used in conversation (unless you want to sound highly educated). Thus this stuff is most useful for diary entries, stories, websites and other written documents.
20 Actually Useful Chengyu (成语)

Hence my question:

Question: Why should someone learning Chinese as a second language learn 成语 idioms?

I gather there's a reason beyond "we like 成语" since there's an emphasis on them in the HSKs. Maybe it'll help me find motivation to study them.

  • As a more general principle, why should you learn anything? Well, you don't need to know anything until you encounter a problem which requires knowledge that you're lacking, and the chance of that happening is very low. That doesn't mean that you shouldn't learn anything...
    – dROOOze
    Commented Nov 8, 2019 at 10:59
  • Personally, I learn things because I like learning things... but I can't instantly learn everything, so I have to choose what to spend my time on. My teacher is indicating that I'll eventually encounter many 成语, and they seem hard to learn (so take up a lot of time) and are "not commonly used" according to the link. Surely there's a reason people spend so much time studying them.
    – Becky 李蓓
    Commented Nov 8, 2019 at 11:11
  • 1
    As my answer stated 成语 is a great short cut. Ask yourself, is it easier to say "與虎謀皮" (requesting a tiger's fur) or "愚蠢地與不講信義,手段兇狠的危險人物做交易" (foolishly deal with untrustworthy, vicious, dangerous people)
    – Tang Ho
    Commented Nov 8, 2019 at 11:38
  • 1
    I think a question that can get eight answers deserves an upvote, no?
    – Mou某
    Commented Nov 10, 2019 at 3:17
  • Just because it's part of the language. It's like proverbs and/or expressions in English. You'll often hear English speakers saying things like "strike when the iron is hot" or saying that they "heard something from the horse's mouth". If you don't know what these mean, you'll just have to deal with that fact. Commented Nov 12, 2019 at 17:02

8 Answers 8


Idioms and classical phrases are important because they are parts of the modern Chinese.

The obvious benefit of using idioms, is it can greatly reduce the length of our sentences

Look at the following example:

跟他做交易真是[與虎謀皮 ]

The idiom 與虎謀皮 in this sentence, expresess several ideas

  1. It is dangerous to deal with him

  2. He is untrustworthy

  3. He is a vicious character

  4. It is foolish to expect good result

If you don't use the idiom 與虎謀皮, you have to use extra words to express all the ideas above. The sentence would become something like this: "他不講信義,手段兇狠, 跟他做交易是一個十分危險而且愚蠢的行為" (He is vicious and untrustworthy, dealing with him is a very dangerous and foolish act)

Just from reading the four characters 與虎謀皮 , we know the person you are dealing with is 不講信義(can't be trusted),手段兇狠 (vicious) and the deal itself is 危險 (dangerous) and 愚蠢 (foolish)

I would say learning idioms is as important as learning anything else in one's study of Chinese. Idioms are refined short cuts to express complex ideas in simple and comprehensive way

Origin of 與虎謀皮: http://www.cantonese.sheik.co.uk/phorum/read.php?14,131767,131767#msg-131767


I think you should learn some because some of idioms are used frequently even in spoken. E.g. 自相矛盾: 你说的话自相矛盾. 尔虞我诈: 单位里的人整天尔虞我诈的。狐假虎威 ... ...

I don't quite agree idioms are hard and boring. Actually, I found they are very interesting. There is an interseting story behind each idiom. My kid bought a book about idioms. It 's more like a storybook rather than a lexicon. It can also improve your Chinese reading. It's really a good read that I'd suggest to Chinese learners. It uses the simple languages for kid, which I assume would be suitable for second language learners.


People who really enjoy the linguistic and cultural aspects of the Chinese language are usually very much fans of 成语 and do not need any particular incentives for learning them. Like parables, there is usually a short story that 成语 is derived from, so if you like to learn the language through stories this is actually quite a good way.

I can understand the rationale for learning Chinese idioms at higher levels, because it is kind of like when people reference things from Shakespeare or other classic English literature and people who learn English as a second language can get caught out.

But in fact Chinese idioms also fall into many different categories, from something that is actually very commonly used in everyday exchanges to ones that require you to be very well versed in classic Chinese literature.

Just as there are people who are advocates for plain English and keeping things simple, there is also a level of eloquence when you can use Chinese idioms that are appropriate for the occasion. I don't think there's a right or wrong answer, you just have to find the elements of the language that work for you and keep practicing until you are comfortable with it.


It depends on how much you want to learn about the language. If you're just targeting daily dialogue / reading food menu kind of level, you can skip idioms. Anything beyond that I would say learning idiom helps.

Or, it should be the other way around; How much you understands these idioms determined by your level of understanding the language. Taking Tang Ho's example 與虎謀皮, a native speaker will most likely understand what it means by looking at it.

If you find them difficult and tedious to learn, you can either improves your skill or ignore them (obviously hah). But many of them are actually a 4 words summary of an experience which I find quite interesting.


I am a native Chinese speaker who lived in the US for a few years. In my opinion, language always reflects the culture behind it. I still remember the time I learn idioms as a kid, it was difficult when I didn't know the story behind. I watched lots of animations that explain the story behind the idioms, and from there I start to have some interest in learning idioms. Lots of times, I find understanding idioms make the language alive or make the expression concise. If you feel learning idioms would not be helpful, it is okay not to spend the time and energy to learn it (just like I still don't know lots of big words in English).


Not really useful for a foreign learning actually. I myself seldom use any English idioms as well. When it occurs in your reading, you just look it up in the online dict. When it occurs in conversation, you just ask the speaker to explain it. There is no necessity in learning 成语, or Classical Chinese.

When you write, however, if you command few of them, you will find your writing unsophisticated, inexpressive, verbose and often hard to clearly describe things or situations. I think this is common for any language learners, such as you and me. If we do not exert our efforts in learning another language comprehensively, the most we can achieve is communication level. I think it's more about personal choice.

  • Sorry~ if you command few of them should be if you don't command enough of them. Otherwise you're sending the opposite message of what you're intending.
    – dROOOze
    Commented Nov 8, 2019 at 11:03
  • Not really useful for foreign learners like you, who just needed to achieve communication level you meant? But It is important for foreign learners who want to achieve higher fluency level though
    – Tang Ho
    Commented Nov 8, 2019 at 14:04
  • @TangHo Yes, so I mean it's all about personal choice. If you persue higher, you need to learn it. Commented Nov 9, 2019 at 10:26

One definition of an idiom is a group of words established by usage as having a meaning not deducible from those of the individual words (e.g., rain cats and dogs, see the light).

The reason I would recommend that you learn idioms is that learning the Chinese language will require you to understand the meaning (intent) behind the spoken words. You can get a dictionary and start learning to translate but that won't help you with intent and understanding of the culture.

For example, how would you determine if a speaker was joking or being slightly suggestive or being forceful?

Idioms can help give you an insight into why a set of words mean what they do, why equivalent words may not be appropriate in one scenario but absolutely necessary in another. So, if you want to learn the language but not truly understand the culture, feel free to skip them.

It really depends on how deeply you want to immerse yourself in the culture.


To certain extent I understand your concern and I've seen extreme cases, where school teach idioms and assess students' work based on how many idioms they use. It was like 20 years ago in high school/junior college in Singapore. I'm not sure about current situation, but as a native mandarin speaker saw Singaporean learn Mandarin in that way was stunning to me. However, I do appreciate the fact that idioms are sometimes interesting, and it helps you to memorize and build up vocabulary, however, personally I think the main purpose for learning a language is to use it as a tool to converse/communicate. Once you're able to use a language, and know the basic logics and the way the language is constructed, you can dive deeper in a more independent way.

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