How the meaning is derived for 得意忘形?
得意忘形 déyìwàngxíng grow dizzy with success; be carried away by one's success so pleased as to lose one's sense of measure
Chinese Language Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for students, teachers, and linguists wanting to discuss the finer points of the Chinese language. It only takes a minute to sign up.Sign up to join this community
It is always good practice to look up the etymology of an idiom whenever you are learning one:
Ruan Ji enjoys wine and a good wail; he is also skilled in playing the guqin. Whenever he derives joy (from these), without warning, he forgets his physical form.
Ruan Ji was one of the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove (竹林七賢). They developed a particularly hedonistic lifestyle – it is important to understand the original (positive) meaning of the idiom with this context.
While in modern Chinese, we see
得意 as an indivisible word that means 'to be proud of oneself; to be complacent', it is separable in classical Chinese (and has a different meaning too), which is arguably more accurate when we are interpreting idioms with a literal approach.
得 is a verb meaning 'to get; to acquire'.
意 is obscurely polysemous. It can mean 'idea' (e.g.,
意在言外 in modern Chinese) and 'intention' (e.g.,
不懷好意). But here, it should mean 'interest; pleasure'. Consider another similar example:
This joy from the mountains and the water he feels within his mind; he merely ascribes it to the wine.
This suggests, in very crude terms, that the enjoyment of a drinker is not derived from the wine itself, but the environment in which the wine is drunk. In modern Chinese, we say someone is having an ulterior motive if we say
However, idioms are known to be especially prone to semantic shift.
得意忘形 is no longer used to describe someone as being hedonistic (which is neutral, perhaps somewhat approving), but careless due to extreme glee (which is definitely disapproving).
Lian, Xianda. “The Old Drunkard Who Finds Joy in His Own Joy -Elitist Ideas in Ouyang Xiu's Informal Writings.” Chinese Literature: Essays, Articles, Reviews (CLEAR), vol. 23, 2001, pp. 1–29. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/495498. Accessed 20 Apr. 2021.
Hegel, Robert E. "A Record of the Pavilion of an Intoxicated Old Man," in The Columbia Anthology of Traditional Chinese Literature, ed. Victor H. Mair (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), pp. 590–591.
I highly disagree with what L Parker said:
It is always good practice to look up the etymology of an idiom whenever you are learning one
First off, making blanket statements about learning methodology will always be a dangerous pitfall for whoever is making the statement, and for whoever is listening to the statement, no matter who is involved, and no matter what the statement is. I had to learn this the hard way. The "ideal" forms of learning realized by relatively seasoned people can only be true in very specific contexts.
Personally, I would never even think to bother with researching the etymology or whatever have you when learning idioms. I'm not going to discourage other people from doing that, though, because, maybe, knowing the etymology to a given idiom might give the learner a certain boost in confidence, and thus inspire him or her to achieve more. And, likewise, there are a ton, even infinite, possible scenarios when when an experienced person's advice can go totally wrong. The moral of the story here is: take people's advice with a grain of salt.
With that out of the way, looking the etymology of an idiom, in my eyes, is horrible practice. Asking questions of the nature of "why" is the complete antithesis to progress. If you want to progress in Chinese, or progress in anything, for that matter, I suggest you tone down your level of curiosity. Only worry about things like etymology and such if you are a scholar in a certain field. I used to be curious, and I used look up the etymologies for Chinese characters/idioms here and there, and then I realized what a major pitfall that kind of behavior is.
Back to your question. 得意忘形 is actually pretty self-explanatory. 得意 means gain satisfaction, or something along those lines （得 is gain, and 意 is meaning）. 忘 means forget, and 形 means shape, as in the shape of your body/personality/being/spirit/etc. i.e. you're so excited or happy or fulfilled or whatever that you basically lose your regular composure. That's basically how you parse it.