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至关重要 strikes me as a four-character idiom instead of a Chengyu, and it didn't even make an entry on 现代汉语词典 or ZDic.net. However, that couldn't explain the fact that the specific character combination 至关 is exclusively used in this phrase, and this phrase has an incredibly high uniformity, in other word variations of this word almost don't exist.

Usually four-character idioms can be modified to suit the context and people actually do that for colorful speech. But searching 至关 on Google, all results are 至关重要. Searching 至关必要, 至关需要, 至关基本, 至关有效... any possible application yielded zero result.

I was unable to find the etymology in any paper dictionary; some online resources (link1 link2) suggest

典故出处 路遥《平凡的世界》第四卷第43章:“这次命运的大决战不仅对她是至关重要的,对所有的同学都一样。”

I am not convinced by it - not just the websites don't look too credible, but the book was first published in 1986 and wasn't popular until it won literary prize in 1991, however, back in the early 90's when I attended school, everyone knew the idiom 至关重要 as a common Chinese word. At that time there was no internet and I don't think that novel could have gotten that popular in such a short time frame.

So my question is, what's the real etymology of 至关(重要) and why there is no variations albeit it's commonly used? Was it a 'prescribed' word by some central committee? Did it gain popularity because some famous person or TV commercial used it in a catch phrase?

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    I don't think 至关 is a word per se. 至 is here synonymous with 最. The expression would then be a compact form for 最关键地重要, or of utmost importance. – user4452 Aug 26 '14 at 19:00
  • @倪阔乐 Agreed. The point of my question though, is not whether 至关 is a word or not, but where did this specific combination (至+关+重要) come from and how it became popular, and why all other possible combinations/variations (至关+other adjective, 最关重要, 至决重要, etc.) are so uncommon. – NS.X. Aug 26 '14 at 20:29
  • Have you tried 词源? – Xiaoge Su Aug 26 '14 at 23:11
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    至关重要 is not considered an idiom (chengyu) but a phrase consisting of separate words. So I guess you won't be able to find an etymology for it. I can find half a million Google results for 至关作用 and 至关因素. Maybe it is not that rare. – 杨以轩 Aug 28 '14 at 2:37
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    There are indications that the phrase is much older than the late 1980s: "Report of the National Peip'ing (Beiping) Library" which is meant to date from 1930 contains the phrase 至關重要. – Michaelyus Sep 22 '14 at 9:38
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I happen to have an "Ancient Chinese Dictionary" at hand. I find out several meanings of 关, they are "bolt", "fort or customs", "joint", "run through", "involved in", "inform" and "the driving force system of machine". I think "driving force system of machine" can make sense, because this is the most principal part of machine, it could be extend to "important". "至" has the meanings of "up to" and "the most". So, combining "至" with "关", the meaning is " the most important". I hope my answer is helpful.

  • Not sure if this is correct. Would like to read the source of information. – Pete C. Sep 20 '14 at 20:58
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It appears in the form 至關緊要 as well as 至關重要, so possibly related to the antonymous phrase 無關緊要 (unimportant or irrelevant).

The MOE's 國語辭典 gives an example of 無關緊要 from the novel 鏡花緣 ("Flowers in the Mirror"), which is 清中葉 (early 19th cent.)

The claim 至關重要 comes from Lu Yao (1949-1992) is ridiculous; I found an example from the United Daily News (聯合報) in 1951! If I find anything earlier, I'll add it.

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