What is a Chengyu?

成語: chéngyǔ: literally meaning “set phrase,” a chengyu is a typically four character phrase, originating from Classical Chinese, and is used in vernacular Chinese today.

Chinese is a very contextual language, and like all language, highly reflective of its culture.   The use of chengyu in speech and writing is often indicative of one’s scholastic level. Study and scholarly activity is the epitome of virtue in the Confucian ethic, and one’s level of academic attainment is directly tied to one’s social status.  People often use chengyu more to intimate a level of understanding of Chinese history and culture than for a shorthand in explaining a point.

Chinese culture tends to look to the past in order to understand the present.  The Chinese, by and large, place more emphasis on the wisdom of old people and their ancestors than they do on contemporary people.

Which is why chengyu and the Chinese language can be useful to contemporary Americans, who are constantly looking around for the new and exciting.  The use of chengyu and the deference to the past in Chinese culture would be similar to constantly quoting Shakespeare and Socrates in modern, casual conversation, without further explaining the meaning of the quotes.  The meaning is meant to be understood by both parties implicitly.  Shakespeare and Socrates are just a couple of examples of Western figures who garner great respect in our culture, but at the same time, don’t have the same weight as Sima Qian or Li Bai.

How does this apply  to Mixed Mental Arts?  To quote Bruce Lee, “Absorb what is useful.  Discard what is not.  Add what is uniquely your own.”  There is much wisdom to be gleaned from the words of our collective ancestors, and it doesn’t matter where that wisdom comes from.  As an individual in the high information culture in which we live today, one must learn, unlearn, and relearn.  Absorb what is useful, discard what is not, and add what is uniquely your own.

Isaiah is a linguist, a student, and a musician. He likes whiskey and showtunes. Check out his music on Soundcloud or Bandcamp. His website is https://greatghouls.com, where he writes personal blogs that aren't too well thought out.

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