And the same goes for Chinese writing. When the right phrases or idioms are used at the right time, they add a beautiful flow to the writing, instil mental images for the readers and set a distinctive voice to the completed composition.
We’re not just referring to the four-character idioms (成语 chéngyǔ) and phrases (熟语 shúyǔ), we also mean proverbs (谚语 yànyǔ), colloquial language (俗语 súyǔ), and some others.
But whichever it is, avoid clichés at all means! Remember how Rice Media wrote once about how 风和日丽 became the default composition intro in Singapore’s composition writing? Idioms or phrases that are way overused may make readers (in this case, teachers) cringe.
That’s right, too many cooks spoil the broth. Rather than adding vim and vigour to the composition, going overboard with the phrases and idioms may make the composition appear amateurish. Not to mention how much they’ll distract the readers away from the focus of the composition.
Moreover, the more these idioms are used, the more mistakes there may be. Unless your child is highly confident that he or she knows the correct meaning, otherwise we advise against adding too many into the writing process.
But aren’t we thankful for the myriads of phrases and idioms of the Chinese language! With thousands of them out there, some of them are homographic, some of them illustrate a charming story, and most of them we rarely used. To avoid losing marks overusing the wrong ones, we’ve sourced out…
10 most flexible Chinese phrases & idioms students can use in composition writing
1. 司空见惯 sī kōng jiàn guàn
Short story: A 司空-titled officer in Tang Dynasty saw “sing-song girls” during a feast as a common sight.
English definition: A common sight
Synonyms often used: 不足为奇、习以为常、层出不穷、屡见不鲜
2. 一鸣惊人 yī míng jīng rén
Short story: During the Three Kingdoms period, the King of Wei (魏) was smart but lazy, eventually leading the state into despair. Upon seeing the situation the state was under, an eloquent officer wanted to subtly remind the king that it was time to do his job. He wittingly mentioned a riddle about a huge bird, which was, in fact, a sly insinuation towards the king’s idleness. The king was smart and understood what he meant, replying with “它不鸣则已，一鸣 就会惊动众人。”
English definition: Amaze the world with a single brilliant feat
Synonyms often used: 一举成名、一步登天、一飞冲天
3. 不绝如缕 bù jué rú lǚ
Short story: A poet of the Song Dynasty, Su Shi (苏轼), also known as Su Dongpo (苏东坡) was sailing on the river at the bottom of the Red Cliffs with his friends. While they were happily enjoying the view, Su Shi made up an impromptu song to reminisce his love who was far away. From a distance, flute music came into harmony with the song, to which the poet recited: “其声呜呜然，如怨如慕，如泣如诉；余音袅袅，不绝如缕。”
English definition: Uncertain, dependent on chance; almost extinct; linger on faintly (of sound)
Synonyms often used: 危如累卵、岌岌可危
4. 犬牙交错 quǎn yá jiāo cuò
Short story: To stop rebellion activities during the Han Dynasty, Emperor Gaozu of Han aka Liu Bang (汉高祖刘邦) forfeited lands owned by Marquis of the different states as an attempt to remove their authority. He also wanted to move on forward into a few other movements to establish a strong central government. The Marquis were naturally against the idea and tried to beg mercy by reminding Emperor Gaozu that these lands were assigned to them in a criss-cross pattern like a hound’s teeth by the Emperor’s late father for a reason: to protect the capital lest of a war.
English definition: Arranged in a criss-cross pattern
Synonyms often used: 长短不一、参差不齐
5. 望洋兴叹 wàng yáng xīng tàn
Short story: Derived from Zhuangzi: The Floods of Autumn (《庄子秋水》), it’s a conversation between the earl of the river and Ruo of the Northern Sea. Earl of the river looked at the river that he resides in and exclaimed that it’s the most majestic river in the world and no other can come close to it. Ruo of the Northern Sea told him that the Northern Sea is way bigger, to the earl’s disbelief. One day he decides to visit the Northern sea and realized his mistake, exclaiming “于是焉，河伯始旋其面目，望洋而叹。”
English definition: Lament one’s littleness before the vast ocean – to feel powerless and frustrated
Synonyms often used: 无能为力、无可奈何 、望尘莫及
6. 万人空巷 wàn rén kōng xiàng
Short story: Poet Su Shi (苏轼) was invited to be the invigilator of an exam in a village. Results were scheduled to be released on Mid-Autumn Festival, but due to the overwhelming amount of papers to be reviewed, results were released two days after the festival. Although done in a rush, it was just in time for the villages to view the rising tide, which was a big event, with Su Shi commenting: “赖有明朝看潮在，万人空巷斗新妆。”
English definition: Everybody leaves their apartment and gathers at one place (usually for a big event)
Synonyms often used: 普天同庆
7. 明日黄花 míng rì huáng huā
Short story: During ancient times in China, the Double Ninth Festival as a day where poets gather to appreciate the blooming of chrysanthemum flowers and reciting poems to sing praises of the beautiful field of flowers. At that moment, Su Shi (苏轼) recited “相逢不用忙归去，明日黄花蝶也愁，” emphasizing that people should enjoy the time right then, or they’ll miss the beauty of them.
English definition: Something from the past
Synonyms often used: 今是昨非
8. 比上不足，比下有余 bǐ shàng bù zú, bǐ xià yǒu yú
Short story: Initially intended to compare Chinese calligraphy, specifically for 草书, two Han scholars commented “上比崔杜不足，下方罗赵有余。” while comparing the work of two calligraphists.
English definition: To fall short of the best but be better than the worst
Synonyms often used: 不求有功，但求无过、不上不下
9. 彼一时，此一时 cǐ yī shí, bǐ yī shí
Short story: During the Three Kingdoms period, the King of Yan (燕) passed his throne to the prime minister, which ensued civil war, and bestowed Qi (齐) the opportunity to attack the state of Yan. One of the era’s greatest philosopher, Mengzi aka Mencius (孟子) also suggested using army force on the state of Yan to put a stop to the war. But the King of Qi started this war because he was eyeing the wealth of Yan rather than making this war to end all the others. Hence, Mengzi grieved “彼一时，此一时也。”
English definition: Times have changed
Synonyms often used: 今时不同往日
10. 化腐朽为神奇 huà fǔ xiǔ wéi shén qí
Short story: Initiated by philosopher Zhuangzi (庄子), who believes that there are always gain to a loss, and the world always has a way to balance everything, including making the ugly into beautiful.
English definition: Make use of discarded things
Synonyms often used: 点睛之笔、锦上添花
11. 吃一堑，长一智 chī yī qiàn, zháng yī zhì
Short story: A mason craftsman in the Ming Dynasty was grinding stone, and realized that when every time the gemstone gets soldered, it grows ‘a tooth’. “齿” is replaced by “智” as the meaning of the phrase slowly shifts throughout the era.
English definition: One only learns from one’s mistakes; no pain, no gain
Synonyms often used: 失败乃成功之母
Additional phrases students should learn
So there you have it — the ten versatile phrases and idioms your child can include in his or her Chinese composition. Once your kid gets more well-acquainted with these Chinese idioms and phrases, it’ll be a breeze to incorporate them into their writing!
We know it’s not easy to source out Chinese compo phrases and idioms. If you need some professional help in improving your kid’s Chinese vocabulary skills, click below to find out what our lessons can do for you.