Language and Culture

China in Four Characters

Someone once said that “learning Chinese is a five-year lesson in humility”.

Mark Rowswell, (stage name Dashan 大山), would seem to agree.  Born and raised in Canada, Roswell is probably the most famous foreign face in China. A hugely popular Chinese language educator and television host, widely recognized as being one of the world’s most fluent, non-native Chinese speakers, Roswell says that when he first started learning Chinese, he was “horrified” to hear that it would take him ten years to achieve fluency. “27 years later”, he says, “I’m still working at it.”

There are many reasons why Chinese is such a difficult language to master. For advanced learners, one of the greatest stumbling blocks are the proverbs, idioms and allegories with which the language is peppered. These provide an insight into Chinese history and tradition, and without some degree of acquaintance with them, learners of the language invariably miss out on important aspects of Chinese life and culture.

Idioms, or chengyu, the four-character phrases that provide arguably the greatest challenge to the student of Chinese, are often allusions to ancient stories and legends. Without a familiarity with these stories, it can be hard to make immediate sense of them. 塞翁失马, for example, is the popular Chinese idiom roughly equivalent to the English saying ‘a blessing in disguise’. In its bare parts, however, it translates as ‘the old man at the frontier who lost his horse’. The meaning of the chengyu is lost if you don’t know that the horse eventually made it back, bringing others along with it.  

Other Chinese idioms are less windows on the ancient world, and more valuable insights into Chinese peoples’ ideas and priorities. In just four characters, these more straightforward chengyu often say more about how Chinese people think and behave than any guide or handbook to China ever could. The chengyu开卷有益, for example, (literally: ‘open a book and it will benefit your mind’) tells us what the Chinese think about education, and in particular the importance of reading.

For me, the most eye-opening of four-character idioms is 节哀顺变 (literally: restrain your grief and adapt to the change in circumstances). This chengyu is the most appropriate expression of condolence for a person who has recently lost a loved one.

Chinese history is riddled with tragedy catastrophic events, of which one alone may well have sunk other nations. To me, the key to Chinas survival has been the pragmatism of its people, their ability to keep going in the face of enormous upheaval and change, and this apparently innocuous four-character phrase epitomizes the approach that has seen China through repeated hardships and misfortunes over thousands of years.

This pragmatism is visible in all walks of life in China, even today. When it comes to education, many older generation Chinese people find it hard to understand college majors that do not translate into a practical job. Majors that traditional Chinese parents and relatives understand are subjects such as medicine, economics, business, mathematics, engineering and physical science.

The only considerations that rank higher in the eyes of a Chinese parent than their child securing work in a saleable profession, are the even more practical concerns of safety and stability. In the traditional Chinese family, parents expect their children to take care of them when they become old, so they tend to take a dim view of professions that may contain inherent risks and dangers.

When it comes to learning Chinese, pragmatism and time are key. Mark Rosewell (AKA Da Shan) is no doubt aware of the Chinese proverb学到老活到老还有三分学不到 (literally: study for a long time, live for a long time, but there will always remain three tenths that cannot be studied’). In other words, there will always be more to learn, no matter how old you are.


Lauren has worked in economic policy and research at the World Bank, World Economic Forum, EIU and for the governments of Sierra Leone and Guyana. She has learned Chinese since 1995, and lived in Beijing for almost six years, on and off since 1997. Lauren has a PhD in Economics from Peking University, an MSc in Development Economics from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) and a B.A/B.Com from the University of Melbourne.

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