Phrases like “rejoice in the Lord” and “to live is Christ” in Mandarin reveal the wisdom of Paul’s exhortations.
As I was growing up in Malaysia, my parents would send me to Mandarin lessons after school. Despite their best efforts, I was particularly resistant to learning Chinese. Consequently, most Mandarin lessons went in one ear and out the other, particularly the ones about chengyu (成语).
The four-character idioms called chengyu are a popular way in Mandarin to state a meaning, moral, or teaching. Part of their appeal lies in their ability to express powerful ideas in a concise, proverbial manner.
In theory, each chengyu I labored to remember should have pressed the collective wisdom of our ancestors into my reluctant heart. But it was a lost cause. After all, how could a child reared on American cartoons and comics possibly value esoteric phrases like meng mu san qian (孟母三迁), which extols how Chinese philosopher Mencius’s mother moved to different neighborhoods three times to improve her child’s chances of success? My family’s move abroad when I was 10 years old ended further hopes of progress.
Now, pastoring a Chinese church in New Zealand and rediscovering my mother tongue as an adult, I still struggle to memorize chengyu. But when my virtual Mandarin-language teacher, who is based in China, brings up these idioms, his eyes brim with excitement as he shares not only their vernacular use but also their fascinating backstories.
Chengyu sum up stories, principles, or lessons from Chinese history. Some retell humorous folktales as proverbs for daily life. Others connect China’s 3,500-year-old written history, including pre-Qin dynasty writings like Confucian poetry classic Shijing (诗经), to our present-day hopes and anxieties.
Both ancient and modern chengyu are used in written conversations and taught in classes …
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