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Chinese Idioms: Chaos to Perfection

By Keats Student Anna

Chinese idioms are such an interesting part of the Chinese language to study. Their rich history can provide great cultural insight as well.

Here are a few Chinese idioms that describe states of being, beginning with a total mess and ending in perfection.

Randomness Seven Eight Times Worse

乱七八糟 (luàn qī bā zāo)

The literal meaning of 乱七八糟 is “random/reversed seven eight worse/chaos.” But this doesn’t mean a lot to the average student of Mandarin.

The meaning of the idiom 乱七八糟 is said to have come from a complicated game of dice that one would be very foolish to bet on. This was a game of chance, randomness, that was so complicated that it could easily seem chaos to the observers.

Today if you use the phrase乱七八糟 it means something is in a state of utter confusion or chaos. You could use 乱七八糟 when referring to a messy room or a crowded market.

Drawing a Snake With Feet

画蛇添足 (huà shé tiān zú)

This is a very unique chengyu that you must learn the fascinating story behind to really understand. Literally, 画蛇添足 means “draw snake add feet.”

This chengyu is said to date back to the Warring States period. In one grand household, they had just complete a ceremony where the servants would traditionally be given a bottle of wine afterwards. However, in this instance there was not enough for all of the servants, so they proposed a competition of sorts. The first servant to draw a good looking snake was to get the bottle of wine. One servant worked very quickly and drew a very good snake. After a second thought he added legs and then presented his work to the master.

But the master said that since snakes don’t usually have legs the prize should go to the next servant to finish. In this case the extra work actually ruined a good picture.

Today the saying is used to refer to something superfluous or extra effort that causes destruction of the desired result. This phrase is actually very useful when you or someone else are adding unnecessary words to a Chinese sentence. Mandarin is so succinct and compact that you can often ruin you sentence by adding to it rather than speaking in the direct manner native speakers use.

Flaw Ruining Perfection

美中不足 (měi zhōng bù zú)

This is one of the more popular chengyu and it relates to a similar English phrase. In fact 美中不足 is often translated directly into the English idiom “a fly in the ointment.”

The literal definition of 美中不足 is “beautiful middle not enough.”

The expression 美中不足 is said to have come from a novel, 初刻拍案惊 (chū kè pāi'àn jīng), from the author Ling Mengchu written during the Ming Dynasty.

The basic idea of this phrase is that you have a beautiful or perfect object that is marred by some flaw. The flaw could be a mistake or something that is lacking.

Heaven’s Clothes are Seamless

天衣無縫 (tiān yī wú fèng)

This is a really interesting idiom that is used to mean that something is in a state of perfection but you don’t get that at all from the direct translation of 天衣無縫 which is “heaven clothes no stitches/seams.”

The fantastical tale behind this idiom is said to go back to ancient times when a man named Guo Han could not sleep one night. It was summer and his house was small and very warm. Guo Han decided to go outside into the cool night air to rest a while. While he was outside he suddenly saw a girl coming down from the sky. She introduced herself as the girl weaver. Guo Han noticed that not only was the girl very beautiful, but her clothes seemed perfect and without even a seam in the cloth. He asked her about them and she said, “Heaven’s clothes have no seams.”

Nowadays this unique phrase is used to describe something done very skillfully, in which no flaws can be seen. 天衣無縫 would be very high praise for an artist or other skilled worker’s creation.


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