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Review of  500 Common Chinese Idioms

Reviewer: Hsiang-Hua Chang
Book Title: 500 Common Chinese Idioms
Book Author: Liwei Jiao Cornelius Kubler Weiguo Zhang
Publisher: Routledge (Taylor and Francis)
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Language Documentation
Text/Corpus Linguistics
Language Acquisition
Subject Language(s): Chinese, Mandarin
Issue Number: 22.3293

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AUTHORS: Liwei Jiao, Cornelius Kubler, and Weiguo Zhang
TITLE: 500 Common Chinese Idioms
SUBTITLE: An Annotated Frequency Dictionary
PUBLISHER: Routledge (Taylor and Francis)
YEAR: 2010

Hsiang-Hua Chang, Department of Modern Languages and Literatures, Oakland
University, Rochester, Michigan


'500 Common Chinese Idioms: An Annotated Frequency Dictionary' is a
Chinese-English dictionary/textbook designed for English-speaking learners of
Mandarin Chinese at the intermediate level or above. It aims to be used as a
dictionary and a supplementary textbook for school classes and self-study. Based
on the statistical analysis of six large Mandarin corpora, the book presents the
500 most commonly used Chinese idioms (497 of them are four-character idioms, 3
of them have more than four characters). Different from the alphabetical order
found in most dictionaries, the entries of this book are presented according to
their frequency order, starting from the most common one. The size of the six
corpora ranges from one million to 307 million characters; five of them are
China-based and the other one is Taiwan-based. The corpora include both spoken
and written data. However, it is no surprise that most of the common idioms
selected are from the two corpora with primarily written data, since Mandarin
idioms are usually non-colloquial.

In addition to selection based on statistics, another appreciated principle for
selecting entries is, using the authors' own words, the 'specially handled' 50
idioms derived from fables or tales. These idioms appear as the tenth idioms
(10, 20, 30, 40, etc.) according to their frequency of use. This principle
allows the inclusion of some idioms that may have been left out due to their
inability to make to the list of 500 common idioms.

Before the idiom entries, the book starts with an introduction (characteristics
of the book, etc.) and a master list of the 500 entries in simplified Chinese,
sorted by frequency number. The main body of the book offers a comprehensive
account of each entry by systematically providing many key features. Each entry
includes a wealth of information in a fixed sequence: (1) the idiom in
simplified and traditional characters and pinyin (i.e. the Romanized system of
Chinese); (2) the English gloss of each character, a literal English translation
of the idiom, and/or freer translations and English equivalents of the idiom
(e.g. the literal translation for ye yi ji ri is 'using night to continue day,'
while the freer translation is 'night and day'); (3) two example sentences (in
simplified characters with pinyin and English translation); (4) a usage section
providing a short syntactic or pragmatic note, such as 'functions as adverbial,'
'serves as predicate,' 'often preceded/followed by,' common combinations with
such-and-such word, and other useful comments.

The majority of the entries also include near-synonyms and/or antonyms presented
in simplified and traditional characters, pinyin, and translation. Some of the
main entries also include a supplementary note (e.g. 'has a negative
connotation' and 'written-style usage') and allusion (i.e. the stories or tales
responsible for the coinage of the idiom).

At the end of the book, a brief appendix discussing the common structural
patterns of idioms and two entry indices are provided; one is sorted by pinyin
and the other by stroke (i.e. the number of strokes needed to produce a character).


The authors acknowledge that none of the Chinese idiom dictionaries on the
market in China is suitable for non-native Chinese language learners (p. vii).
The situation is similar in the U.S. The Chinese idiom books in university or
public libraries in the U.S. are mostly Chinese-Chinese dictionaries (Ju 1995,
Wen 2007, Zhao 2005) and Chinese-English idiom story books (Situ 1984). Among
those that may serve as Chinese-English idiom dictionaries, some list Chinese
and English translations only (Heng and Zhang 1988, Keuper 1997, Wang et al.
1987), while some include example sentences and/or other usage information, but
do not provide pinyin and English translation for the examples (Pan 2000, Tan
1987). Some others include entries and examples in Chinese with English
translation, but no pinyin at all (Qi and Xu 2002). The design of most of these
books does not reflect a clear target audience. This is probably the reason why
they do not include some essential details. This book, therefore, is possibly
the first lexicographical work that thoroughly and consistently lists the
Chinese characters, pinyin, and English translation for entries and example
sentences. This feature makes it more complete than most Chinese idiom
dictionaries and makes it as learner-friendly as textbooks.

The format of this book is much more readable than that of regular dictionaries;
each entry is shown in larger, bold font and entry idioms, within the example
sentences, are bolded. As well-acknowledged, alphabetically-ordered dictionaries
are not designed to be used as textbooks and are not friendly for learning. The
format of this book, listing entries according to frequency order, makes it a
useful textbook. Furthermore, students will appreciate the authors' copious
examples. The examples and usage details are very important and helpful for
learning the idioms and to understand and acquire the idiom within a context,
not just by itself. The well-written allusions also make the reading as
enjoyable as reading a literary work. As a non-native speaker of English, I
benefit from the English translation and take great pleasure in reading the
allusion. I trust that the English parts in this book will equip non-native
English teachers of Chinese with better explanations of the meaning of these
idioms as they teach English-speaking students.

Although most idiom books claim to include commonly used idioms, the
'commonness' is not justified by any objective criteria, and the selection of
entries seems to present merely the author's preference. This makes much of this
type of work look like a nicely-kept notebook of idioms. Moreover, the
not-so-common entries may discourage the reader's motivation to study the book.
Therefore, I appreciate the authors' time-consuming corpus work in selecting the
most commonly used idioms. I also heartily concurred with the authors' decision
to 'specially handle' 50 idioms derived from fables or tales because they embody
rich Chinese culture and stories. Their effort immediately makes the book an
indispensable reference for readers. At times, though, I was distracted by some
entries and their frequency numbers. For example, as someone who frequently uses
idioms in speech and writing, I found myself almost never using the two most
frequently used idioms, entries 1 and 2, shi shi qiu shi, 'seek truth from
facts,' and jian ku fen dou, 'arduous struggle.' This is probably because the
entries were selected mainly based on Mainland China corpora. This is not to say
that the entries are not representative, since most Chinese idioms have a long
history and are used by Chinese speakers worldwide. However, it is noteworthy
that readers without a Mainland China background may not connect as readily with
some idioms. In fact, the personal connection or lack thereof with some idioms
may expose interesting cultural observations. As the authors point out in the
note for entry 1, shi shi qiu shi is one of the crucial thoughts of Mao Zedong
and can be found in many buildings across China.

In the main body of the book, the usage and note information for each entry
include some English grammar terminology, which language learners may not
understand. It would be helpful if the book were to include a glossary (and
short explanation) for special terminology, such as attributive, predicative,
and complimentary.

The last section includes a Pinyin Index, listing the entries in alphabetical
order, and a Stroke Index. Some dictionaries include two stroke order indices so
that readers can reference either the simplified or traditional version of
entries (e.g. Jiang and Lu 2007). This book only provides one stroke order index
based on simplified versions of entries. Although including both simplified and
traditional versions of stroke indices would be convenient for readers with
different preferences, this should not be considered a shortcoming since it is
clear that the writing system adopted in this book is simplified Chinese.
However, the rationale for how the entries were ordered within the same stroke
category is unclear. For example, within the two-stroke category, it is unclear
why the following order is presented: liao 'understand,' ren 'person,' ru
'enter,' and ba 'eight.' This calls for a footnote-length explanation.

It would also be beneficial to readers if the List of Entries and/or the Stroke
Index were expanded to include English translations and pinyin. The advantage of
expanding the Stroke Index is that readers will be able to compare idioms which
share one or two identical characters, such as si mian ba fang 'all directions'
and si mian chu ge 'find oneself besieged on all sides.' Without an index with
Chinese and English translations, even just for quick reference, readers have to
look them up in two different places (entry 28 and 160 respectively). This index
would be especially convenient for reviewing and self-testing.

As a frequency dictionary, '500 Common Chinese Idioms' presents a beautiful
marriage between a dictionary and a textbook. For pedagogical/self-learning use,
students and teachers may study the materials in divided portions, such as
learning two idioms a day (or ten a week), thus going through the 500 idioms in
two semesters. For lexicographical use, obviously, a dictionary with 500 entries
is by no means an exhaustive dictionary (which is not the purpose of this book).
Whenever students encounter a new idiom, I recommend that they look it up in
this book first to see whether it is listed (i.e. a common idiom). If so, they
should carefully study the idiom presented in the book, and if not, they should
look it up in a regular dictionary for quick understanding. This will prevent
students from feeling overwhelmed by too much vocabulary and feeling obligated
to study each idiom they encounter, which sometimes makes them shy away from
learning any idioms at all.

Although readers can easily find many language books presenting the 'common' 200
or 500 characters, expressions, etc., books supported by corpus work that
scientifically select entry items are scarce. What is even rarer is the authors'
diligent and respectable work that is revealed in every page of this book. In a
word, '500 Common Chinese Idioms' is an 'uncommon' book and a quality resource
for any Chinese learner and teacher's library.

Its value extends beyond a supplementary textbook, a dictionary, or a collection
of idiom stories. Students and teachers of Chinese language, culture, and
civilization will all find worthwhile materials for their studies/classes in
this book. Even family members or friends (or any English speakers) without any
knowledge of the Chinese language will enjoy the translations and allusions and
appreciate the Chinese wisdom and philosophy richly embedded in the book.

I hope that work on this valuable dictionary will continue, and that other
specialty dictionaries, such as 500 common business/traveler/medical Chinese
terms will be produced in the years to come.


Heng, Xiao-jun, and Xue-zhi Zhang. 1988. A Chinese-English dictionary of idioms
and proverbs. Tübingen: Niemeyer.

Jiang, Lansheng, and Zunwu Lu. 2007. Jian hua zi fan ti zi dui zhao zi dian
[Simplified characters and traditional characters comparative dictionary].
Shanghai: Shanghai ci shu chu ban she.

Ju, Mujing. 1995. Xin hua zheng fan cheng yu xiao ci dian [Xin hua dictionary of
idiom opposites]. Beijing: Jing guan jiao yu chu ban she.

Keuper, Jerome P. 1997. Chinese 1000: idiomatic and colloquial expressions,
Mandarin Chinese/English. Malabar, FL: Krieger Publishing.

Pan, Weigui. 2000. A Chinese-English dictionary of Chinese idioms. Beijing:

Qi, Zhenhai, and Xiuzhong Xu. 2002. A Concise Chinese-English idiom dictionary.
Beijing: Zhongguo shu ji chu ban she.

Situ, Tan. 1986. Best Chinese idioms. 3rd edition. Hong Kong: Hai Feng Publishing.

Tan, Huay peng. 1987. Chinese idioms. Union City, CA: Heian International.

Wang, Defu, Zhenxin Qiang, and Zongxin Zhou. 1987. A Chinese-English handbook of
idioms. New York: Hippocrene Books.

Wen, Duanzheng. 2007. Xin hua guan yong yu ci dian [Xinhua idiom dictionary].
Beijing: Shang wu yin shu guan.

Zhao, Yingduo. 2005. Zhongguo dian gu da ci dian [Chinese proverb dictionary].
Shanghai: Han yu da ci dian chu ban she.

Hsiang-Hua Chang is an Assistant Professor of Chinese in the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures at Oakland University. She has a Ph.D. in Linguistics and her research interests include first and second language acquisition, Chinese linguistics, language pedagogy, and instructional technology.

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