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20 Useful Chengyu (Idioms) That You Can Use in Your N Level Chinese Composition

Are you currently taking up your N Level for Chinese? If that is a yes, you may be wondering how you can improve your Chinese composition. You can use various Chinese words to make your article more appealing, as well as idioms or Chengyu.

Chengyu is actually difficult to learn because they can’t be used in all type of scenarios and there are actually around 600 Chengyus currently in use to-date. Picking all of them up will be tricky and you can’t just use them haphazardly but we are here to help you.

So, how can it help you with your N Level Chinese composition?

Why Use Idioms in Chinese Composition?

There are many reasons why you should consider the use of Chengyu to improve your Chinese composition skills.

First, it can definitely improve the value of your composition because you are utilising advanced words in your article.

Idioms, when used correctly, will also improve the flow of your article and create the right image your readers will get as they read your composition. It also sets the tone of your entire article.

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Most of all, examiners are impressed when you use Chengyu effectively in your composition and that may lead to extra marks given. Just remember to avoid careless mistakes!

20 list of Idioms and their meanings

Since there are around 600 Chengyus that you can choose from, you need to choose which ones to master and include in your Mandarin word/phrase bank. Here is a quick and fun way to speed up your learning. If you want to start learning how to apply Chengyu in your Chinese composition, here are 20 Chengyus that you should check out and what they mean.

1)自相矛盾 (zì xiāng máodùn)

This idiom means “contradict yourself” and had its origins come from an old weapons merchant. According to the story, he was very adamant in advertising that his spears were so sharp that it can pierce whatever shield is before it, but he was also selling shields which can’t be pierced by any spears contradicting what he said about his spears.

Example: 他写的理论自相矛盾,大家都不能理解。

2)塞翁失马 (sàiwēngshīmǎ) 

This idiom talks about “hidden blessing” and it was derived from a story of an old horse raiser. One day, one of the horses wandered to a neighboring province and people were wondering why the man didn’t mind that his horse wandered off. After a few days, the horse returned with another horse, which granted their owner more riches.

Example: 你没赶上那班火车,真是塞翁失马啊。那班火车在一个小时前遇到故障了。

3)君子一言, 驷马难追 (jūnzǐ yī yán, sìmǎ nán zhuī)

This idiom is unique because it has eight characters and uses a comma to separate them. The phrase means “once you say something, do it immediately before horses try to catch up with you.” The idiom was derived from an ancient saying which talks about a person’s action should immediately be done once they say something before something stops their progress. It is also used to say that one’s actions are more powerful than what they are saying.

Example: 他是不会骗我的。我们是有约定的,君子一言, 驷马难追。

4) 脚踏实地 (jiǎo tà shí dì)

This idiom means “step on solid ground” or one must work hard, master the basics and slowly proceed up the ladder in a steady pace.

Example: 妈妈希望哥哥长大成人脚踏实地的做人。

5) 一无所有 (yìwúsuǒyǒu)

This idiom is often used to say you do not have anything or “have absolutely nothing at all.”

Example: 他把父亲留给他的的财产都输光了,现在已经一无所有了。

6) 自由自在 (zì yóu zì zài)

This idiom can be used to talk about a person’s feelings or personality, especially if they are carefree or easy going. It can also be used to talk about how a place can make people feel when they visit.

Example: 把困扰都解开了,现在可以自由自在的飞翔。

7)半途而废 (bàn tú ér fèi)

This idiom can be used to talk about someone who started to do something but gave up in the middle of it.

Example: 他常常都这样,做事不认真,半途而废。

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8)全力以赴 (quán lì yǐ fù)

This means “give it your all” for the sake of your goal. This can be used for both written and everyday discussions.

Example: 今天的大考,不要紧张,全力以赴就好。

9)理所当然 (lǐ suǒ dāng rán)

This can mean “a matter of course” or “go to a place without saying.” You can use it to point out something obvious when facing a situation where the choice is obvious.

Example: 她那么可爱礼貌,大家喜欢她也是理所当然的。

10)心血来潮 (xīn xuè lái cháo)

This idiom means “on a whim” or doing something in the “spur of the moment.” You can also use this when telling an interesting story to your friend and give it an exciting twist.

Example: 他突然心血来潮思念母亲了,就立刻订机票明天飞去北京探望她。

11)不可思议 (bù kě sī yì)

This idiom talks about things which are amazing in its own way, for example, magic or unexpected similarities like speaking to someone who has the same name as you.

Example: 平常不爱上课的他,今天竟然吵着要读书,真是不可思议。

12)一鸣惊人 (yī míng jīng rén) 

This idiom means “surprising the world with one brilliant feat.” According to stories, it was conceptualised during the Three Kingdoms period when a King of Wei didn’t want to work even though he was smart. However, an officer got him to do his job by telling him a riddle about a huge bird, which actually is an insinuation about the king’s laziness.

Example: 年纪小小的他既然被选中代表国家去参赛,真是一鸣惊人啊!

13)不绝如缕 (bù jué rú lǚ) 

The idiom means “uncertainty” or “almost extinct”. It came from poet Su Shi from the Song Dynasty. He conceptualised this idiom during a trip in the river at the Red Cliffs with his friends.

Example: 不绝如缕的歌声一直从窗外传进来。

14)犬牙交错 (quǎn yá jiāo cuò)

This idiom means “fixing something in a criss-cross pattern” and derived from an event in the Han Dynasty where the emperor tried to stop a rebellion by forfeiting the lands owned by a marquis and stripping them off their power. The Marquis was against it and told them that it was assigned to them and it is done in a criss-cross pattern because it will protect the capital from war.

Example: 那边的河岸犬牙交错。

15)望洋兴叹 (wàng yáng xīng tàn)

This idiom means that one feels powerless or frustrated if they compare themselves to a wider world. It came from the book “Zhuangzi: The Floods of Autumn” which talked about a conversation between an earl of the river and the Ruo of the Northern Sea.

Example: 看到大家的职位都升至,我只能望洋兴叹。

16)明日黄花 (míng rì huáng huā)

This idiom can be used to talk about events from the past. It was derived from the Double Ninth Festival when a poet named Su Shi recited a poem that says people should enjoy the moment or else they will not appreciate it in the future.

Example: 不必思念太多,往事已成明日黄花了。

17)化腐朽为神奇 (huà fǔ xiǔ wéi shén qí)

This idiom can be used if you are talking about using things which were already discarded. The idiom was conceptualised by philosopher Zhuangzi, who believes that there is always something that can be gained from a loss.

Example: 从他的精心制作,他把废物变成精致的摆设品,真是化腐朽为神奇。

18)乱七八糟 (luànqībāzāo) 

This idiom was derived from two Chinese events: the chaotic revolt of seven princes against the Emperor of the Western Han Dynasty and the power struggle between the eight members of the Jin Dynasty’s ruling family. Considering these events, the idiom can be used to describe a chaotic situation or circumstance.

Example: 他的房子里终是乱七八糟的,从来没有整理过。

19)入乡随俗 (rùxiāngsuísú)

This idiom means that one should observe traditional customs, especially for foreigners. It is also the Chinese equivalent of the saying “when in Rome, do as the Romans do.”

Example: 来到德国,入乡随俗的他选着吃当地的美食。

20)津津有味 (jīnjīnyǒuwèi)

This idiom means that you need to enjoy or relish what is before you, especially food. This idiom can also be used to describe activities which you find great or engaging to do.

Example: 看他吃的那么津津有味,我也饿了。


Learning Chinese is not easy, especially if you want to be good at it in both writing and speaking. With these 20 idioms, you can definitely change your Chinese composition writing and give it a new angle. But, before you use it, make sure it is within context and don’t clump them all together.

Looking at scoring your N’ Level papers? Engage a private chinese tutor to help you get ahead.

Here are some more tips:

Changes to National Exams in 2020: List of Topics Removed from PSLE, N Level, O Level and A Level
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Rum Tan

Rum Tan is the founder of SmileTutor and he believes that every child deserves a smile. Motivated by this belief and passion, he works hard day & night with his team to maintain the most trustworthy source of home tutors in Singapore. In his free time, he writes articles hoping to educate, enlighten, and empower parents, students, and tutors. You may try out his free home tutoring services via or by calling 6266 4475 directly today.