Have you ever wondered why many Chinese idioms contain exactly four characters? It’s because a phrase with four syllables simply sounds good, much like the four quarter beats in a measure of a musical composition. Well, that’s just one of the reasons. Written classical Chinese is concise, perhaps to minimize the amount of time and effort it takes to write the characters using a brush dipped in ink one makes by grinding the ink stick on a wet stone slab. A four-character phrase is short in length but can still accommodate a multitude of combinations of single-character and double-character words to form a meaningful expression or even summarize an entire story. Traditional Chinese people like to have things 四平八稳 (sìpíngbāwěn), i.e. very stable, well grounded and well organized. A four-character phrase is like a table that is flat on all four sides and stable in all eight directions. Therefore, generations of students studied text books filled with four-character phrases and idioms, and scholars took pride in being able to judiciously or cleverly incorporate choice idioms in their stereotyped essays. Many of the Chinese idioms are made up of pair of four-character phrases, which further strengthen the robust structure.
Today we will look at a few Chinese idioms that are relatively easy to learn because each consists of just two different characters in duplicate. Most of the examples below are adjectives or adverbial phrases.
You’re probably already familiar with 马马虎虎 (mǎmǎhūhū), which means so-so, not too bad, not very good,or being careless. When someone asks how you’ve been, you could use this phrase as a response.
三三两两 (sānsānliǎngliǎng) means in twos and threes.
Tāmen sānsānliǎngliǎng yīdào huíjiā.
They went home together in twos and threes.
慢慢腾腾 (mànmànténgténg) means unhurried or slowly.
Tā zuòshì mànmànténgténg.
He takes his time in doing things.
鬼鬼祟祟 (guǐguǐsuìsuì) and 偷偷摸摸 (tōutōumōmō) both refer to doing things stealthily or covertly. The opposite is 堂堂正正 (tángtángzhèngzhèng), which means to be open and aboveboard. This phrase also describes an honest and dignified person, with nothing to hide or to be ashamed of.
轰轰烈烈 (hōnghōnglièliè) describes doing something on a grand scale with a bang, as in a revolution.
干干净净 (gāngānjìngjìng) means clean and tidy, or spick-and-span. 规规矩矩 (guīguījǔjǔ) means punctilious or following rules to a T.
断断续续 (duànduànxùxù) means intermittently.
Tāmen duànduànxùxù tōng le jǐ cì xìn.
They wrote to each other off and on a few times.
战战兢兢 (zhànzhànjīngjīng) literally translates to “trembling with fear”. It describes a state of being extremely cautious.
舒舒服服 (shūshūfúfú) means comfortably.
Tā shūshūfúfú di shuì le gè wǔshuì.
He took a sweet nap.
叽叽喳喳 (jījīzhāzhā) means to twitter like birds.
嘻嘻哈哈 (xīxīhāhā) means laughing and acting happily.
她们叽叽喳喳, 嘻嘻哈哈, 非常快乐.
Tāmen jījīzhāzhā, xīxīhāhā, fēicháng kuàilè.
They chattered and laughed, feeling very happy.
哭哭啼啼 (kūkutítí) is to weep and wail incessantly.
Tā kūkutítí di huíjiā qù le.
She went home crying and wailing along the way.
扭扭捏捏 (niǔniǔniēniē affected, not straightforward, unmanly) describes the mincing manners of some people, particularly ladies.
Tā niǔniǔniēniē, sìhu bùhǎoyìsi.
He acts hesitantly, appearing to be shy and ill at ease.
On the other hand, 大大方方 (dàdàfāngfāng) means to behave graciously, naturally and unaffected.
Tā dàdàfāngfāng di shēnchū shǒu lái.
She graciously extended her hand.
里里外外 (lǐlǐwàiwài) means inside and outside of a person, a household or an establishment.
Zhèi jiàn shì, lǐlǐwàiwài de rén dōu zhīdào le.
Everybody around already knows about this.
来来回回 (láiláihuíhuí) means going back and forth.
Tā láiláihuíhuí zhǎo le sān cì.
He went back and forth searching (for it) three times.
来来往往 (láiláiwǎngwǎng) means going to-and-fro.
Jiē shàng láiláiwǎngwǎng de rén hěn duō.
On the street many people are coming and going.