Chengyu Explanations: 无能为力

无能为力 describes a situation where the subject is entirely unable to do something. The following post describes the meaning of this 成语 in detail.


Characters 无能为力
Pin Yin wú néng wéi lì
Pleco Definition 1. impotent
2. powerless
3. helpless
HSK Level HSK 6


无能为力 describes a situation where the subject is entirely unable to do something. This may be because (1) the subject cannot use his power to do something or (2) the subject’s power is diminished to the extent he cannot do something. The “power” indicated by the character 力 may be either physical strength or more abstract (e.g. abilities rendered inoperable due to changing circumstantial realities).

Grammatically, 无能为力 most frequently operates as an adjective (e.g. 无能为力的感觉,无能为力的人).

It may also be used as a verb. It is often used with the change of state particle 了 to emphasise that the current powerlessness is a new situation (i.e. 无能为力了). 无能为力 usually cannot take an object.

Example Sentences

I always feel powerless.

After she left Shanghai, I was unable to persuade her to return here, and I felt a kind of helplessness.

I’m sorry, but there’s really nothing that can be done. I’m powerless to help you.

References and Further Reading

1. 成语词典 (新世纪版2011修订), p. 718.
2. 新HSK词汇突破: 6级 (2013), p.383-384.


Chengyu Explanations: 精打细算

精打细算 describes a meticulous plan. The following post describes the meaning of this 成语 in detail.


Characters 精打细算
Pin Yin jīng dǎ xì suàn
Pleco Definition careful calculation and strict budgeting
HSK Level HSK 6


This 成语 is made up of two words: 精细 (meaning ‘meticulous’ or ‘careful’) and 打算 (meaning ‘plan’). It usually refers to a plan which is not wasteful with regards to manpower or resources.

精打细算 图片.jpg精打细算 can be used as an adjective to describe a person who plans meticulously (e.g. 一个精打细算的人). In this usage, it particularly refers to someone who is careful with regard to financial matters.

精打细算 may also operate as a verb phrase which does not take a separate object. It may be modified by auxiliary verbs such as 要, 能 and 得.

精打细算 may also act as a countable noun phrase, which can be used in conjunction with the measure word 次 (e.g. 一次精打细算).

Example Sentences

My wife plans how she spends her money very meticulously. She almost doesn’t waste even a single penny.

University students must learn how to spend their money carefully, otherwise the burden for their parents will be too heavy.

Manager Wang has been planning next year’s departmental budget meticulously.

Since the whole company depends on his forecast, the Director of the Financial Department must plan with careful calculation and strict budgeting.

Since my salary is so low, I have no choice but to budget carefully and limit my spending.

If you want to save up money, you’d best develop a habit of careful calculation and strict budgeting.

References and Further Reading

1. 汉语成语学习手册 (2010), p. 92.
2. 成语词典 (新世纪版: 2011修订), p. 328.
3. 新HSK词汇突破: 6级 (2013), p.198.


Chengyu Explanations: 价廉物美

价廉物美 refers to something that is ‘inexpensive but good quality’. The following post describes the meaning of this 成语 in detail.


Characters 价廉物美
Pin Yin jià lián wù měi
Pleco Definition 1. good quality and cheap
2. a bargain
HSK Level HSK 6


价廉物美 describes a product which is both inexpensive yet good quality. It literally means ‘price cheap goods beautiful’. Whilst it usually refers to physical products, it may also describe services (e.g. hotels, restaurants).

价廉物美 图片.jpgGrammatically, 价廉物美 is often used as an adjective (e.g. 价廉物美的商品). It is often used in conjunction with general nouns describing ‘goods’ or ‘products’ such as 产品,商品,物品 but can also refer to more specific things such as restaurant dishes (e.g. 菜) and drinks (e.g. 酒, 饮料).

It can also act as a predicate after the subject (e.g. 商品价廉物美).

价廉物美 may also be written as 物美价廉 with an identical meaning and usage.

Example Sentences

Chinese goods are cheap but good quality.

That hotel is a bargain. I stay there every time I go to London.

Chinese beer is inexpensive but good. For example, Qingdao beer, Harbin beer, and so on.

Let’s go out shopping tonight. It’s nearly the festival, we should be able to find lots of bargains!

References and Further Reading

1. 汉语成语学习手册 (2010), p.81-82.
2. 成语词典 (新世纪版: 2011修订), p.298.
3. 卓越汉语:公司实战篇 (2012), p.155.
4. 新HSK词汇突破: 6级 (2013), p.386.

Chengyu Explanations: 莫名其妙

莫名其妙 refers to something which causes ‘bafflement’ or a person who is ‘baffled’ by something. The following post describes the meaning of this 成语 in detail.


Characters 莫名其妙
Pin Yin mò míng qí miào
Pleco Definition 1. to be unable to make head or tail of something; to be baffled
2. without rhyme or reason; inexplicable; odd
HSK Level HSK 6


莫名其妙 literally means ‘unable to speak out the subtleties within’, from the characters 莫 ‘unable’, 名 ‘to name’ or ‘to speak out’, 其中 ‘within it’ and 奥妙 ‘subtle and profound’.

莫名其妙 may refer to something that is so strange that people cannot comprehend it or articulate the reasons behind it. As such, it can be used to describe a person who feels ‘baffled’ or a thing which causes ‘bafflement’.

莫名其妙 图片.jpgGrammatically, 莫名其妙 is a very versatile 成语. It may operate as an adjective which may be modified by 有一点 to indicate a limited degree or 真是 or 非常 to express a strong degree. It is often used in conjunction with the verb 感到 (e.g. 感到莫名其妙). As an adjective, it may also modify nouns such as 事, 事情 or 问题 (e.g. 莫名其妙的事).

莫名其妙 may also operate as an adverb to modify a verb (e.g. 莫名其妙地哭). Verbs modified by this 成语 often express human emotions or actions, with 莫名其妙 suggesting that the reason for the emotion or action was not apparent or discernible.

莫名其妙 may also be written as 莫明其妙 with an identical meaning, pronunciation and usage, although this latter form is less commonly seen.

Example Sentences

When she talked about breaking up, I was a little baffled.

That person is really strange. One minute she’s crying, the next minute she’s laughing. I can’t make head or tail of her!

While we were talking, he suddenly got angry for no discernible reason.

I have to tell you something I can’t get my head around.

References and Further Reading

1. 汉语成语学习手册 (2010), p. 125-126.
2. 成语词典 (新世纪版: 2011修订), p. 420.
3. 新HSK词汇突破: 6级 (2013), p.255.

Chengyu Explanations: 一路平安

一路平安 can be translated as ‘have a pleasant journey’ or ‘bon voyage’. The following post describes the meaning of this 成语 in detail.


Characters 一路平安
Pin Yin yī lù píng ān
Pleco Definition 1. have a pleasant journey; have a good trip
2. bon voyage
HSK Level


一路平安 has a meaning and usage comparable to the English expressions ‘Have a pleasant journey’ and ‘Godspeed’. It is generally used to express good wishes to someone who is departing from the speaker’s position, especially if this person is going on a longer-than-usual journey.

一路平安.jpgGrammatically, 一路平安 is most commonly used as a standalone phrase.

一路平安 may also be used with the verb 祝 (e.g. 祝她一路平安,祝大家一路平安). The verbs 祝愿 and 希望 may also be used in a similar manner.

Example Sentences

Have a pleasant journey!

As the train was setting off, he wished us a pleasant trip.

No matter where you go, I hope you have a safe journey.

References and Further Reading

1. 成语词典 (新世纪版2011修订), p. 813.
2. New Practical Chinese Reader (2003) Textbook 2, p. 208.

Chengyu Explanations: 马马虎虎

马马虎虎 usually describes a careless person or actions that are performed carelessly. The following post describes the meaning of this 成语 in detail.


Characters 马马虎虎
Pin Yin mǎ mǎ hū hū
Pleco Definition 1. careless; casual
2. not very good; passable; just so so
HSK Level

Original Story

The meaning of this 成语 dates back to the Song Dynasty (960-1272 AD). According to one version of the story, an artist was painting a tiger when his friend came and asked him to paint a horse. Instead of starting a new picture, the artist simply drew the body of a horse onto the tiger’s head he had already painted. When people asked what his picture depicted, he replied, “马马虎虎” (literally, ‘horse horse tiger tiger’).

马虎图.jpgAfterwards, the artist’s eldest son came and asked him what the painting depicted. The father told him it was a tiger. His younger son came along and asked him the same question. The father told him it was a horse.

Later, the elder son encountered a horse. Thinking it was a tiger, he shot the horse, incurring costs for the father who had to pay the horse’s owner for damages. The younger son then encountered a tiger. Mistaking it for a horse, the younger son was eaten when he tried to ride it.

In grief, the father later wrote a poem:


Horse-tiger picture,
Horse-tiger picture,
Resembling both a horse and a tiger,
My eldest son shot dead a horse because of this picture,
My second-eldest son was eaten by a tiger because of this picture.
I burned the horse-tiger picture in my cottage,
I implore you, ladies and gentlemen: Don’t do what I did!


There are multiple variations of this legendary tale, but the modern meaning of 马马虎虎 describes careless people or actions which are performed carelessly.

Grammatically, 马马虎虎 can be used as an adverb, describing the careless or negligent manner of an action (e.g. 马马虎虎地做饭,马马虎虎地学习).

马马虎虎 can also be used as an adverbial compliment using 得 (e.g. 唱得马马虎虎, 写得马马虎虎). It may also be used as part of an adjectival phrase. (e.g. 马马虎虎的).

Some non-native learners of Chinese use 马马虎虎 to describe their mood (e.g. “How are you? I’m just so so”) but this usage is seldom used, if at all, by most native Chinese speakers. 马马虎虎 is usually used by native speakers to describe careless or negligent actions or people, not one’s mood.

Example Sentences

Some teachers prepare classes very carelessly. As a result, students don’t learn anything.

Careless people certainly won’t be successful.

Her husband always cooks carelessly. He nearly started a fire last time!

References and Further Reading

1. 成语词典 (新世纪版2011修订), p. 393.
2. New Practical Chinese Reader (2003) Textbook 2, p. 97.

Chengyu Explanations: 丢三落四

丢三落四 usually describes a person who is forgetful or ’empty-headed’. The following post describes the meaning of this 成语 in detail.


Characters 丢三落四
Pin Yin diū sān là sì
Pleco Definition 1. forgetful
2. empty-headed
HSK Level HSK 6


丢三落四 refers to someone who is ‘forgetful’ or ‘empty-headed’. Literally, it means someone who “drops threes and leaves out fours”. In other words, it describes someone who is liable to frequently forget things due to either (1) carelessness, (2) having a bad memory or (3) being unable to manage two or more things at the same time. This 成语, therefore, has a derogatory meaning.

Grammatically, 丢三落四 may be a verb which directly follows the subject. As a verb, it cannot take an object. It may also operate as an adjective (e.g. 丢三落四的人) and may be modified by certain adverbs (e.g. 总是, 非常).

丢三落四 is sometimes written as 丢三拉四. The character 落 (usually pronounced luò or lào in other contexts) is pronounced là, while the character 拉 (usually pronounced with the first tone lā) is also pronounced with the fourth tone as là. The meaning and pronunciation is identical for both 丢三落四 and 丢三拉四, although the former is more commonly used.

Example Sentences

She is an extremely forgetful person.

During the job interview, the manager realised the applicant was scatterbrained, so he didn’t hire her.

She said she doesn’t want to marry a man who is always forgetful.

The teacher turned to the careless students and said angrily, “If you forget to bring your textbooks to class again, I’ll have to inform your parents!”

References and Further Reading

1. 成语词典 (新世纪版2011修订), p. 168.
2. Integrated Chinese Book 2, Lesson 10.
3. 新HSK词汇突破: 6级 (2013), p.89-90.

Chengyu Explanations: 讨价还价

讨价还价 mostly relates to the negotiation over price between a buyer and seller, but it also has other similar uses. The following post describes the meaning of this 成语 in detail.


Characters 讨价还价
Pin Yin tǎo jià huán jià
Pleco Definition to haggle over a price
HSK Level HSK 5


The original meaning of 讨价还价 relates to the negotiation of a price between a buyer and seller. Notice that 讨价 means ‘ask for a price’ and 还价 means ‘make a counter-offer’. The word 价 is associated with the word 价格, meaning ‘price’.

讨价还价Based on this original meaning, two subsequent uses can be understood. 讨价还价 can describe a negotiation (perhaps unrelated to price) in which both parties repeatedly argue over details. In addition, 讨价还价 may describe the discussion of conditions or circumstances when a task is delegated (e.g. a manager gives a worker a task to complete.)

Grammatically, 讨价还价 usually operates as a verb. It cannot take an object, since the object discussed is the 价格 implied in the phrase itself. 讨价还价 can be modified by various aspect particles (e.g. 了, 过) and auxiliary verbs (e.g. 能, 会) just like any regular verb.

Example Sentences

My sister is very astute. Every time she buys something, she negotiates for ages with the shopkeeper.

My mum is incredible. She’s able to haggle a price down from 500 yuan to 75 yuan.

I’m sorry, the price can’t be changed, it’s non-negotiable.

Haha! You foreigners really know how to haggle!

Have you ever haggled a price in China? You can only get low price if you negotiate.

There’s no discussion to be had over this. If you don’t want to do it, don’t do it. But you won’t get paid unless it’s done.

References and Further Reading

1. 成语词典 (新世纪版2011修订), p. 643.

Chengyu Explanations: 人山人海

人山人海 describes a place where there are huge crowds of people. This following article explains this 成语.


Characters 人山人海
Pin Yin rén shān rén hǎi
Pleco Definition huge crowds of people; a sea of people
HSK Level


人山人海 can indicate a large number of people who have converged in a place. This 成语 might be translated as ‘a multitude of people’, ‘a throng of people’ or ‘a sea of people’. If a place is small but crowded (e.g. a room, a bus), 人山人海 cannot be used; the crowd of people in the place must be big and crowded enough to resemble the notion “there are people as far as the eye can see.”


Grammatically, 人山人海 can act independently as a sentence phrase. In this way, the subject and verb is contained within the phrase itself.

人山人海 is often used with the 是。。。的 pattern. As such, the crowd of people is the detail emphasized in the sentence (i.e. 是人山人海的).

人山人海 often directly follows a place noun (e.g. 广场上, 体育场内) where the crowd of people is located. 人山人海 may also directly follow a time phrase (e.g. 今天, 放假的时候).

A person may be described as being “inside” the crowd of people, using the pattern 在。。。中 (e.g. 在人山人海中).

人山人海 can act like an adjectival phrase to describe places in general (e.g. 人山人海的地方).

Example Sentences

There’ll be huge crowds of people today, let’s go tomorrow instead.

There were huge crowds of people in Tiananmen Square.

Wow! I never expected there to be so many people here! It really is a vast sea of people!

I came across her in a vast crowd of people, and in an instant I had fallen in love with her.

I don’t like places that have huge crowds.

References and Further Reading

1. 汉语成语学习手册 (2010), p. 155.
2. 成语词典 (新世纪版2011修订), p. 520.

Chengyu Explanations: 名胜古迹

名胜古迹 refers to places of scenic beauty and historical significance. The following is a detailed explanation of this 成语.


Characters 名胜古迹
Pin Yin míng shèng gǔ jī
Pleco Definition places of historical interest and scenic beauty
HSK Level HSK 5


名胜古迹 are places known for natural beauty and historical significance. They can refer to places in China or abroad. 名胜古迹 derives from the placing together of 名胜 (meaning ‘scenic spot’) and 古迹 (‘historic site’).

Grammatically, 名胜古迹 most commonly operates as a noun. It can be used as the subject or object of a sentence. Although 名胜古迹 usually refers to numerous sites, the measure word 处 can be used to indicate a specific number (e.g. 两处名胜古迹). Informally, 个 may also be used. Furthermore, the classifier 些 can be used to denote ‘some’ or ‘several’ (e.g. 一些名胜古迹).

To describe ‘going to’ or ‘visiting’ a 名胜古迹, the verb 游 (meaning ‘travel’, ‘tour’, ‘rove around’) can be used. The verb 参观 (meaning ‘to visit’) can also be used and may be considered slightly more formal. Common adjectives to describe 名胜古迹 may include 好玩 (amusing, fun), 壮观 (spectacular), 出名 (well-known), etc.

A place, region or country may be described as ‘having’ a 名胜古迹 with the verb 有 (e.g. 美国有很多名胜古迹). This kind of sentence may be translated with ‘there is/are’ in English. When referring to a country or region as part of a noun phrase, the particle 的 is usually used (e.g. 中国的名胜古迹).

Example Sentences

There are many places of historical significance and natural beauty in China, such as the Great Wall, Yellow Mountain, the Terracotta Warriors and so on.

The most magnificent site of historic beauty I ever visited was the Forbidden City in Beijing.

What places of historical significant and natural beauty are there in America?

What do you think is the most interesting place of historical or scenic significance in China?

References and Further Reading

1. Integrated Chinese Textbook (Third Edition) Level 1 Part 2, p. 258-260.
2. New Practical Chinese Reader (2003) Textbook 3, p. 72.
3. 成语词典 (新世纪版2011修订), p. 413.