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01 July, 2007:
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Distinctions Between Chengyu and Suyu 成语和俗语的区别

While no precise definition is available for these types of sayings, there are several features often found in chengyu 成语 that are not found in suyu 俗语 that can be used to distinguish one from the other. These features can be sorted into two broad categories:

1) Classical Origins

Chengyu often have their origins in ancient texts and/or classical stories. This means that there is a story behind every saying. It also means that many chengyu become better understood with more familiarity with the Classics. Use of chengyu is therefore a sign of good education because every chengyu is essentially a literary reference.

The antiquity of chengyu also makes them difficult to understand without explanation. These phrases only contain four characters, so they rely on the background story to give them depth of meaning. They also retain outdated word usages and pronunciations, and therefore require familiarity.

In comparison, Suyu are crass sayings that are entirely oral and traditional in background. They may also have a background story, but it would be more of a folk tale or joke, and less of a reference to literature. Using a chengyu is like quoting Shakespeare, but using a suyu is like quoting Monty Python's Flying Circus. Both types of quotation reflect a familiarity with language and culture, but only the former garners respect.

2) Parallelism

Chengyu are often parallel in syntax. For example, many chengyu have the structure ABAB, where A is a verb and B is the object of the verb. For example, "三心二意 san xin er yi" literally means "three hearts two thoughts." It can be used to describe someone who splits his energy between many things instead of focusing on one task at a time. The numbers two, 二 er, and three, 三 san, are parallel, and their objects "heart" 心 xin and "idea" 意 yi are parallel.