Chinese Corner

Riddle Me This3 min read

Chinese word puzzles – Nick Stember

Can you read this?


This is an example of “See the Picture, Guess the Phrase” (kàn tú cāi chéngyǔ 看图猜成语), a kind of Pictionary for language nerds. If we translate the emoji into Mandarin we get “horse horse tiger tiger”… or mǎmǎhūhū 马马虎虎, which means “careless” or “so-so,” depending on the context.

My own path to this wonderful corner of the Chinese internet started with a simple, seemingly unrelated question: Are there Chinese crossword puzzles? How would that even work?

Thanks to our long history of borrowing from other languages, English is full of polysyllabic tongue-twisters (like “antidisestablishmentarianism”) and hard-to-spell loanwords (like “smorgasbord”). While Mandarin has its share of loanwords, the language remains stubbornly – though not entirely – disyllabic. That’s because when loanwords, or “words from outside” (wàiláicí 外来词), come into Mandarin, straight phonetic transliterations, like démóukèlāxī 得谋克拉西 for “democracy,” end up getting shortened to easy-to-remember two-character semantic compounds like mínzhǔ 民主 (literally “rule of the people”).

These compounds can vary widely, often depending more on the whims of the author than anything else: you say fānqié 番茄, I say xīhóngshì 西红柿.

Chinese Wikipedia, the go-to resource for this sort of thing, defines crosswords as “a kind of paper-based puzzle app,” suggesting that the humble crossword isn’t well represented in the Sinosphere. As expected, Googling (or Baiduing) turns up some truly miserable examples, intended for students of Mandarin.

“Crossword” of disyllabic words for students of Mandarin. Will Shortz, eat your heart out.

But just when I was about to lose hope, I came across a wealth of far more complicated crosswords that draw on poems, set phrases and classical allusions:

Actually not-terrible crossword puzzle using idioms and allusions.

Chéngyǔ 成语 are four-character set phrases, derived from ancient Chinese history and myths. Together with their lesser-known cousins, classical allusions (diǎn’gù 典故), chengyu exist at the pinnacle of Chinese language acquisition, used in high falutin’ literary language in Mandarin, Cantonese, and other varieties of Chinese. (Chengyu and diangu mostly come from Classical Chinese, the Latin of East Asia, rather than the modern spoken varieties of Chinese.) According to Chu-hsia Wu, chengyu are mostly four characters long because most of the poems included in the Classic of Poetry, a source of many chengyu, can be divided up into couplets of four-character lines. Wu further breaks down chengyu into three main types:

    1. Derived: New set phrases that borrow the structure of classical allusion
    2. Inherited: Old set phrases from the classical tradition
    3. Borrowed: Set phrases from other languages, for example Buddhist parables

This is all well and good, but a more useful way of dividing up chengyu, for my money, is the one suggested by Robert Bailey:

    1. Genuine
    2. Sarcastic

That is, there are chengyu that mean what they just say, and chengyu that mean the opposite. To those two categories, I would add a third:

3. Mothballed

That is, archaic chengyu that practically nobody uses anymore. (They could make a diabolical crossword puzzle, though!)

Chinese has a rich history of word puzzles, like chengyu dragons:

  1. Choose a chengyu to begin with, for example yì xīn yī yì 一心一意  (“one heart, one mind,” i.e. wholehearted)
  2. Think of a chengyu that begins with the last character of the previous one, like yìmǎxīnyuán 意马心猿 (“mind of a horse, heart of a monkey,” i.e. indecisive)
  3. Repeat until you come up with a chengyu that ends with the first character of the first chengyu. So in our example (assuming we had worked our way to a chengyu that ends in the character 表), we could pick biǎo lǐ bù yī 表里不一 (to say one thing and mean another)

And if that’s too easy for you, there are also poetry dragons, perhaps most famously portrayed in the classic 18th-century novel Dream of the Red Chamber.

For a dummy like me, I think I’ll stick with emoji riddles. ∎

Header image by Sam DeLong.

Nick Stember

Nick Stember is a translator and historian of Chinese comics and science fiction. He is currently working closely with: The Jia Pingwa Institute, in Xi’an; Clarkesworld magazine and Storycom to promote Chinese speculative fiction; and the Books from Taiwan Manhua Project. Based in Vancouver, he is also translation editor for Ricepaper magazine.