If you didn’t know already, 成语 (chéngyǔ – literally ‘set speech’) are a specific kind of idiom in Chinese that usually consist of four characters. They’re probably the most lexically dense thing you’ll ever see, often cramming big concepts into just four syllables.
There are countless chengyu, and are often a bit of an obstacle for students of Chinese, as their meaning may not be immediately obvious (even less so in speech) but native speakers use them frequently. As with a lot of things in Chinese, it’s just a case of putting the time in and learning as many as you can.
The chengyu that I’m most grateful for and use most often is this one:
yīn rén ér yì
[because] [person] [therefore] [difference]
There are of course endless English translations, but some equivalent phrases are “each to their own”, “everybody’s different” and “it depends on the person”. Or if you’re a true Yorkshireman like me, you might appreciate the nuance of “nowt as queer as folk”.
There are a few reasons I like 因人而異 so much. Firstly, it’s surprisingly grammatical for a chengyu. You can see the 因而 structure of it and how it works logically. It also makes use of very common characters that most learners will know (apart from 異, perhaps).
I also really agree with the message of this chengyu. Stereotyping (particularly out-group homogeneity) is a natural behaviour for human beings, but one that causes us so many problems. It’s good to have a succinct phrase to sum up an opposing view.
因人而異 is particularly useful for foreigners
As a foreigner in China, I find that I am often viewed as a representative member of a large, homogeneous group called ‘foreigners’. You honestly do get asked these kinds of questions every day:
- What do foreigners eat?
- What kind of girls do foreigners like?
- What do foreigners think of China?
- Do foreigners find Chinese hard to learn?
These are often phrased using 你们外国人 – “you foreigners”, or the slightly more irritating 他们外国人 – “them foreigners”. Besides that I’ve had a few different people say to me directly “foreigners all look the same”, or even actually get me confused with other foreigners they know.
Of course it is only a minority of people that do this kind of thing, and usually they’re perfectly well-meaning. It’s not really racism, just curiosity combined with outrageous stereotyping. People in other countries do exactly the same thing with Chinese people, and even write books about it with questionable titles.
In any case, I nearly always just respond with 因人而異. Sometimes you might want to take it further with something like 外国不是一个国家，也不是一种文化 – “foreign is not a country or a culture”. And even if it were, you still couldn’t really speak for all of it, so 因人而異 it is!
Dear readers, are you all the same? Or is it a case of 因人而异? Let me know that you are all individuals in the comments! What is your favourite chengyu? What is your least favourite?