Note: For the ease of reading, all Chinese characters used here are in Japanese 新字体 with Simplified Chinese(简体字) written in brackets.

Japanese has a lot of 四字熟語, and although some developed within Japan, arose from Japanese native tales, most are still borrowed from Chinese, or have risen from Chinese tales. As such, many 四字熟語 used today in Japanese are the same to the idioms 成語(成语) used in modern Chinese today

For example:

  • JP: 四面楚歌 CN: 四面楚歌(四面楚歌)
  • JP: 天真爛漫 CN: 天真爛漫(天真烂漫)
  • JP: 威風堂々 CN: 威風堂堂(威风堂堂)
  • JP: 一気呵成 CN: 一気呵成(一气呵成)
  • JP: 一騎当千 CN: 一騎当千(一骑当千)
  • JP: 卧薪嘗胆 CN: 卧薪嘗胆(卧薪尝胆)
  • JP: 起死回生 CN: 起死回生(起死回生)
  • and countless many others.

However, among these, I've notices some that has interesting shifts between the JP and CN part, namely they convey the same idea and meaning, but the expression is slightly different. Take, for example, the Japanese 自画自賛, meaning one'd praise one's own work (regardless of its true quality). Literally, the four characters mean self-draw-self-praise, and in the Chinese language, there isn't a 自画自賛, but there is a 自売自誇(自卖自夸) with the same meaning, but literally it's not self-draw-self-praise, but self-sell-self-compliment

Another example, 疑心暗鬼 in Japanese is used to describe a "sus" person who is constantly doubting everything. Literally that's doubt-heart-gloomy-ghost. In Chinese, there isn't a 疑心暗鬼, but there is 疑神疑鬼(疑神疑鬼), which has the same meaning, but literally, that's doubt-spirit/deity-doubt-ghost

Others I've noticed:

  • JP: 自業自得 self-operate-self-get CN: 自作自受(自作自受) self-do-self-receive; both mean you get the consequence of your own action
  • JP: 奇想天外 strange-thought-sky-outside CN: 異想天開(异想天开) unusual-thought-sky-open; both mean strange/random thoughts or inspirations one could have
  • JP: 起承転結 CN: 起承転合(起承转合), both mean the four stages of writing an article, aka beginning-development-turn-conclusion
  • JP: 不撓不屈 CN: 不屈不撓(不屈不挠), now this is just a position swap of characters, but both mean to persevere, to not give up

Now clearly these pairs are related because they have the exact same meaning and are so similar that it's impossible to say they arose independently in China and Japan. As such, is there a reason for the shift in expression for these 四字熟語 when the mast majority of the other 四字熟語s from Chinese are kept as-is? As a native Chinese speaker, and after some research, the JP versions are NOT existent in older Chinese that only disappeared in modern Chinese, and the CN versions are also not found in Japanese dictionaries either.

  • 疑心暗鬼 doesn't describe a person.
    – aguijonazo
    Commented May 10 at 8:22
  • 3
    Each 四字熟語 has its own story behind it. You might need more focus.
    – aguijonazo
    Commented May 10 at 8:24
  • 1
    Note that 鬼 only rarely means 'ghost' in Japanese
    – Angelos
    Commented May 10 at 9:37
  • 自画自賛 might have evolved in Japan, from this.
    – aguijonazo
    Commented May 11 at 0:41
  • @aguijonazo That's true. There probably isn't a definitive answer then. I guess it's too complicated to summarize.
    – dvx2718
    Commented May 11 at 0:47


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