This is part seven in my series on Chinese idioms, read more here or check out all previous idioms here. I assume no previous knowledge in Chinese, and they’re open to anyone interested in language. If you enjoy the idioms and want to read more, please go buy Pan Weigui’s book, it’s fairly cheap and definitely worth it.

Today’s idiom is 步步为营 (bùbù-wéiyíng), not super special but it’s still cool, and it’s fun to say it.

  • 步 (bù): a step.
  • 为 (wéi): to establish.
  • 营 (yíng): camp or barracks. Can also mean ”army” or ”to manage”.

Chinese idioms (成语) are infamously grammatically incorrect, due to their four-character nature (imagine saying a meaningful and philosophical sentence in English with just four words). Still, ”步步”, literally ”step step” is correct even in everyday Chinese, meaning ”step by step”. The same goes with for example ”等等” (děngděng), literally ”wait wait”, meaning ”et cetera”.

The translation of ”为营” is fairly straight-forward: ”to settle a camp” (primarily the camp of a traveling army). The full translation is ”to settle a camp for each step” or (in Weigui’s book) ”to entrench themselves at every step”. As one can guess, it symbolically means to be extremely careful and thorough, referencing both military and general activity.

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