Chinese proverbs about foolishness

Proverbs that demonstrate foolishness and stupidity.

薪救
Bào xīn jiù huǒ [bao xin jiu huo]
hold firewood rescue fire
Holding wood while putting out a fire
Not solving a problem appropriately. Foolishness
Bēi shuǐ chē xīn [bei shui che xin]
cup water vehicle firewood
A glass of water won't put out a car on fire
Put in insufficient effort into solving a problem
避坑落井
Bì kēng luò jǐng [bi keng luo jing]
evade pit drop well
Avoid falling into a pit to fall into a well
Avoid one obstacle only to blindly hit another
Dǎ cǎo jīng ché [da cao jing che]
strike grass startled snake
Striking the grass alerts the snake
Unwisely alerting an enemy
shǒu jiaǒ [da shou da jiao]
big hand big foot
Large hands and feet
Lavish and grandiose expenditure on tasteless trifles
A fool and his money are soon parted
施效颦
Dōng shī xiaò pín [dong shi xiao pin]
Dong Shi imitate knit eyebrows
The story is of Dong Shi, an ugly person imitating the posture of famous beautiful woman Xi Shi by knitting his eyebrows
Ludicrous self-conceit
弹琴
Duì niú tán qín [dui niu tan qin]
face ox play musical qin
To play a qin (a traditional Chinese musical instrument) to a cow
To address an inappropriate and unappreciative audience
Pearls before swine
蛾投
Fēi é tóu huǒ [fei e tou huo]
fly moth hurl fire
A moth throws itself into a flame
Heading for self destruction
畋,竭
Fén lín ěr tián, jié zé ěr yú [fen lin er tian, jie ze er yu]
burn forest but cultivate, exhaust pool but fishing
Burn a forest to farm; drain a pond to fish
Ignore the obvious consequences
Marry in haste, repent at leisure
Fèng máo lín jiǎo [feng mao lin jiao]
phoenix hair unicorn horn
As rare as phoenix feathers and unicorn horns
Seeking the unobtainable
Gàn huó bú yóu dōng lèi sǐ yě wú gōng [gan huo bu you dong lei si ye wu gong]
do live no reason master pile up die also no merit
Working without obeying the boss will bring only hard work and no merit
Only work on what is needed to be done
隔靴搔痒
Gé xuē sāo yǎng [ge xue sao yang]
separate boot scratch itch
Scratching an itch from outside of the shoe
An ineffective solution to a problem
Changbai, Jilin
Tianchi Lake in Changbai Mountains. October 2009.
Image by Wang65 available under a Creative Commons license
邯郸
Hán dān xué bù [han dan xue bu]
Handan study gait
Learning how the residents of Handan walk . A story of a man who took on the gait of a cityfolk trying to impress but could no longer walk properly
Pompous and pretentious. Trying too hard to impress
拔牙
kǒu bá yá [hu kou ba ya]
tiger mouth pull up tooth
To extract a tooth from a tiger's mouth
To be very daring and/or to take unnecessary risks
饼充饥
Huà bǐng chōng jī [hua bing chong ji]
draw biscuit fill hunger
Drawing a biscuit to satisfy hunger
To make a foolish and ineffective attempt
蛇添
Huà shě tiān zú [hua she tian zu]
draw snake add foot
Drawing a foot on a snake
Ruin by over doing something. Too meticulous
Gild the lily
换汤换药
Huàn tāng bú huàn yaò [huan tang bu huan yao]
change hot water no change medicine
Change the soup but not the medicine
Not getting to the root of a problem, making superficial changes
Rearranging the deckchairs while the ship is sinking
井底
Jǐng dǐ zhī wā [jing di zhi wa]
well bottom's frog
A frog in a well. The story is of a frog that only knows of the water in the well and knew nothing of the sea.
A blinkered approach to life. Living in own private world ignoring the real world
Jiǔ niú maó [jiu niu yi mao]
nine ox one hair
Nine cows are missing just one hair
An insignificant amount. A trivial matter.
A drop in the ocean
使舵
Kàn fēng shǐ duò [kan feng shi duo]
look wind steer rudder
Steer the boat wherever the winds lead
Not sticking to the big plan. A fickle mind
Kǒu shì xīn fēi [kou shi xin fei]
mouth OK feeling wrong
Say yes when mean no
To say the opposite of what you really think
,
Léi shēng dà, diǎn xiǎo [lei sheng da, yu dian xiao]
thunder sound big, rain drop small
Thunder is loud but little rain falls
Overly portentous. Reality did not match expectation
Empty vessels make the most noise
临渴掘井
Lín kě jué jǐng [lin ke jue jing]
approach thirsty dig well
To start digging a well only when feeling thirsty
Begin to take measures when it is far too late
Failing to plan is planning to fail
漏洞
Lòu dòng bǎi chū [lou dong bai chu]
leak hole hundred get out
Leaking through one hundred holes. Full of holes
Full of mistakes and errors
Xuanzang, Buddhism, Shanxi, Xian
Statue of Xuanzang at the Great Wild Goose Pagoda, Xi'an, Shaanxi
驴唇
Lǖ chún bù duì mǎ zuǐ [lu chun bu dui ma zui]
donkey lips no match horse mouth
Donkey's lips do not fit a horse's mouth
Something that is out of place and inappropriate
鼎烹
Niú dǐng pēng jī [niu ding peng ji]
ox cauldron boil chicken
Cooking a chicken in a pot designed for an ox
Inappropriate scale for action. A minor event does not require such large preparation
破釜沉
Pò fǔ chén zhōu [po fu chen zhou]
broken pot sink boat
Smash the pots and sink the boats. A story from the Qin dynasty tells of a general who refused to accept possibility of retreat by burning the boats and smashing the cooking pots.
No going back whatever happens. Cutting off all possibility of retreat
Don't burn your bridges behind you
骑驴
Qí lǖ zhǎo lǖ [qi lu zhao lu]
ride donkey look for donkey
Looking for a donkey while sitting on its back
Ignoring the obvious. Absent mindedness
Not looking beyond your nose
Qián pà láng hòu pà hǔ [qian pa lang hou pa hu]
before fear wolf behind fear tiger
To fear wolves ahead and tigers behind
To be obsessed by fears of attack from all sides
Ròu bāo zǐ dǎ gǒu [rou bao zi da gou]
meat wrap child hit dog
Hitting a dog with a meat bun
To use a self defeating method to solve a problem
Shān fēng diǎn huǒ [shan feng dian huo]
incite wind spot fire
Create wind and fire
Create a lot of trouble
雄辩
Shì shí shèng yú xióng biàn [shi shi sheng yu xiong bian]
affair real victory goto mighty debate
A real victory is better than a great debate
Better to act than just talk about it
Actions speak louder than words
守株待
Shǒu zhū dài tù [shou zhu dai tu]
guard trunk wait for hare
Keeps watching a tree waiting for rabbits
Counts on luck rather than action to reach goals. Laziness and inaction
Ignorance is bliss
Shǔ cùn guāng [shu mu cun guang]
mouse eye inch bright
A mouse's vision is only one inch long
Looking ahead for only a short time. Only planning for the immediate future.
Sǐ mǎ dāng huó mǎ yī [si ma dang huo ma yi]
die horse equal live horse doctor
Treating a dead horse as if it is still alive
Persevering when it is already too late. A lost cause.
Flogging a dead horse
望梅
Wàng méi zhǐ kě [wang mei zhi ke]
gaze plum stop thirst
Gaze at a plum to quench thirst
Vain hope for something unattainable
Shanghai, bridge, road, cityscape
The Nanpu bridge at Shanghai
补牢
Wáng yáng bǔ láo [wang yang bu lao]
lose sheep mend pen
Mend the pen after the sheep are lost
Can mean taking action too late or to protect against a future repeat of misfortune
Mend the stable door after the horse has bolted
丧胆
Wén fēng sàng dǎn [wen feng sang dan]
hear news lose courage
On hearing news panic. Terror stricken by the news
Panic stricken. Terrified by news
,
Wú yuán zhī shuǐ, wú běn zhī mù [wu yuan zhi shui, wu ben zhi mu]
no source water, no root tree
A river without a source, a tree without roots
Something without a proper foundation. Not properly planned
虾兵蟹将
Xiā bīng xiè jiàng [xia bing xie jiang]
shrimp soldier crab general
Shrimp soldiers led by a crab general. An ineffective army
A laughably ineffective solution to a problem
疑冰
Xià chóng yí bīng [xia chong yi bing]
summer insect doubt ice
The summer insect doubts the existence of ice
An ignorant person doesn't understand the whole truth
Xiǎng rù fēi fēi [xiang ru fei fei]
want enter wrong wrong
Indulge in fantasy
Let imagination run wild
Head in the clouds
Xiaǒ zuò [xiao ti da zuo]
small topic large work
To talk a lot about very little
Procrastination and exaggeration
Make a mountain out of a molehill
适履
Xuē zú shì lǚ [xue zu shi lu]
trim foot fit shoe
Reshape feet to fit new shoes
Take the wrong decision. Apply an inappropriate solution.
盗铃
Yǎn ěr daò líng [yan er dao ling]
conceal ear steal bell
Covering your ears while stealing the bell
Failing to think things through. Taking a rash action without applying logic
Stupid is as stupid does
眼泪救
Yǎn lèi jiù bù liǎo huǒ [yan lei jiu bu liao huo]
tears rescued not fire
Tears do not put out the fire
Decisive action is needed in a crisis not regrets
,
Yě yaò mǎ ér haǒ, yě yaò mǎ ér bù chī caǒ [ye yao ma er hao, ye yao ma er bu chi cao]
also want horse good, also want horse not eat grass
Want the horse to prosper, but not want the horse to eat grass
To prosper you must make compromises, you can not have it all your own way
You can't have your cake and eat it
卵击
Yǐ luǎn tóu shí [yi luan tou shi]
use egg strike stone
Try to smash a stone with an egg
Overrate strength and be defeated. An ill-judged contest
Ming dynasty, architecture, Chuandixia
Ming dynasty village at Chuandixia near Beijing
qiào bù tōng [yi qiao bu tong]
all orifice not linked up
All parts of the body are not working together
Incoherent action, not making any sense
吠影,吠声
quǎn fèi yǐng, bǎi quǎn fèi shēng [yi quan fei ying, bai quan fei sheng]
one dog bark shadow, one hundred dog bark noise
One dog snarls at a shadow; a hundred howl at each other's barking
Blindly follow a trend without even knowing its origin
Yǐn jiū zhǐ kě [yin jiu zhi ke]
drink turtledove stop thirst
To quench one's thirst with poisoned wine. The blood of the dove was considered poisonous
To take reckless action regardless of the consequences
Don't cut off your nose to spite your face
Yǒu gòng dǔ [you mu gong du]
has eye common observe
Seen by everyone. There for all to see
Obvious to everybody
Plain for all to see
Yuán mù qiú [yuan mu qiu yu]
cause tree seek fish
To catch fish on a tree. To look at a tree hoping it will catch fish.
Waste time doing something pointless and bound to fail
谈兵
Zhǐ shàng tán bīng [zhi shang tan bing]
paper on chat weapon
Talk about battle strategy. An armchair general.
Making theoretical plans ignoring practical considerations
A little knowledge is a dangerous thing
Zhòng guā dé guā zhòng dòu dé dòu [zhong gua de gua zhong dou de dou]
plant melon get melon, plant beans get beans
Plant melons and you will harvest melons; plant beans and you will harvest beans
Live with the consequences of your actions
Reap what you sow
Zì xiāng máo dùn [zi xiang mao dun]
self mutual contradict
Self contradictory. The story is about the man who said he had a spear that could pierce anything in the world, but also a shield that was impenetrable to any spear. Both claims could not be true.
To speak in contradictions
井观
Zuò jǐng guān tiān [zuo jing guan tian]
sit well watch sky
To sit at the bottom of a well and view the sky
A blinkered or limited view of the world
China motif
Our proverbs come with lots of information. The modern Chinese characters are followed by the proverb in pinyin. Next, there is a crude character by character transliteration into English, followed by a more accurate English translation. If this is a Chinese proverb alluding to history the meaning may still not be clear in English, so the general meaning follows. Finally some proverbs have fairly direct English equivalents, if so the English proverb is included at the end.

Our translations need improving, so please let us know if you can help.
Share on Facebook Share on Google+

Chinasage is a new web resource, started in 2012, pages will be added, enhanced and re-formatted regularly. Please check back soon for updated information about China.

We would be most grateful if you have any comments or suggestions to help improve this page. Our contact page is also available if you have a longer comment. Just type in a quick remark here:

 

Citation information: Chinasage, 'Chinese Proverbs about fooling around', last updated 4 Sep 2013, Web, http://www.chinasage.info/proverbfool.htm.

Copyright © Chinasage 2012 to 2016