Chinese idioms about approaching danger
Warnings about the need to prepare for impending danger, and how to cope when a threat is at hand.
severe government fierce tiger
Tyranny is more terrible than tigers
The story is that Confucius met a woman near mount Taishan who was weeping bitterly. When asked, she said she had lost father-in-law, husband and son to marauding tigers. When Confucius asked why then she did not move to a safer village she replied that she was sheltering from a despotic government and would rather risk tigers than oppression. Evil government is the worst of evils.
dog anxious leap wall
A cornered dog will leap over a wall
Extreme circumstances require extreme measures
The end justifies the means
thirty six sums walk pride up urge
Of the thirty-six stratagems, running away is the best.
Sometimes it is best to avoid conflict altogether. Flight can be the best option. 'The Thirty-Six Stratagems' was written by the great military thinker Sun Zi ➚
Devil take the hindmost
cauldron bottom swim fish
A fish at the bottom of the pot
In desperate straits. Life threatening situation - the last fish swimming at the bottom of a barrel.
Stare into the abyss
wade hot water tread fire
Wade through scolding water and burning flame
Showing great courage and valour
strong dragon difficult press soil head snake
Even a dragon finds it difficult to conquer a snake in its lair
Knowledge of local area and people gives them a distinct advantage even against a strong enemy
ride tiger difficult down
When on a tiger's back, it is hard to dismount
When taking risks you have to live with the consequences, it is difficult to back out
He who sups with the Devil should have a long spoon
mouth trustworthy stomach sword
Honeyed mouth but harboring dagger
Machiavellian. Using kind words to conceal malice
Smile of the crocodile
invite lord enter vat
Please step into the vat
To fall victim to a punishment that you yourself devised. The story is from the reign of Empress Wuzetian when two cruel ministers vied to create the vilest tortures. Zhou Ying suggested a large vat should be heated and the victim placed in it. His fellow minister threatened to apply the torture on Zhou Ying himself. He then confessed to all his crimes.
To give someone a taste of their own medicine
repeat tread overturn rut
Following the track of an overturned cart
To repeat a disastrous strategy. Not learning from previous mistakes - slavishly following previous practice. The story is of a virtuous official who risked Han emperor Huan's displeasure by pointing out that he was repeating the mistakes of the second Qin emperor.
Once bitten, twice shy
chicken dog not stand
Even the chicken and dog are disturbed. General commotion
All in turmoil and excitement
early bear this calf not fear tiger
A baby calf does not fear a tiger
Innocence about the dangers involved
east window matter expose
The plot at the east window has been exposed
The game is up. Generally said of villains whose evil plans have been thwarted. The story is of Qin Hui of the Song dynasty who hatched a plot under the east window of his house to tell lies about General Yue Fei. Qin Hui and his son died shortly after Yue Fei was executed. Qin's wife Wang used a necromancer who discovered the truth and was told by Qin's spirit that the East window plot had been exposed.
The chickens havee come home to roost
use egg strike stone
Try to smash a stone with an egg
Overrating strength and being defeated. Defeat guaranteed.
Kicking a brick wall
with fox seek skin
Asking a fox for its skin
Make an unrealistic request of someone who is bound to refuse. A pointless request requiring someone to act against their normal character
The leopard does not change his spots
because choke abandon eat
If is foolish to refuse to eat just because of the chance of choking
Life does not come without risks. Risk of failure is not an argument for not trying
melon field plum below
In a melon field and under a plum tree
Avoid circumstances that give rise to false suspicion, If someone is seen near ripe melons or under a plum tree they are open to suspicion of theft. A longer form of the saying makes it clear that you should not tie up your shoes in a melon field or out on a hat under a plum tree as these actions are
tip thorn exist back
A thorn in one?s flesh
Someone or something is causing continuous irritation.
knife mountain fire sea
A mountain of knives; a sea of fires
An extremely difficult and dangerous situation
Celestial Buddhas and Deities of the Northern, Western, and Central Dipper Constellations. c.1500CE. Image by LACMA ➚ available under a Creative Commons License ➚
heat pot up of ants
As active as ants on a hot pan
In a state of feverish activity and excitement
tiger mouth pull up tooth
To extract a tooth from a tiger's mouth
To be very daring and/or to take unnecessary risks
raise tiger bequeath misfortune
Helping a tiger invites misfortune
Being too softhearted with an enemy who is bound at some time later to bite the hand that fed it.
Rearing a nest of vipers
ghost caused by mind life
Ghosts are figments of the mind
Being scared of the paranormal; irrational fear of dark and shadows.
Frightened of your own shadow
beaten head burnt brow
Head bruised and brow burned
In terrible trouble
Beaten black and blue
silent as cold cicada
As silent as a cicada in winter
Cicadas do not 'sing' in cold weather. To keep silent for fear of attracting unwanted attention or incriminating yourself.
storm know strength grass
A storm tests the strength of a blade of grass
Being put to the test in harsh circumstances. To show resolution under extreme stress. Remaining loyal to a cause when the going gets tough.
If you cant stand the heat get out of the kitchen
vegetation all warlike
Every bush harbors an enemy
Being paranoid - believing everyone is out to get you. To be beleaguered
strong cross-bow's end
An arrow at the end of its flight
A spent force. An person or impulse that has now lost all its initial energy just as a bolt from a cross-bow gradually loses its power with distance.
bent protrude move fuel
Bend the chimney and move the firewood
A warning to avoid danger. The story of a man who was advised that his chimney was too straight and the stack of firewood too close to the fire as these could easily cause a fire to take hold. The advice was ignored and sure enough a serious fire damaged the house,
Shot across the bows
precipice rein in horse
Rein in the horse at the cliff edge
Realize danger at the last moment
Qi man worried sky
The from Qi who fears the sky is falling
Unnecessary concern. A person who is over-fearful or credulous. The idiom is based on the story of man from the state of Qi who feared the sky would fall and also that the Earth might cave in.
Afraid of your own shadow
be born enter death
To risk one's life
Offer unquestioning support
Through thick and thin
words excessively that's true
To embellish the facts
Overstate the facts or exaggerate skills. Someone who is a bit of a windbag.
Qing Fu not extremely Lu problem have not stopped
The troubles of the state of Lu will continue until Qing Fu is removed
Take action to remove someone/something obstructing progress, In the Spring and Autumn period of Chinese history Qing Fu rose to power in the state of Lu and ruled as a complete despot killing any opponents. Peace did not come until he had been removed from power.
Grasp the nettle
not cold but trembling
Shivering yet not cold
Shudder with fear and dread. There is a story of a sadistic official of the Han dynasty who arbitrarily sentenced to death. When their relatives and friends came to protest he had them executed too. Everyone was quaking with fear when they saw the official.
Shake like a leaf
stupid like wood chicken
As dumb as a wooden chicken
Dumbstruck, unable to move or say anything out of fear.
Caught like a rabbit in the headlights
encircle Wei to save Zhao
Besiege Wei to rescue Zhao
To aid a friend by attacking a mutual enemy. During the Warring States periodthe state of Wei was attacking the state of Zhao. Handan, the capital of Zhao was besieged, The state of Qi wished to help its ally Zhao, rather than intervene to try to lift the siege of Handan, the Qi general launched an attack on the Wei's capital Daliang, forcing the Wei troops to lift the siege.
open door to greet thief
Opening the door and welcoming in the thief
To welcome a thief or bandit into your home. Bringing disaster upon yourself by your own foolish actions.
Decorative lion at ancient city of Xingcheng near Jiaxing, Liaoning
temporarily prolong survive gasp
Lingering at last gasp
In the throes of dying. Making a final desperate action prior to dying.
At death's door
horse hide wrap corpse
Wrapping the body in horsehide
A wish to die in action on the battlefield. A heroic wish to serve until death.
With all guns blazing
bright spear easy hide, dark arrow difficult defend
It is easy to dodge a spear from in front; but hard to avoid an arrow from behind
It is difficult to guard against furtive attacks
crowd fury disaster to offend
Avoid incurring the wrath of the crowd
It's a bad idea to stir up the anger of a large crowd
whole defeat smear ground
A crushing defeat
Defeat so total bodies will litter the ground. Beaten and in a hopeless situation. Suggest the enemy is in such a rage that no mercy will be shown.
before fear wolf behind fear tiger
To fear wolves ahead and tigers behind
To be obsessed by fears of attack from all sides
hair bone fearful promise
Hair standing on end
Petrified with fright
frightened bow's bird
A bird startled even by the twang of a bow string
Someone who is easily frightened especially if triggered by a previous bad experience. The story is of a great archer who claimed he could shoot a goose out of the sky without releasing an arrow. He then twanged the bow and a goose did fall to the ground. The goose showed signs of a previous arrow injury and had died of fright.
tiger den me save
Saved from the tiger?s den
A narrow escape from a dangerous situation.
city walls down oath
Only under duress
It literally means an embittered agreement at a city wall when a city has surrendered to besieging forces. So it is a reluctant and bitter deal forced by circumstance.
have preparation no misfortune
Preparedness averts misfortune
Be prepared against all eventualities to avoid misfortune. Have fallback plans.
as bird beast scattered
Scattering like birds and beasts
To flee in all directions. Trying to escape from catastrophe - often used to describe fleeing from danger.
Run for the hills
withdraw to escape three 'she'
Withdrawing three leagues
To retreat ahead of superior force, a tactical withdrawal. A 'she' is an ancient term for three day's march or 30 li. To sensibly avoid conflict.
everyone self danger
Everybody in danger
All in danger and in fearful panic.
Clear and present danger
actual direction nothing previous
No obstacle in any direction
To be able to conquer anyone on all fronts. Invincible against all opponents. An irresistible force
fear head fear tail
Fearing both the head and the tail
Nervous and afraid. Fearful at both the start and end of some event.
Afraid of your own shadow
back attend worries
Looking after troubles behind you
Worried about events back at home. Said of someone concerned about goings on at home rather than things immediately to hand.
danger as repeated egg
As precarious as a pile of eggs
In a dangerous state - about to collapse. Just about to fall and break apart.
The brink of disaster
lose hatchet doubt neighbor
Lose an axe and suspect a neighbour
Groundless suspicions. Jumping to conclusions.
A Han dynasty magnetic compass, the needle is in the form of a carefully balanced ladle that points south.
The compass shows divisions for use in Feng Shui and Yi Jing
Image available under a Creative Commons license ➚
to flee home own dog
Fleeing from a wild dog
Fleeing in fear and panic due to unexpected visitor or situation
Our proverbs come with full information. The modern Chinese characters are given first with links that give information on the character. If the phrase uses traditional characters these are shown in brackets and gray text. As proverbs are so old you will often see them written in the old form. The characters are followed by the proverb (Chengyu) 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 are in need of improvement, so please let us know your ideas. For background on the types and history of proverbs please see our guide.
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