Chinese idioms R to S
A list of Chinese proverbs ordered by pinyin spelling.
染于苍则 染于黄则黄 [染於蒼則蒼,染於黃則黃]
dye by dark blue follow dark blue, dye by yellow follow yellow
Dyeing dark blue makes dark blue, dyeing yellow makes yellow
People behave differently according to circumstance. Taking on local conventions and customs.
When in Rome do as the Romans do
person not judge appearance mutual, sea water not judge bucket measure
A person cannot be judged by appearance just as the sea cannot be measured with a bucket
First appearances can be deceptive
Judging a book by its cover
person evil person fear heaven no fear, person good person cheat heaven no deceive
Evil people are dreaded by other people not by heaven; good people may be cheated by people but not by heaven
Even though evil works may go unpunished on earth, good works do not go unnoticed in heaven. Reward for good may not be immediately received.
person each have capability have no capability
Every person has things that he can do and those that he cannot do
Everyone has their own particular set of skills
It takes all sorts to make a world
man lute entirely lost
Both man and lute have perished
Deep mourning for a close friend. Seeing something that reminds you of someone who has died. The story is of two brothers, when one of them died after a serious illness the other was two heart-broken to play the lute anymore as it reminded him too much of his brother.
everyone self danger
Everybody in danger
All in danger and in fearful panic.
Clear and present danger
person mountain person sea
Huge crowds of people
person towards high place walk, water towards low place flow
A person moves up while water always trickles down
There is always room for improvement
Practice makes perfect
person nothing whole person, gold nothing pure gold
It is as impossible to find a perfect person as it is to discover pure gold
Having to settle for something less than perfection
person heart no attain snake swallow elephant
A person's greed is like a snake that seeks to swallow an elephant
Greed is insatiable
person heart separate belly
A person's heart is not discernible from looking just at the body
People are inscrutable. Do not judge by appearance
Don't judge a book by its cover
person must have face, tree must have skin
Keeping a good reputation is as essential as bark is to a tree
Reputation ('face') must be maintained at all costs
endure disgrace bear repetition
Enduring humiliations in line of duty
Willing to put up with disgrace and humiliation so that work can be done. Often applied to someone given a very difficult but important task.
Taking the flak
The famous crescent lake near Dunhuang, Gansu
heat pot up of ants
As active as ants on a hot pan
In a state of feverish activity and excitement
sunset road exhausted
The day is ending and the road narrows
The end game is upon us.
On last legs
day take continue
Day and night continuously
Working without a break. Exhausted
meat wrap child hit dog
Hitting a dog with a meat bun
To use a self defeating method to solve a problem
weak not restrict wind
Too weak to stand a gust of wind
Fragile, unable to withstand further setbacks
as fire as flourishing
Raging like a fire
Daunting and vigorous. An intimidating prospect.
Vim and vigour
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
as fish obtain water
Like a fish returned to water
Glad to be back in familiar surroundings. Applied to people returning home after a long absence or someone who has at last found their proper place in life.
In one's element
like sit needle carpet
Like sitting on a carpet of needles
To feel tense and uneasy
child permit teach
A student worth teaching
A promising youngster who is open to learning. The story is of Zhang Liang who had failed in an attempt to assassinate the first Qin Emperor and went into hiding. He came across a mysterious old man who set him a series of tests to judge his keenness to learn from him. After passing all the test the old man gave him a book on military strategy and Zhang became a leading military strategist.
suckle smelly not yet made
Still suckling and in nappies. Still an infant. Young and inexperienced
Infantile and immature
breast stink not yet make
Still smelling of mother's milk
Young and inexperienced
enter wood three parts
Inscribe wood to a depth of three measures
To write with such confidence that the wood is etched away to a good depth. So this means to write with a profound and forceful hand. The story is of the great calligrapher who produced some calligraphy so confidently written that the characters were etched by 3/10th of an inch.
Flying kites in a city park
enter village follow custom
When entering a village, follow its customs
Take account of local people and opinions
When in Rome do as the Romans do
three smelly shoemakers, gather together Zhuge Liang
Three humble shoemakers brainstorming make a great statesman like Zhuge Liang ➚
Joint effort can help solve big problems
Two heads are better than one
three visits to thatched hut
Calling three times at the thatched cottage
Committed to get best possible advice. The story is of Liu Bei in the Three Kingdoms Period who wanted the help of the master strategist Zhuge Liang. Zhuge Liang refused to answer the door on Liu's first two visits. When Liu made a third visit Zhuge was sufficiently convinced that Liu was genuinely desperate for his help.
three orders five explanations
Issuing three orders and five injunctions
Giving order after order. Someone who is officious and over-bearing. The use of three and five is often used to give idea of endless repetition.
Cracking the whip
three person accomplish tiger
It only takes three people to confirm a sighting of a tiger.
A rumour can build up to a mighty story when only a handful confirm it. Basing a story on rumor and gossip rather than hard facts.
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
frontier old man lose horse, peace know wrong blessing
When the old man from the frontier lost his horse; how could he have known that it would not be fortuitous?
The story ➚ is that a man lost his horse but actually it went over the Great Wall and brought back several horses with it. A setback may turn out to be a blessing in disguise.
Every cloud has a silver lining
to flee home own dog
Fleeing from a wild dog
Fleeing in fear and panic due to unexpected visitor or situation
less look many odd
Things look strange to the unfamiliar
Unsettled by a new environment
kill chicken give monkey look
Kill a chicken before a monkey. The monkey can then take the message as a warning
To punish somebody as a lesson and warning to others
kill chicken where use ox cleaver
Using an ox-cleaver to kill a chicken
Taking unnecessary effort to tackle a small problem. Using an inappropriately large tool for the job.
Using a sledgehammer to crack a nut
kill wife seek general
Killing your wife to become a general
Ruthless action to further one's ambition. The story is of Wu Qi who served the state of Lu. His wife originally came from the enemy state of Qi; seeing this as an obstacle to his ambition to become a general, he killed his wife. He got the promotion so it is about ruthless but effective action.
Sell your grandmother
kill person not blink eye
Killing without blinking an eye
The city of Hong Kong at night
kill one warn hundred
Kill one to warn a hundred
To warn many people by punishing a few. Making example punishments
mountain no turn road turn
A mountain cannot turn, but a road can
It is not necessary to continue in the same direction, there are other alternatives to avoid an obstacle
There's more than one way to skin a cat
mountain bright water elegant
Beautiful mountain scenery
mountain poor water exhaust
Run out of food and water
Thirsty and starving; destitute
mountain rain intend arrive wind tower
The wind sweeping through the tower heralds a rising storm in the mountain
A premonition of something significant about to happen
Forewarned is forearmed
incite wind spot fire
Create wind and fire
Create a lot of trouble
raise lower their hand
To raise and lower the hand
A conspiracy is at work. A deft gesture signaling important information. The story is that back in the Spring and Autumn period two soldiers both claimed to have captured a prince and demanded their reward. When Bo Zhouli arbitrated he used a hand gesture to signal who he wished to receive the money.
body face its border
Present and observing
An eye witness to an event
health strength walk
To maintain health by strenuous walk
Following the advice given oneself
Practise what you preach
produce live have love good fortune, pride love produce live foolish
A life of love is happy; a life for love is foolish
Love is not the most important thing
produce rice cook accomplish well-cooked food
The rice has already been cooked
What has been done can not be undone
What's done is done
raw swallow alive skin
Swallowing it all
To unthinkingly take on board someone's opinion. Uncritical application. Copying someone else's actions. The story is of Zhang Huaiqing of the Tang dynasty who plagiarized other poet's work by mechanically adding a few characters here and there. The resultant poems were gibberish.
Monkey see: monkey do
God work ghost hatchet
God's work and spirit's axe
So skilled that workmanship presumed to be the work of a god not a human. Fantastic, superb artistry.
Manasarovar lake and Mount Namunani, Tibet
abandon foundation pursue end
Pursuing trivia while neglecting essentials
Concentrating on the little details rather than the important stuff
Putting the cart before the horse
failure is achieve merit's mother
Failure is the mother of success
Learning from mistakes
Cut your coat to suit your cloth
lose hatchet doubt neighbor
Lose an axe and suspect a neighbour
Groundless suspicions. Jumping to conclusions.
ten year establish timber, hundred year establish person
It takes ten years for a tree to grow but it takes a hundred years for talents to be nurtured
Studying may be slow and arduous but will be worth it
ten complete ten beautiful
Completely whole and beautiful
true matter seek exist
Seek truth from facts
Base judgment on the true facts of the situation and not rumor or custom.
Know for a fact
know way venerable horse
An old horse who knows the way
Age brings experience and wisdom
eat words and so fat
Getting fat by eating one?s words
Someone is forever retracting what was previously said. Someone with poor judgment and a big mouth. The story is of a minister Meng Wubo of the kingdom of Lu who often pontificated only to contradict himself. A snide commentator suggested that Meng was growing fat because he ate so many of his own words.
Shoot your mouth off
arrow mouth deny
To shoot arrows from the mouth
To flatly deny the truth
on earth not have no cause for love also not have no cause for hate
There is no love without a reason there is no hate without a cause
There is a reason behind all strong emotions
world foreign peach source
The land of peach blossoms
A mythical land of peace and harmony. The story is of a hidden land that a fisherman found while trying to escape turmoil and war in the Qin dynasty. Try as he might he never found the land again.
Land of milk and honey
work multiple times merit half
Work very hard for half the result
Work with care rather than speed
Less haste more speed
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
Chinese pagoda in Hangzhou, Zhejiang. November 2007.
Image by Sitomon ➚ available under a Creative Commons license ➚
situation as if split bamboo
Like splitting bamboo
Continuing a successful series. Once you get the knack of splitting bamboo it's best to keep on going. The story is of a general who was advised to rest his army for the winter after a series of successes. The general disagreed, his army had high morale and went on to complete the victory.
Don't stop while you are winning
lick calf's love
The love of a cow licking her calf
An example of parental love and devotion. A biased assessment due to family ties - caring for one's own relatives
The fruit does not fall far from the tree
guard mouth like bottle
To keep mouth shut, like a bottle
To avoid giving the game away; to not breathe a word
See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil
guard trunk wait for hare
Watching a tree waiting for rabbits
Do not just count on luck, need action to reach your goals
Nothing ventured nothing gained
hand not release book
Always have a book in hand
A diligent student engrossed in study.
授人以鱼只解一时之急,授人以渔 则解一生之需 [授人以魚只解一旹之急授人以漁則解一生之需]
award person use fish one explain once quick, award person use fishing standard separate one produce must
Give a fish and be fed for only a day. Teach how to fish and be free from hunger forever
It is important to learn a skill that will last for life
thin die camel compare horse big
The body of a starved camel is bigger than the body of a living horse.
Respect ancient wisdom rather than the new
two writing brush simultaneous down
Painting with two brushes at the same time
To be able to do two things at once. The story is of a painter who was so skilled he could paint two pictures at the same time with a brush in either hand.
A dab hand
water drip stone penetrate
Dripping water eventually wears away stone
If you persevere, you will eventually achieve your goal
Mighty oaks from little acorns grow
water full level overflow
Water rises only to overflow
At the point of a crisis. Things are about to turn around
The tide is on the turn
water can carry boat, also can sink boat
Not only does water float a boat, it can sink it too
Events and people can have both positive and negative influences
water deep fire hot
In deep water and fierce fire
In very deep trouble. A desperate situation with nowhere to turn.
In dire straits
speak Cao Cao, Cao Cao arrives
Speak of Cao Cao and he arrives
'Cao Cao ➚ of the Three Kingdoms is the embodiment of evil. Someone who you are talking about happens to appear unexpectedly
Speak of the devil and he is sure to appear
Stone Monkey' gazing over view from Huangshan (Yellow) Mountains in Anhui Province
speak arrive make arrive
Say and then make
Do what one says
Actions speak louder than words
Shu to attack surname Mo to defend
Shu attacks and Mo defends
Two opponents of equal skill. Back in the Spring and Autumn period the story goes that Gongshu Ban, a carpenter who had developed a new device to aid the attack of cities, was persuaded by the pacifist philosopher MoZi not to deploy it. Mozi was able to defend against any attack by Gongshu Ban giving stalemate.
Fighting to a standstill
mature can produce skill
Learning a skill from long experience
With long practice one can learn any skill. Sometimes used disparagingly of a skill anyone can learn given enough time.
Practice makes perfect
enumerate ceremony forget ancestor
Recounting history but forgeting ancestors
Lose connection with ancestors - lose one's roots. Ignorance of own origins or country.
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
bundle on high shelf
Store away in the attic
Dismiss someone or something for the moment as currently unimportant. Designate something as low priority.
Put on the back-burner
tree fall monkey troupe break up
When the tree falls, the monkeys scatter
When a leader loses power, his followers are disorganized and also lose power. Often said to warn someone that they hold their position only so long as their patron is in power
tree tall 1000 length leaf fall return root
A tree may grow high, but its leaves always fall on its roots
People living far away will eventually comes back home
Absence makes the heart grow fonder
tree desire quiet but wind not still
The trees prefer calm, but the wind does not stop
In spite of a wish for peace, trouble is brewing. Things develop regardless of how you might wish. Powerless to influence outcome
Sikong see usual
Sikong is used to it
Sikong was the job title of a minister of works in China. In the Tang dynasty the poet Liu Yuxi was invited by a minister to a feast accompanied by entertainers. This was a common occurrence for the minister but greatly impressed the poet. An everyday occurrence; nothing out of the ordinary
As common as muck
die ash return fire
Ashes burn again
Resuming work after a long break. Taking up a previously held position of authority. Another flush of youthful energy in later life.
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
four side Chu song
On all four sides hear Chu kingdom songs.
Ambushed from all sides. Hopeless situation. In the battle of Gaixia ➚ troops surrounding the enemy sang songs of home, breaking their spirit. From the classic Shi Ji from 2,200 years ago. After the end of the Qin dynasty the Han general used this tactic against of the Chu kingdom. The Chu songs persuaded the surrounded Chu forces that the Han must have overrun much of the Chu kingdom already
Song Xiang 's benevolence
Kindness like Song Duke Xianggong
Showing mercy and consideration to opponents. The story is from the Spring and Autumn period when Duke Xianggong of the kingdom of Song confronted an army from the kingdom of Chu. His officers pleaded with the duke to attack while they were still crossing the river, the duke refused considering this an unfair tactic.
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
Our proverbs come with full information. The modern Chinese characters are given first with links that give information on the character. As proverbs are so old you will often see them written using the traditional form of characters; so if of the characters have been simplified the phrase is shown in brackets and gray text. . 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 shown.
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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