Chinese idioms about getting along with others

Everyone is different, so proverbs that stress the importance of rubbing along together are helpful.

,[人不可貌相海水不可斗量]
Rén bù kě mào xiàng, hǎi shuǐ bù kě dǒu liáng
A person cannot be judged by appearance just as the sea cannot be measured with a bucket
First appearances can be deceptive.
Roughly equivalent to: Judging a book by its cover.
[先斬後奏]
Xiān zhǎn hòu zòu
Execute first, report later
Taking the initiative; acting without orders. The story is of a newly appointed magistrate who was seeking a murderer. When she was found, the magistrate had her executed on the spot in spite of she being a servant to the Emperor's sister. An execution requires the Emperor's sanction and so the magistrate was in deep trouble,. In this case the magistrate managed to escape with his life.
Roughly equivalent to: Off you own bat.
[欲速則不達]
Yù sù zé bù dá
A desire for speed but unable to reach destination
More interest in working fast than working effectively. Too much interest in the short term rather than the overall strategy.
Roughly equivalent to: More haste less speed.
[東窗事發]
Dōng chuāng shì fā
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.
Roughly equivalent to: The chickens havee come home to roost.
[兔子不吃窩邊草]
Tù zi bù chī wō biān cǎo
Rabbits do not eat the grass around their burrows
Thieves do not steal from neighbors.
[伯樂識馬]
Bó Lè shí mǎ
Bo Le, the horse expert
A person of good judgment. Someone who can quickly appreciate skill. The idiom refers to Bo Le from the Warring States period who was an acclaimed judge of horses. It is said that he came upon an old horse trudging along. Only Bo Le could see that this was once a great horse of strength and stamina.
[東山再起]
Dōng shān zài qǐ
To rise again from the east mountain
Coming back after voluntary retirement into public life. Particularly for taking on high office after a long break away from all the action.
Roughly equivalent to: To make a comeback.
隔肚
Rén xīn gé dù pí
A person's heart is not discernible from looking just at the body
People are inscrutable. Do not judge by appearance.
Roughly equivalent to: Don't judge a book by its cover.
[龍飛鳳舞]
Lóng fēi fèng wǔ
A dragon's flight and a phoenix's dance - very powerful and invigorating.
Flamboyant. Lively and vigorous.
yì gū xíng
Obstinately clinging to one's course
Acting dogmatically in pursuit of own objectives without regard to others. Dogged determination. Sometimes this approach is honorable and sometimes leads to ruin but it is the single-mindedness that is being admired.
Roughly equivalent to: Steely-eyed.
[大義滅親]
yì miè qīn
Uphold justice by killing one's own family
Prepared to kill one's own family to keep to the law. Back in the Spring and Autumn Period a father, Shi Que, uncovered the murder of the king of Wei was done by a treasonous group which included his own son Shi Hou. Believing he could not show him special treatment he had him executed.
Xīn huā nù fàng
The flower of the heart in full bloom
Full flowering of joy.
[作法自斃]
Zuò fǎ zì bì
Making laws that harm yourself
To fall foul of rules of your own making.
wedding, marriage
Traditional Chinese wedding. 20th March 2009. Image available under a Creative Commons license .
[同床異夢]
Tóng chuáng yì mèng
Dream different dreams on the same bed
Not everyone thinks the same.
Roughly equivalent to: It takes all sorts to make a world.
[傾城傾國]
Qīng chéng qīng guó
Triumph over city and country
Overwhelm the entire area. Usually applied to a woman of outstanding beauty.
Roughly equivalent to: The face that launched a thousand ships.
[遲開的花未必不香]
Chí kāi de huā wèi bì bú xiāng
A late-blooming flower is not necessarily lacking in fragrance
It's never too late to try something new.
[談虎色變]
Tán hǔ sè biàn
Turning pale at the mere mention of a tiger
To be so timid that even mentioning danger causes fear.
Roughly equivalent to: Afraid of your own shadow.
[子不教父之過]
Zǐ bù jiào fù zhī guò
A father is responsible for his son's conduct
Parents are responsible for their children's education.
Sān lìng shēn
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.
Roughly equivalent to: Cracking the whip.
, [水能載舟亦能覆舟]
Shuǐ néng zài zhōu, yì néng fù zhōu
Not only does water float a boat, it can sink it too
Events and people can have both positive and negative influences.
井观 [坐井觀天]
Zuò jǐng guān tiān
To sit at the bottom of a well and view the sky
A blinkered or limited view of the world.
[錦上添花]
Jǐn shàng tiān huā
Add another flower to a tapestry
Taking too much trouble with detail to try to achieve perfection. Fiddling when already complete.
Roughly equivalent to: Gilding the lily.
穿鞋, [穿新鞋走老路]
Chuān xīn xié, zǒu lǎo lù
Wear new shoes but follow old paths
Stick to the old ways while appearing to follow the latest trends.
[請君入甕]
Qǐng jūn rù wèng
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.
Roughly equivalent to: To give someone a taste of their own medicine.
殿 [無事不登三寳殿]
Wú shì bū dēng sān bǎo diàn
No-one comes to pray at the Temple of Three Treasures unless in trouble
Often it is obvious when somebody is after something.
狐悲
Tù sǐ hú bēi
A fox mourns the death of a rabbit
Feigning concern to conceal true feeling.
Roughly equivalent to: To weep crocodile tears.
Laozi, philosopher
Statue of Lao Tzu (Laozi) in Quanzhou, Fujian. Image by [email protected] available under a Creative Commons license .
掩瑜
Xiá bù yǎn yú
A speck on a jade stone can't obscure its brilliance
One small fault won't spoil the impression of an overall exceptional person.
[好馬不吃回頭草]
Hǎo mǎ bù chī huí tóu cǎo
A good horse will not eat the grass behind it
Pride may forbid a person going back to his home town after failure. Do not dwell on past actions, progress forward.
, [蘿卜白菜各有所愛]
Luó bo bái cài, gè yǒu suǒ ài
Some prefer radish while others like cabbage
Everyone has their own preferences.
Roughly equivalent to: Each to his own.
[半斤八兩]
Bàn jīn liǎng
Two equivalent measures
Nothing to choose between two alternatives.
Roughly equivalent to: Six of one, and half a dozen of the other.
Shí yán ér féi
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.
Roughly equivalent to: Shoot your mouth off.
陶醉
Zì wǒ táo zuì
Drunk with oneself. Narcissistic
Conceited and arrogant.
忍辱负 [忍辱負重]
Rěn rǔ fù zhòng
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.
Roughly equivalent to: Taking the flak.
[再作馮婦]
Zài zuò féng fù
Becoming Feng Fu again
Returning to old ways and habits. Feng Fu was a renowned tiger hunter from the state of Jin in the Zhou dynasty. After a successful career he vowed never to hurt another living thing. However when he chanced upon a local hunt for a vicious tiger he could not resist temptation to go back to old ways and killed the tiger single handed.
Roughly equivalent to: A leopard cannot change its spots.
Fǔ kuài bú pà mù chái yìng
A sharp axe does not fear hard wood
A talented person is not afraid of a difficult task.
[走馬看花]
Zǒu mǎ kàn huā
Looking at the flowers while riding a horse
To take a cursory look at something. Smug.
否认 [矢口否認]
Shǐ kǒu fǒu rèn
To shoot arrows from the mouth
To flatly deny the truth.
脸, [人要臉樹要皮]
Rén yaò liǎn, shù yaò pí
Keeping a good reputation is as essential as bark is to a tree
Reputation ('face') must be maintained at all costs.
养晦 [韜光養晦]
Tāo guāng yǎng huì
Conceal your strength
Bide your time before showing your strength.
Roughly equivalent to: Hiding your light under a bushel.
Sichuan, food
Roadside snacks at Chengdu, Sichuan
[大發雷霆]
léi tíng
Develop large thunderstorm
Fly into a furious rage.
Roughly equivalent to: To spit nails.
[一鳴驚人]
míng jīng rén
One chirp surprises everyone
To rise to stardom overnight. Discovering an unknown talent. The story is of an Emperor who kept a bird that did not fly or sing and people wondered why he kept it. One day the Emperor rose to meritorious action surprising everyone.
[听其言觀其行]
Tīng qí yán guān qí xíng
Listen to what a person says and then watch what is done
Judge people by their actions, not by their words.
Roughly equivalent to: Actions speak louder than words.
[葉公好龍]
Yè gōng hào lóng
Duke Ye's love of dragons
Pretending to be fond of something which is actually greatly feared. The story is of Duke Ye who decorated whole his house and clothes with dragon motifs. However when a real dragon flew over and landed near his house he trembled in fear. Said of someone hiding their true feelings.
Roughly equivalent to: Putting on a brave face.
[恩將仇報]
Ēn jiāng chóu baò
Repay kindness with hostility
Reject kindness.
Roughly equivalent to: Biting the hand that feeds it.
[羊質虎皮]
Yáng zhì hǔ pí
A goat in a tiger's skin
Someone not living up to outward appearance. Looking fierce but actually timid.
Roughly equivalent to: All that glisters is not gold.
弹冠 [彈冠相慶]
Tán guān xiāng qìng
Knocking the dust off your hat and congratulating each other
Presumptively celebrate promotion/appointment to a job ahead of time. Arrogantly assume a job is already in the bag. The story is of two officials Wang Ji and Gong Yu of the Han dynasty, Both were dismissed but on Emperor Yuan's enthronement Wang Ji was re-appointed, on hearing the news Gong Yu flicked the dust off his official hat assuming he would follow his friend into office.
, [凡人不可貌相海水不可斗量]
Fán rén bù kě mào xiàng, hǎi shuǐ bù kě dòu liàng
Neither a person can be judged by his looks nor can the sea be fathomed
Judging by appearance is dangerous.
Roughly equivalent to: Don't judge a book by its cover.
Rú zǐ kě jiào
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.
Jiǔ niú èr hǔ zhī lì
The strength of nine bulls and two tigers
Tremendously strong.
磨杵[磨杵成針]
Mó chǔ chéng zhēn
Grinding an iron pestle down to a needle
Patiently setting about a great, lengthy task step by step. Anything can be achieved with a firm resolve,
Roughly equivalent to: Little strokes fell great oaks.
,败絮 [金玉其外,敗絮其中]
Jīn yù qí wài ? bài xù qí zhōng
Precious on the outside but shabby on the inside
Don't be fooled by outward appearances.
Roughly equivalent to: Beauty is only skin deep.
, 嫁 [嫁雞隨雞嫁狗隨狗]
Jià jī suí jī, jià gǒu suí gǒu
Marry a chicken and live with its ways, marry a dog and live with its ways
Changing approach and actions according to who you are with.
Roughly equivalent to: When in Rome do as the Romans do.
qilin, carving
Qilin also known as Kylin or Kirin, is a mythical Chinese creature that brings serenity and prosperity
落叶[落叶歸根]
Luò yè guī gèn
Fallen leaves return to the root
Returning to place of birth.
Roughly equivalent to: There's no place like home.
怀 [坐懷不亂]
Zuò huái bù luàn
Not to be tempted even when a beautiful woman sits on one's lap
To describe a man who refuses to be tempted by lustful thoughts.
Rén xīn bù zú shé tūn xiàng
A person's greed is like a snake that seeks to swallow an elephant
Greed is insatiable.
[河東獅吼]
Hé dōng shī hǒu
The lioness from Hedong roars
A husband under the control of a domineering wife. The story is of Chen Zao of the Song dynasty who often had guests around in the evening. If his wife got to hear that there were other women with him she would knock on the wall and roar. A hen-pecked man.
Roughly equivalent to: She who must be obeyed.
, [近朱者赤近墨者黑]
Jìn zhū zhě chì, jìn mò zhě hēi
He who stays near vermilion is stained red; he who stays near ink is stained black
Taking on the color of the company kept. Adapt to surroundings.
Roughly equivalent to: A person is known by the company he keeps.
[開門見山]
Kāi mén jiàn shān
As soon as the door is opened see the mountain
To come straight to the point. Avoid procrastination.
Roughly equivalent to: Brevity is the soul of wit.
骥伏枥, [老驥伏櫪志在千里]
Lǎo jì fú lì, zhì zài qiān lǐ
The old horse in the stable still yearns to gallop 1,000 miles
Ambitions never fade. An old person still has high hopes.
Roughly equivalent to: Old soldiers never die, they just fade away.
[吃軟不吃硬]
Chī ruǎn bù chī yìng
Only able to chew tender food, not the tough
Unable to withstand harsh criticism.
负荆[負荊請罪]
Fù jīng qǐng zuì
To carry a cane and ask to be punished
Admit a fault and offer an apology. The story is from the Zhou dynasty when Lin Xiangru of the Zhao kingdom had an adversity in Lian Po. Lian Po used every opportunity to dis his boss Lin Xiangru. Lian Po was then shown that solidarity was key to the state's survival and offered a humble apology. Lian Po carried brambles on his back for some distance to show his contrition.
Roughly equivalent to: Swallowing your pride.
[龍爭虎斗]
Lóng zhēng hǔ dòu
Bitter fight between a dragon and tiger. An evenly matched big fight
Struggle between two equal leaders.
徙宅
Xǐ zhái wàng qī
Move house but overlook wife
Foolish and forgetful. Move to a new house and take everything - except your partner.
Roughly equivalent to: Soft in the head.
[海納百川]
Hǎi nà bǎi chuān
All rivers run to the sea
We all shared a common destiny.
鹏程
Péng chéng wàn
Peng Niao flies ten thousand miles
Emergence of great talent. The Peng Niao is a mythical bird of huge size and power that could fly huge distance with little effort. Said of someone of immense potential.
Ming dynasty, porcelain, plate
Photo by Anonymous, Chinese plate, Ming dynasty, Yongle period 1403-1424, porcelain with under-glaze blue, 23 inches [58 cms] diameter, Honolulu Academy of Arts. Available under a Creative Commons license .
[安步當車]
Ān bù dàng chē
Choosing to walk rather than take the limousine
Turn down luxury and high office for a simpler life. The story is of a scholar from the Warring States period who was offered great wealth and his own carriage to serve the King of Qi.
[走官發財]
Zǒu guān fā cái
Become a government official to get rich
Attain riches by working a government career.
乳臭
Rǔ chòu wèi gān
Still suckling and in nappies. Still an infant. Young and inexperienced
Infantile and immature.
[鶴立雞群]
Hè lì jī qún
A crane standing amidst a flock of chickens
Being conspicuously different (often superior)
Roughly equivalent to: Standing head and shoulders above the opposition.
Yǔ maó wèi fēng
Not yet grown adult plumage. A fledgling bird - young and inexperienced
Still too young and immature.
沐猴
Mù hóu ér guàn
A hat-wearing macaque
A worthless person hiding behind imposing looks. Trying to impress too hard.
Roughly equivalent to: All that glitters is not gold.
[發憤忘食]
Fā fèn wàng shí
Working so hard as to forget to eat
Concentrating on work so much that appetite is forgotten. Implication that work is interesting rather than drudgery.
Zì gāo zì
Think oneself tall and great
Full of conceit and ego.
[華而不實]
Huá ér bù shí
Flowering but not bearing fruit
Said of someone is all show and no substance.
Roughly equivalent to: All that glitters is not gold.
引锥刺股 [引錐刺股]
Yǐn zhuī cì gǔ
Pricking your thigh with an awl
Study hard with great determination. An awl is a sharp pointed tool for making holes in wood. The story is from the Three Character classic which tells how Su Qin of the Han dynasty pricked himself in the thigh to keep himself awake and alert for study. Used as a parent or teacher's encouragement for children to study diligently.
Roughly equivalent to: Hit the books.
[毛遂自薦]
Máo Suì zì jiàn
Mao Sui recommends himself
Volunteering your services for a difficult task. The story is of a servant named Mao Sui to negotiate with the king of Chu over a Qin attack on the kingdom of Zhao (Warring States era). Not enough people volunteered to go on the mission so Mao Sui volunteered against the wishes of his lord. When reluctantly allowed to go Mao Sui proved an able negotiator.
Rén gè yǒu néng yǒu bù néng
Every person has things that he can do and those that he cannot do
Everyone has their own particular set of skills.
Roughly equivalent to: It takes all sorts to make a world.
[杞人憂天]
rén yōu tiān
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.
Roughly equivalent to: Afraid of your own shadow.
stars, buddhism, constellations
Celestial Buddhas and Deities of the Northern, Western, and Central Dipper Constellations. c.1500CE. Image by LACMA available under a Creative Commons License
[一身是膽]
shēn shì dǎn
Full of courage
Fearless, intrepid. A heroic disposition.
Roughly equivalent to: As bold as brass.
Láng xīn gǒu fèi
Wolves are aggressive, dog bark. Ungrateful; cruel and unscrupulous
Ungrateful and unscrupulous.
Guǐ yóu xīn shēng
Ghosts are figments of the mind
Being scared of the paranormal; irrational fear of dark and shadows.
Roughly equivalent to: Frightened of your own shadow.
[百發百中]
One hundred arrows, one hundred bullseyes
A superb marksman; showing great skill. Yang Youji and Houyi were archers of great renown.
Roughly equivalent to: A dab hand.
Bēi gōng shé yǐng
Seeing a bow's reflection in a cup as a snake
Suspicious and frightened; plagued by fearful imagination. The story is of a man who was terrified by the sight of what he thought was a snake swimming in the cup of tea he was drinking. The experience made him ill and only when it was demonstrated that it was just the reflection of a bow left hanging on the wall did he recover.
Roughly equivalent to: Afraid of your own shadow.
破浪 [乘風破浪]
Chéng fēng pò làng
Ride the winds and break the waves
To have high ambitions. The story is Zong Que who lived in southern China around 450CE. On his wedding day at the age of 14 (as was the tradition then) a group of bandits attacked the village. Zong Que fought them off almost single-handed. He was asked what was his future ambition and he replied that he wanted to 'ride the wind and break the waves'. He went on to be a leading general who helped maintain the peace in the region.
Roughly equivalent to: Man with a plan.
[虎父無犬子]
Hǔ fù wú quǎn zǐ
A tiger does not father a dog
A son is similar to his father.
Roughly equivalent to: Like father, like son.
qiū zhī hé
Raccoons of the same mound
People of the same bad character. Referring to people of similar ill repute who tend to behave the same way.
Roughly equivalent to: Birds of a feather flock together.
[罄竹難書]
Qìng zhú nán shū
So many crimes that there is not enough bamboo to record them all
So evil that there is not enough paper to record all the misdemeanors. Records used to be made on bamboo strips before paper was invented.
Yè láng zì
Ye Lang thinks highly of himself
Pompous and conceited. The story is of the king of Ye Lang a tiny country in south-western China who in Han dynasty times considered himself the equal of the Emperor of China.
Roughly equivalent to: As proud as a peacock.
Sòng Xiāng zhī rén
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.
[空洞無物]
Kōng dòng wú wù
Vacuous
Empty and devoid of worthwhile content. Usually applied to poor writing that is devoid of meaning.
Roughly equivalent to: Empty words.
灰复燃 [死灰復燃]
Sǐ huī fù rán
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.
daoism, temple, Xiamen, Fujian
A modern Daoist temple built in traditional style Xiamen (Amoy), Fujian
[非驢非馬]
Fēi lú: fēi mǎ
Neither a donkey nor a horse
A person or place that is neither one thing nor another. Indeterminate or strange combination.
Roughly equivalent to: Neither fish nor fowl.
[髀肉復生]
Bì ròu fù shēng
The thigh muscles have recovered
To get fit and become reinvigorated. The story is from the end of the Han dynasty after the battle of Guandu Zhi Zhan when Cao Cao beat Liu Bei. Liu Bei then fled to Henan and took things easy. One day he noticed that he had become flabby particularly in his thighs so he realized he had to get fit again. He did so and eventually beat Cao Cao in battle.
Roughly equivalent to: Get fighting fit.
[弱不禁風]
Ruò bù jīn fēng
Too weak to stand a gust of wind
Fragile, unable to withstand further setbacks.
越俎
Yuè zǔ dài páo
Laying down the sacrificial vessels and take over the kitchen
To move beyond current work and meddle in other's duties. To take things into your own hands. A back seat driver.
Roughly equivalent to: Poke your nose in someone else's business.
[風馬牛不相及]
Fēng mǎ niú bù xiāng jí
Horses and cows keep themselves separate
People moving in different circles, different agendas. Having nothing in common.
Roughly equivalent to: Apples and oranges.
, [人無完人金無足赤]
Rén wú wán rén, jīn wú zú chì
It is as impossible to find a perfect person as it is to discover pure gold
Having to settle for something less than perfection.
Zhāo sān mù
Say three in the morning, four in the evening
Indecisive saying one thing and then changing mind later and saying another. The story is of a monkey trainer who reduced their chestnut rations from 3 in the morning and 4 in the evenings. The monkeys were most unhappy but when the trainer changed it to 4 in the morning and 3 in the evenings they were delighted. And so the phrase can also mean being foolishly deceived.
Roughly equivalent to: Hemming and hahing.
[別別具一格]
Bié jù yī
Possessing a unique style
Doing things your own way.
Guǒ zú bù qián
Dithering about
Unable to move forward due to misgivings. To hesitate about getting on and doing something.
Roughly equivalent to: All of a dither.
Cǎo mù jiē bīng
Every bush harbors an enemy
Being paranoid - believing everyone is out to get you. To be beleaguered.
[生吞活剝]
Shēng tūn huó bāo
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.
Roughly equivalent to: Monkey see: monkey do.
Zì zhī zhī míng
Knowing oneself
Knowing your own strengths and weaknesses is an essential first step in life. being able to judge yourself objectively as others see you is a path to harmony and true friendship.
Roughly equivalent to: Know thyself.
[天下無雙]
Tiān xià wú shuāng
Unequalled under heaven
Something or someone with superlative skills.
Dunhuang, Gansu, music
Musicians in paradise, Yulin cave 25, Dunhuang, Tang Dynasty
Image available under a Creative Commons license
[洛陽紙貴]
Luò yáng zhǐ guì
To make paper expensive in Luoyang
The story is of a book that initially failed to find any interest, when he came to the then capital of Luoyang several respected scholars found it exceptional. The book then became so popular that printers exhausted the supply of paper to print copies of it. It therefore is used to describe a book that is destined to be a sensation.
Roughly equivalent to: Become all the rage.
螳臂 [螳臂當車]
Táng bì dāng chē
Mantis obstructing a chariot
Overrate abilities and attempt the impossible. A mantis is a fearsome insect that does not back down even if faced with a much larger predator. So it means someone full of pride making an idle threat.
麻雀,脏俱 [麻雀雖小五臟俱全]
Má què suī xiǎo, zàng jù quán
Small as it is, the sparrow has all the vital organs
A person is a person regardless of size. Complete in every detail.
顾茅庐 [三顧茅廬]
Sān gù máo lú
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.
[一夜十徃]
shí wǎng
Ten visits in one night
Showing great care and concern. The story comes from the Han dynasty when an official checked the state of a sick relative ten times during the night.
[老氣橫秋]
Lǎo qì héng qiū
Old and decrepi but experienced
No longer youthful.
[不恥下問]
Bù chǐ xià wèn
There is no shame in asking help from those less fortunate or senior than yourself.
Roughly equivalent to: A cat may look at a king.
Guā xiāng kàn
Rubbing one's eyes when seeing someone
Noticing that someone has changed for the better. Show respect for improvement and progress. Changing a view of someone's abilities.
Roughly equivalent to: Seeing someone in a new light.
[見怪不怪]
Jiàn guài bù guài
Calm at the sight of the unknown
Face the unexpected and disturbing with calmness and fortitude.
Roughly equivalent to: Keep a cool head.
rén shí xīn
Body of wood, heart of stone
A heartless person or also someone who is unwaveringly determined to carry out a task and will not be distracted.
Roughly equivalent to: Heart of stone.
折腰 [不爲五斗米折腰]
Bù wèi dǒu mǐ zhé yāo
Refuse to bow for the sake of five measures of rice
Refusing inducements to betray a principles. Incorruptible. The story is of a man who refused to work for a corrupt and arrogant official even though he lost out on a generous salary.
Wàng zì zūn
Having an inflated opinion of oneself
Full of inflated pride. There are many examples throughout history of people thinking rather too highly of themselves.
Roughly equivalent to: Pride comes before a fall.
[習慣成自然]
Xí guàn chéng zì rán
Become habitual, normal
Habit becomes engrained.
wuzhi coin, money, coin
A wide selection of different types of Chinese coins. Image provided by David Hartill
[爾虞我詐]
Ěr yú wǒ zhà
Cheating and deceiving each other
Mutual distrust and deception. A relationship without any trust.
Roughly equivalent to: Dog eat dog.
[從容不迫]
Cóng róng bù pò
Calm and unhurried
Taking life calmly and in your stride. Untroubled.
Roughly equivalent to: Without a care in the world.
[眾口難調]
Zhòng kǒu nán tiáo
Difficult to make a meal to suit everyone
You can't please everyone all the time. Everyone has different tastes.
Roughly equivalent to: One man's meat is another man's poison.
助桀[助桀爲虐]
Zhù jié wéi nu:è
Aiding King Jie in his cruelty
An admonishment not to turn to the dark side. King Jie was the last ruler of the Xia dynasty and a byword for cruelty and depravity.
Roughly equivalent to: Supping with the Devil.
[同病相憐]
Tóng bìng xiāng lián
People with similar illness empathize with each other
People suffering the same misfortune sympathize with each other.
Roughly equivalent to: Birds of a feather flock together.
挑肥拣瘦 [挑肥揀瘦]
Tiāo féi jiǎn shòu
To separate out the fat and pick only the lean meat
A very picky person. Over zealous attention to detail.
Zì kuì fú rú
Ashamed at own inferiority
Ashamed of oneself.
Zhì sǐ bù wù
Failing to understand even to death
Stubbornly holding to views. Obstinate and set in ways.
Roughly equivalent to: As stubborn as a mule.
[外強中乾]
Wài qiáng zhōng gān
Outwardly strong but inwardly weak
Looking strong and powerful but actually weak. Flattering appearance that does not represent true worth.
Roughly equivalent to: Don't judge a book by its cover.
Gē ròu zì dàn
Eating one's own flesh
A foolish, self defeating stratagem.
Roughly equivalent to: Cutting off your nose to spite your face.
鸿鹄 [鴻鵠之志]
Hóng hú zhī zhì
The aspirations of a great swan
Having unrealistic ambitions.
Roughly equivalent to: Wish for the moon.
[一窮二白]
qióng èr bái
Both poor and stupid
A disparaging term for backwardness.
shí hán
One day in the sun and then ten days of freezing
The story is that second sage of Confucianism, Mencius (Menzi) said this of the king of Qi. He considered him a person who only showed enthusiasm for Mencius' ideas for a short time while he was around to encourage him to ruling well. So it has come to describe the many people who have short bursts of enthusiasm - no staying power.
Roughly equivalent to: Blowing hot and cold.
Beijing, Forbidden City, tile, lotus
Ceramic Tile design with lotus and ducks, Forbidden City, Beijing
Wèi néng miǎn sú
Bound up by conventions
Unable to do what you want because social conventions forbid it. Doing something just because it is expected.
Roughly equivalent to: Creature of habit.
[老當益壯]
Lǎo dāng yì zhuàng
Old but still vigorous
Remaining vigorous, skillful and healthy in old age.
[驚弓之鳥]
Jīng gōng zhī niǎo
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.
类聚 [物以類聚]
Wù yǐ lèi jù
Like attracts like
People tends to form groups with like-minded individuals.
Roughly equivalent to: Birds of a feather flock together.
[莫測高深]
Mò cè gāo shēn
Too high or deep to measure
Enigmatic, unfathomable. Too profound to be readily understood.
Roughly equivalent to: Still waters run deep.
[能者多勞]
Néng zhě duō láo
The talented are kept busy
Busy people are busy because they are capable.
Roughly equivalent to: If you want something done ask a busy man.
Jiǔ ròu péng yǒu
Friends only for the food and drink
Cupboard love.
Roughly equivalent to: Fair weather friends.
病复 [舊病復發]
Jiù bìng fù fā
An old ailment returns
It is difficult to shake off a deeply rooted habit.
Roughly equivalent to: The leopard does not change his spots.
[鄭人買履]
Zhèng rén mǎi lǔ:
The man from Zheng buys shoes
Stubbornly sticking to a silly plan; inflexible and stupid. The story is of a man from Zheng who measured his own feet in readiness to buying new shoes. When he reached the shop in a distant town he found he had forgotten the paper on which the measurement was recorded. So he walked all the way home to fetch it rather than just try on shoes in the shop.
Roughly equivalent to: Stupid is as stupid does.
[返老還童]
Fǎn lǎo huán tóng
Return to youthful vigour
Returning to youthful energy. Turning back the years. Often used as a compliment to someone sprightly in old age.
Roughly equivalent to: New lease of life.
Xiōng yǒu chéng zhú
Keeping the appearance of bamboo in mind
To be able to paint bamboo (or anything else), you have to have a mental image of how it looks. An admonishment to plan ahead carefully and acquire the skill to carry it out.
Roughly equivalent to: Forewarned is forearmed.
[和顏悅色]
Hé yán yuè sè
Having a happy face looking contented
Amiable appearance.
骨悚然
Máo gǔ sǒng rán
Hair standing on end
Petrified with fright.
Tang dynasty, roof, Beijing, architecture
Traditional Tang Dynasty style roof figures at the Forbidden City, Beijing. Figures include a man riding a hen.
恩负 [忘恩負義]
Wàng ēn fù yì
Forget a previous favor
Ungratefully forget to acknowledge a favor.
[呆若木雞]
Dāi ruò mù jī
As dumb as a wooden chicken
Dumbstruck, unable to move or say anything out of fear.
Roughly equivalent to: Caught like a rabbit in the headlights.
西 [東奔西走]
Dōng bēn xī zǒu
Busy everywhere
Be busy; bustling about.
[齊人擢金]
rén zhuó jīn
The gold grabber from Qi
Blinded by lust for gain. Greed. Avarice. Blinded by ambition. The story if of a man from the kingdom of Qi who seeing gold just grabbed it and ran off, oblivious of the consequences.
Roughly equivalent to: Blind ambition.
招愮 [招愮過市]
Zhāo yáo guò shì
Parading through the busy streets
Boastful behavior; to be puffed up with pride . Walking the streets seeking the adulation of the crowds.
Roughly equivalent to: Pride comes before a fall.
cái xiǎo yòng
Big ability barely used
Wasting talent on trivial things. Using someone talented for a menial task.
Roughly equivalent to: All dressed up and nowhere to go.
[行屍走肉]
Xíng shī zǒu ròu
A walking zombie
An unworthy person. Someone bereft of value - just a walking body with no active mind.
Hǎo rén hǎo shì
Good personality good deeds
Pleasant person who behaves well.
Roughly equivalent to: A good man is hard to find.
Tuī xīn zhì fù
Having full confidence
Put give someone your full support - body and soul. To trust someone implicitly.
[門可羅雀]
Mén kě luó què
The gate can catch birds
There are so few visitors that the door could be used to catch birds. Having very few visitors.
[欺世盜名]
Qī shì dào míng
Deceiving the public to gain fame
A con artist. Someone who sets out to become famous by lies and deception.
Roughly equivalent to: Every trick in the book.
[言過其實]
Yán guò qí shí
To embellish the facts
Overstate the facts or exaggerate skills. Someone who is a bit of a windbag.
[味如雞肋]
Wèi rú jī lèi
As tasteless as chicken ribs
A humdrum, boring activity and by extension a person lacking character. Insipid, bland.
TCM
Dadaocheng store, Taipei, Taiwan, now 100 years old, has a fine selection of Chinese medicines. Image by available under a Creative Commons license .
Shí quán shí měi
Completely whole and beautiful
Perfection; faultless.
[亦步亦趨]
Yì bù yì qū
To follow in someone's footsteps
To imitate slavishly. The story is of a devoted pupil of Confucius, Yan Hui, who aped everything Confucius did including his walk. Pointless copying.
Roughly equivalent to: A copycat.
Hǎo hǎo xiān shēng
Yes-man
Someone who agrees with everything said. More likely to be so as to not give any offense rather than ingratiating.
望洋[望洋興嘆]
Wàng yáng xīng tàn
Consider one's competence before the ocean
To feel inadequate to perform a great task. Feel misgivings before a big endeavor. The story is of the river god of the Huanghe caused a great flood that made the river a mile wide but when it met the sea it was overcome with relative inadequacy.
鼻息
Yǎng rén bí xī
Depend on someone, even for breathe
To be totally dependent on others, as if unable to breathe without their help. Showing great weakness.
Roughly equivalent to: Wet fish.
Rú huǒ rú tú
Raging like a fire
Daunting and vigorous. An intimidating prospect.
Roughly equivalent to: Vim and vigour.
Zhì zài fāng
Having high ambition
Willing to travel far and wide to achieve aims. Aspiring to achieve great things in life.
Roughly equivalent to: Driving ambition.
[趾高氣揚]
Zhǐ gāo qì yáng
Putting on airs and graces
An arrogant person who may well face a comeuppance due to complacency and self-conceit.
Roughly equivalent to: Pride comes before a fall.
柱鼓瑟 [膠柱鼓瑟]
Jiāo zhù gǔ sè
Gluing the tuning pegs of a zither
Inflexible and stubborn. Gluing the tuning pegs of a musical instrument so it can not be tuned and brought into harmony.
Roughly equivalent to: As stubborn as a mule.
The old man under the moon
The deity of matchmakers for marriage . said of someone who is trying to get a couple together. The tradition was that husband and wife had an invisible red thread tying them together from birth.
[專心致志]
Zhuān xīn zhì zhì
Study hard to achieve ambitions
An admonishment to encourage full concentration in order to study effectively and so achieve ambitions.
[勢如破竹]
Shì rú pò zhú
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.
Roughly equivalent to: Don't stop while you are winning.
, [千軍易得一將難求]
Qiān jūn yì dé, yī jiang nán qiú
It is easy to find a thousand soldiers, but hard to find a good general
It is hard to find an outstanding leader.
compass, invention
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
[各自為政]
Gè zì wéi zhèng
Each following his own policy
Acting selfishly. Following own plans and ideas with no regard for others.
[南柯一夢]
Nán kē mèng
A dream of Nanke
An absurdly ambitious plan divorced from reality. A dream of grandeur and splendor.
Roughly equivalent to: A pipe dream.
[為富不仁]
Wéi fù bù rén
Have riches but not be generous
Be rich but heartless.
[膽大如斗]
Dǎn rú dǒu
A gall bladder as big as a football
Someone who is immensely bold and courageous. In traditional medicine the gall bladder was considered the controller of aggression and courage, so someone with a huge gall bladder was expected to be very courageous.
Roughly equivalent to: As bold as brass.
Wǒ xíng wǒ sù
To continue in habitual ways
Stuck following old ways.
[異曲同工]
Yì qǔ tóng gōng
Different tunes played with the same skill
Different methods giving the same result. Different but equally satisfactory.
Tuī jǐ jí rén
Imagine being in someone's position
To understand a situation from someone else's perspective.
Roughly equivalent to: Get the bigger picture.
眨眼 [殺人不眨眼]
Shā rén bù zhǎ yǎn
Killing without blinking an eye
Ruthless; cold-blooded.
[後起之秀]
Hòu qǐ zhī xiù
Promising young talent
Said of someone showing talent at an early age.
Roughly equivalent to: He/she will go far.
Míng chá qiū háo
Able to see an animal's autumn fur
A perceptive and sharp-sighted person who is able to grasp all the detail. In autumn some animals grow new, fine fur to keep themselves warm in winter.
Roughly equivalent to: On the ball.
模棱 [模棱兩可]
Mó léng liǎng kě
To equivocate
Position is unclear or uncertain. Failing to make up your mind.
Roughly equivalent to: Sitting on the fence.
[大公無私]
gōng wú sī
Selflessness
Helping everyone else. Not motivated by self-interest.
[字里行間]
Zì lǐ háng jiān
Between the lines
Uncovering the hidden meaning or character.
Roughly equivalent to: Reading between the lines.
dragon, sculpture, pearl
Dragon statue
[得過且過]
Dé guò qiě guò
Getting by
Muddling through life without great ambitions. Contended to just live from day to day.
Roughly equivalent to: Enough is as good as a feast.
讳疾忌 [諱疾忌醫]
Huì jí jì yī
Hiding sickness for fear of treatment
Keeping mistakes and shortcomings to yourself. Refuse to listen to advice.
Roughly equivalent to: Sweep it under the carpet.
[英雄無用武之地]
Yīng xióng wú yòng wǔ zhī dì
A hero having no opportunity to display his talents
A situation where someone's undoubted talents can not be utilized.
[道聽途說]
Dào tīng tú shuō
Paying heed to gossip
Listening to roadside gossip or tittle-tattle.
[其貌不揚]
Qí mào bù yáng
Undistinguished in appearance
Unappealing appearance.
Roughly equivalent to: Plain Jane.
[所向無前]
Suǒ xiàng wú qián
No obstacle in any direction
To be able to conquer anyone on all fronts. Invincible against all opponents. An irresistible force.
[家喻戶曉]
Jiā yù hù xiǎo
Known in every household
A person or fact known to everybody. Something or somebody well known.
Roughly equivalent to: A household name.
[一鼓作氣]
gǔ zuò qì
Gathering courage from a single drum beat
A sudden burst of energy. Easily stimulated into action.
勾销 [一筆勾銷]
bǐ gōu xiāo
To dismiss with one stroke of the pen
Taking tough, decisive action to solve a problem. The story is of a statesman who sacked a whole host of incompetent officials working for him with one stroke of the brush.
[前倨後恭]
Qián jù hòu gōng
First scornful then respectful
Treating people in a two-faced manner according to people's perceived power and influence. A snobbish person who changes their manner according to who they are dealing with.
Roughly equivalent to: Two faced.
专横跋扈 [專橫跋扈]
Zhuān hèng bá hù
Imperious and domineering
Someone who likes bossing people around. Arrogant and tyrannical.
Roughly equivalent to: Bossy boots.
逐末 [捨本逐末]
Shě běn zhú mò
Pursuing trivia while neglecting essentials
Concentrating on the little details rather than the important stuff.
Roughly equivalent to: Putting the cart before the horse.
[難兄難弟]
Nàn xiōng nàn dì
Brothers of the same ilk
Two brothers showing similar personalities. Two people hard to tell apart.
Roughly equivalent to: One is just as bad as the other.
chess, people
Chinese Chess (Xiangqi) players
洋洋
Dé yì yáng yáng
Smug and self-satisfied
To be very pleased with oneself. Giving an air of sublime complacency.
Roughly equivalent to: I'm all right Jack.
斧疑 [失斧疑鄰]
Shī fǔ yí lín
Lose an axe and suspect a neighbour
Groundless suspicions. Jumping to conclusions.
[言而無信]
Yán ér wú xìn
Speak but not mean it
To go back on one's word.
Wèi shǒu wèi wěi
Fearing both the head and the tail
Nervous and afraid. Fearful at both the start and end of some event.
Roughly equivalent to: Afraid of your own shadow.
糟糠
Zāo kāng zhī qī
A wife of chaff-eating days
A loyal wife. Chaff is only eaten when no other food is available and so it means someone who is prepared to share in depredations - sharing the bad times as well as the good.
Roughly equivalent to: Through thick and thin.
[膠漆相投]
Jiāo qī xiāng tóu
As close as glue and paint
A loyal and strong friendship.
管齐 [雙管齊下]
Shuāng guǎn qí xià
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.
Roughly equivalent to: A dab hand.
[傍人門戶]
Bàng rén mén
Hanging on another's door
Someone dependent on a household without making much contribution. A hanger-on.
Roughly equivalent to: A sponger.
China motif
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 some of the characters have been simplified the traditional form 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.

See also