Chinese idioms about the pitfalls of cunning plans and duplicity

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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 (normally a chéng yǔ) 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.

For background on the types and history of proverbs please see our guide.

The advantages and disadvantages of using clever tactics to achieve your ends.

厌诈 [兵不厭詐]
Bīng bù yàn zhà
In conflict cheating is permitted
In warfare nothing is too dishonest.
Roughly equivalent to: All is fair in love and war.
[調虎离山]
Diào hǔ lí shān
Lure a tiger down from its mountain. This is one of the age old strategms of war.
Lure an enemy out of its home territory in order to attack it.
Fān yún fù
Conjuring clouds with one hand and rain with the other
Trying too hard to impress.
狐假
Hǔ jiǎ hǔ wēi
A trick of cunning to exaggerate self importance
A fox will pretend to have the power of a tiger. The story is that a fox followed a tiger in a parade. The animals panicked and the fox claimed that this was because they were frightened of the fox not the tiger. It goes back to the Warring States Period.
Jiǎo tù sān kū
A crafty rabbit has three burrows
To succeed you must must have alternative options, in particular several ways of escape from danger.
Roughly equivalent to: There's more than one way to skin a cat.
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.
否认 [矢口否認]
Shǐ kǒu fǒu rèn
To shoot arrows from the mouth
To flatly deny the truth.
偷梁换柱 [偷梁換柱]
Tōu liáng huàn zhù
Steal beams replaced with wooden poles
To carry out a crafty deception.
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.
Xiào lǐ cáng dāo
A dagger concealed in a smile
Malice concealed by apparent friendliness. There is a story of Li Yifu who was a great flatterer of the early Tang dynasty. He was always smiles but sought to blackmail and deceive. Eventually Emperor Gaozong discovered his duplicity and he was banished.
Roughly equivalent to: Don't judge a book by its cover.
贼喊捉贼 [賊喊捉賊]
Zéi hǎn zhuō zéi
A thief cries 'Stop thief!'
Diverting attention to cover misdoing.
Roughly equivalent to: Crying 'wolf'
[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.
因势[因勢利導]
Yīn shì lì dǎo
Helping things along
To encourage something along to its natural fulfillment.
bamboo, forest
Looking up in a bamboo forest
寄腹剑 [口寄腹劍]
Kǒu jì fù jiàn
Honeyed mouth but harboring dagger
Machiavellian. Using kind words to conceal malice.
Roughly equivalent to: Smile of the crocodile.
[雞鳴狗盜]
Jī míng gǒu dào
Able to crow like a cockerel and steal like a dog
A person with a range of useful tricks. The story is of someone back in the Warring States period who helped a prince out of difficulty by imitating a dog to distract prison guards and to crow like a cockerel to trick them into thinking it was already morning.
Roughly equivalent to: Every trick in the book.
[殺妻求將]
Shā qī qiú jiàng
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.
Roughly equivalent to: Sell your grandmother.
暗渡陈仓 [暗渡陳倉]
Àn dù chén cāng
Secretly cross at the Chencang Road
A feigned maneuver designed to outwit. After the fall of the Qin dynasty Liu Bei sent out troops to repair a plank road presumably to mount an attack, but he actually moved his troops across the Wei River at Chencang and so surprised his enemy.
Shàng xià qí shǒu
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.
[圖窮匕見]
Tú qióng bǐ xiàn
When the map is unrolled the dagger is revealed
A secret plan is revealed, a conspiracy unmasked. The story is of an assassination attempt on the King of Qin back in the Warring States Period. Pretending to cede territory Prince Dan concealed a dagger in a scrolled up map.
Roughly equivalent to: The secret is out.
西宿 [東食西宿]
Dōng shí xī sù
Eating in the east and sleeping in the west
Taking fully advantage of kindly offers - accepting hospitality in a selfish way. The story is of a girl who was asked to choose whether to live with a family in the east or west side of a village. She chose to eat with the rich family of one suitor on the east side but also sleep with the poor but good looking suitor on the west side.
Roughly equivalent to: Butter one's bread on both sides.
[近水樓台先得月]
Jìn shuǐ lóu tái xiān dé yuè
A waterfront pavilion sees the moonlight first
An allusion to the wisdom of having friends in high circles that often results in benefits.
Roughly equivalent to: Climbing the greasy poll.
汤池 [金城湯池]
Jīn chéng tāng chí
A city of metal with a moat of boiling water
An impregnable city with highly effective defenses. Someone/something not worth trying to attack.
[噁人先告狀]
È rén xiān gàozhuàng
The offender is the first to complain
The perpetrator diverts attention by being the first to complain.
Roughly equivalent to: To cry 'wolf'
[明知故問]
Míng zhī gù wèn
Already knowing the answer
To ask a question when already knowing the answer.
Qī yǐ qí lì
Knowing the approptiate way to cheat
To skilfully deceive. Invent a lie that fools the audience. Playing a clever trick.
Roughly equivalent to: Having an ace up the sleeve.
[掛羊頭賣狗肉]
Guà yáng tóu mài gǒu ròu
Hanging up a sheep's head but selling dog meat
Deceiving people into believing you are selling something much less valuable than it appears to be. A con trick. Dishonest advertising.
Roughly equivalent to: Buying a pig in a poke.
bird, painting, vector
Bird painting
[貪天之功]
Tān tiān zhī gōng
Appropriate the achievements of others
Cheating others of their just reward. The story is of an official who was swindled out of his just reward for good service. Eventually the ruler worked out what had happened and he was given an even greater reward.
Roughly equivalent to: Rough justice.
[一舉兩得]
jǔ liǎng dé
Achieving two goals at once
A lucky stroke. There is a story of a two hunters. They saw two tigers feasting on a dead ox. One of them was keen to attack both of them but his friend advised against it. He thought that the tigers were bound to fight each other and whichever won would be weakened and much easier to attack. Following this advice two tigers were killed with one attack.
Roughly equivalent to: Killing two birds with one stone.
鹬蚌争, [鷸蚌相爭,漁翁得利]
Yù bàng xiāng zhēng yú wēng dé lì
The sandpiper and clam fight each other
The sandpiper (or snipe) is too busy fighting a clam to notice the wily fishermen who snares them both. Taking advantage of situation when other people are too distracted with their own business.
Roughly equivalent to: As cunning as a fox.
, [將欲取之,必先與之]
Jiāng yù qǔ zhī bì xiān yǔ zhī
Give up in order to take back
A strategy to maintain possession. By giving up something in the hope that it will be rewarded. The story is of a dispute with a greedy neighboring kingdom. Rather than oppose a kingdom volunteered to give up land. When the greed y neighbor continued to take advantage all the neighbors united against it and all the lands were returned.
[顧左右而言他]
Gù zuǒ yòu ér yán tā
Looking both ways and changing the subject
Avoiding talking about something; taking a long digression.
奸巨猾
Lǎo jiān jù huá
To be very crafty and cunning
To be tricky, cunning, crafty. Well versed in the ways of the world.
Roughly equivalent to: All's fair in love and war.
锦囊妙计 [錦囊妙計]
Jǐn náng miào jì
Excellent plans hidden in a brocade bag
To have wise plans in reserve. The story is that the brilliant strategist Zhuge Liang sent plans for a military campaign concealed in a brocade bag.
罪,[欲加之罪,何患無辭]
Yù jiā zhī zuì hé huàn wú cí
There is always a crime that somebody can be accused of
No-one is spotless and so everyone can be rightly accused of a crime. Nobody's perfect.
围魏救赵 [圍魏救趙]
Wéi wèi jiù zhào
Besiege Wei to rescue Zhao
To aid a friend by attacking a mutual enemy. During the Warring States period the 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.
制勋 [出奇制勛]
Chū qí zhì xūn
Using an ingenious, unexpected ploy
Using a surprise or ingenious scheme to achieve success.
Roughly equivalent to: As cunning as a fox.
[先下手為強]
Xiān xià shǒu wéi qiáng
Striking first to demonstrate strength
To gain the upper hand by striking first.
Roughly equivalent to: Strike while the iron is hot.

See also