Chinese idioms about approaching danger

Warnings about the need to prepare for impending danger, and how to cope when a threat is at hand.

[騎虎難下]
Qí hǔ nán xià [qi hu nan xia]
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
Dāo shān huǒ hǎi [dao shan huo hai]
knife mountain fire sea
A mountain of knives; a sea of fires
An extremely difficult and dangerous situation
芒刺
Máng cì zài bèi [mang ci zai bei]
tip thorn exist back
A thorn in one?s flesh
Someone or something is causing continuous irritation.
苟延残喘 [苟延殘喘]
Gǒu yán cán chuǎn [gou yan can chuan]
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
退避
Tuì bì sān shè [tui bi san she]
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.
蹈覆辙 [重蹈覆轍]
Chóng dǎo fù zhé [chong dao fu zhe]
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
Guā tián xià [gua tian li xia]
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
[請君入甕]
Qǐng jūn rù wèng [qing jun ru weng]
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
苛政猛 [苛政猛於虎]
Kē zhèng měng yú hǔ [ke zheng meng yu hu]
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.
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
急跳墙 [狗急跳墻]
Gǒu jí tiaò qiáng [gou ji tiao qiang]
dog anxious leap wall
A cornered dog will leap over a wall
Extreme circumstances require extreme measures
The end justifies the means
蚂蚁 [熱鍋上的螞蟻]
Rè guō shàng de mǎ yǐ [re guo shang de ma yi]
heat pot up of ants
As active as ants on a hot pan
In a state of feverish activity and excitement
因噎废 [因噎廢食]
Yīn yè fèi shí [yin ye fei shi]
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
赴汤蹈 [赴湯蹈火]
Fù tāng dǎo huǒ [fu tang dao huo]
wade hot water tread fire
Wade through scolding water and burning flame
Showing great courage and valour
计,[三十六計走為上策]
Sān shí liù jì, zǒu wéi shàng [san shi liu ji, zou wei shang ce]
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
卵击 [以卵擊石]
Yǐ luǎn tóu shí [yi luan tou shi]
use egg strike stone
Try to smash a stone with an egg
Overrating strength and being defeated. Defeat guaranteed.
Kicking a brick wall
[雞犬不宁]
Jī quǎn bù ning [ji quan bu ning]
chicken dog not stand
Even the chicken and dog are disturbed. General commotion
All in turmoil and excitement
Cǎo mù jiē bīng [cao mu jie bing]
vegetation all warlike
Every bush harbors an enemy
Being paranoid - believing everyone is out to get you. To be beleaguered
遗患 [養虎遺患]
Yǎng hǔ yí huàn [yang hu yi huan]
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
Lantern Festival, festival, Shanghai
China,Shanghai,Yu Garden,the Lantern Festival 2012 Image by North sea deamer available under a Creative Commons license
[初生之犢不怕虎]
Chū shēng zhī dú bù pà hǔ [chu sheng zhi du bu pa hu]
early bear this calf not fear tiger
A baby calf does not fear a tiger
Innocence about the dangers involved
寄腹剑 [口寄腹劍]
Kǒu jì fù jiàn [kou ji fu jian]
mouth trustworthy stomach sword
Honeyed mouth but harboring dagger
Machiavellian. Using kind words to conceal malice
Smile of the crocodile
狐谋 [與狐謀皮]
Yǔ hú móu pí [yu hu mou pi]
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
[東窗事發]
Dōng chuāng shì fā [dong chuang shi fa]
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
[強龍難壓地頭蛇]
Qiáng lóng nán yā dì tóu shé [qiang long nan ya di tou she]
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
釜底游 [釜底游魚]
Jǐn dǐ yóu [jin di you yu]
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
悬崖勒 [懸崖勒馬]
Xuán yá lè mǎ [xuan ya le ma]
precipice rein in horse
Rein in the horse at the cliff edge
Realize danger at the last moment
烂额 [焦頭爛頟]
Jiāo tóu làn é [jiao tou lan e]
beaten head burnt brow
Head bruised and brow burned
In terrible trouble
Beaten black and blue
Guǐ yóu xīn shēng [gui you xin sheng]
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
[呆若木雞]
Dāi ruò mù jī [dai ruo mu ji]
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
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
Chū shēng rù sǐ [chu sheng ru si]
be born enter death
To risk one's life
Offer unquestioning support
Through thick and thin
[眾怒難犯]
Zhòng nù nán fàn [zhong nu nan fan]
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
[不寒而慄]
Bù hán ér lì [bu han er li]
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
败涂 [一敗塗地]
bài tú dì [yi bai tu di]
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.
[虎口餘生]
kǒu yú shēng [hu kou yu sheng]
tiger den me save
Saved from the tiger?s den
A narrow escape from a dangerous situation.
,鲁 [慶父不死,魯難未已]
Qìng fù bù sǐ Lǔ nàn wèi yǐ [qing fu bu si Lu nan wei yi]
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
骨悚然
Máo gǔ sǒng rán [mao gu song ran]
hair bone fearful promise
Hair standing on end
Petrified with fright
躲,暗 [明槍易躲暗箭難防]
Míng qiāng yì duǒ, àn jiàn nán fáng [ming qiang yi duo, an jian nan fang]
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
kite, dragon
A Chinese long dragon kite. Image by available under a Creative Commons license
[言過其實]
Yán guò qí shí [yan guo qi shi]
words excessively that's true
To embellish the facts
Overstate the facts or exaggerate skills. Someone who is a bit of a windbag.
Chéng xià zhī méng [cheng xia zhi meng]
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.
[所向無前]
Suǒ xiàng wú qián [suo xiang wu qian]
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
Hòu gù zhī yōu [hou gu zhi you]
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.
[喪家之狗]
Sàng jiā zhī gǒu [sang jia zhi gou]
to flee home own dog
Fleeing from a wild dog
Fleeing in fear and panic due to unexpected visitor or situation
斧疑 [失斧疑鄰]
Shī fǔ yí lín [shi fu yi lin]
lose hatchet doubt neighbor
Lose an axe and suspect a neighbour
Groundless suspicions. Jumping to conclusions.
China motif
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.

Copyright © Chinasage 2012 to 2020