Chinese idioms about approaching danger

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

Dāo shān huǒ hǎi
A mountain of knives; a sea of fires
An extremely difficult and dangerous situation.
[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.
蚂蚁 [熱鍋上的螞蟻]
Rè guō shàng de mǎ yǐ
As active as ants on a hot pan
In a state of feverish activity and excitement.
急跳墙 [狗急跳墻]
Gǒu jí tiaò qiáng
A cornered dog will leap over a wall
Extreme circumstances require extreme measures.
Roughly equivalent to: The end justifies the means.
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.
[雞犬不宁]
Jī quǎn bù ning
Even the chicken and dog are disturbed. General commotion
All in turmoil and excitement.
因噎废 [因噎廢食]
Yīn yè fèi shí
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
Wade through scolding water and burning flame
Showing great courage and valour.
[強龍難壓地頭蛇]
Qiáng lóng nán yā dì tóu shé
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.
蹈覆辙 [重蹈覆轍]
Chóng dǎo fù zhé
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.
Roughly equivalent to: Once bitten, twice shy.
Guā tián xià
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.
卵击 [以卵擊石]
Yǐ luǎn tóu shí
Try to smash a stone with an egg
Overrating strength and being defeated. Defeat guaranteed.
Roughly equivalent to: Kicking a brick wall.
苛政猛 [苛政猛於虎]
Kē zhèng měng yú hǔ
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.
Guangxi, Yangshuo, bird, wildlife
Fisherman with cormorants trained to fish at Yangshuo, Guangxi
[騎虎難下]
Qí hǔ nán xià
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.
Roughly equivalent to: He who sups with the Devil should have a long spoon.
[初生之犢不怕虎]
Chū shēng zhī dú bù pà hǔ
A baby calf does not fear a tiger
Innocence about the dangers involved.
遗患 [養虎遺患]
Yǎng hǔ yí huàn
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.
Roughly equivalent to: Rearing a nest of vipers.
狐谋 [與狐謀皮]
Yǔ hú móu pí
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.
Roughly equivalent to: The leopard does not change his spots.
拔牙
kǒu bá yá
To extract a tooth from a tiger's mouth
To be very daring and/or to take unnecessary risks.
芒刺
Máng cì zài bèi
A thorn in one's flesh
Someone or something is causing continuous irritation.
[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.
釜底游 [釜底游魚]
Jǐn dǐ yóu
A fish at the bottom of the pot
In desperate straits. Life threatening situation - the last fish swimming at the bottom of a barrel.
Roughly equivalent to: Stare into the abyss.
计,[三十六計走為上策]
Sān shí liù jì, zǒu wéi shàng
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
Roughly equivalent to: Devil take the hindmost.
曲突徙薪
Qū tū xǐ xīn
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,
Roughly equivalent to: Shot across the bows.
烂额 [焦頭爛頟]
Jiāo tóu làn é
Head bruised and brow burned
In terrible trouble.
Roughly equivalent to: Beaten black and blue.
[強弩之末]
Qiáng nǔ zhī mò
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.
Roughly equivalent to: Burned out.
Cǎo mù jiē bīng
Every bush harbors an enemy
Being paranoid - believing everyone is out to get you. To be beleaguered.
Guangxi, Yangshuo, bird, wildlife
Fisherman with cormorants trained to fish at Yangshuo, Guangxi
悬崖勒 [懸崖勒馬]
Xuán yá lè mǎ
Rein in the horse at the cliff edge
Realize danger at the last moment.
[疾風知勁草]
Jí fēng zhī jìng cǎo
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.
Roughly equivalent to: If you cant stand the heat get out of the kitchen.
[噤若寒蟬]
Jìn ruò hán chán
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.
Roughly equivalent to: Keeping mum.
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.
[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.
Qián pà láng hòu pà hǔ
To fear wolves ahead and tigers behind
To be obsessed by fears of attack from all sides.
[不寒而慄]
Bù hán ér lì
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.
Roughly equivalent to: Shake like a leaf.
[眾怒難犯]
Zhòng nù nán fàn
Avoid incurring the wrath of the crowd
It's a bad idea to stir up the anger of a large crowd.
[虎口餘生]
kǒu yú shēng
Saved from the tiger's den
A narrow escape from a dangerous situation.
揖盗 [開門揖盜]
Kāi mén yī dào
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.
骨悚然
Máo gǔ sǒng rán
Hair standing on end
Petrified with fright.
Chū shēng rù sǐ
To risk one's life
Offer unquestioning support.
Roughly equivalent to: Through thick and thin.
[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.
Summer palace, Beijing, roof animals, PKChina-68
Roof animals at Kunming Lake, Summer Palace, Beijing. September 2019. Image by Paul Kerswill
苟延残喘 [苟延殘喘]
Gǒu yán cán chuǎn
Lingering at last gasp
In the throes of dying. Making a final desperate action prior to dying.
Roughly equivalent to: At death's door.
[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.
,鲁 [慶父不死,魯難未已]
Qìng fù bù sǐ Lǔ nàn wèi yǐ
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.
Roughly equivalent to: Grasp the nettle.
败涂 [一敗塗地]
bài tú dì
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.
[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.
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 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.
革裹 [馬革裹屍]
Mǎ gé guǒ shī
Wrapping the body in horsehide
A wish to die in action on the battlefield. A heroic wish to serve until death.
Roughly equivalent to: With all guns blazing.
躲,暗 [明槍易躲暗箭難防]
Míng qiāng yì duǒ, àn jiàn nán fáng
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.
Wēi rú lěi luǎn
As precarious as a pile of eggs
In a dangerous state - about to collapse. Just about to fall and break apart.
Roughly equivalent to: The brink of disaster.
Rén rén zì wēi
Everybody in danger
All in danger and in fearful panic.
Roughly equivalent to: Clear and present danger.
Chéng xià zhī méng
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.
[喪家之狗]
Sàng jiā zhī gǒu
Fleeing from a wild dog
Fleeing in fear and panic due to unexpected visitor or situation.
[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.
Lantern Festival, festival, Shanghai
China,Shanghai,Yu Garden,the Lantern Festival 2012 Image by North sea deamer available under a Creative Commons license
[有備無患]
Yǒu bèi wú huàn
Preparedness averts misfortune
Be prepared against all eventualities to avoid misfortune. Have fallback plans.
Roughly equivalent to: Be Prepared!
Hòu gù zhī yōu
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.
[如鳥獸散]
niǎo shòu sàn
Scattering like birds and beasts
To flee in all directions. Trying to escape from catastrophe - often used to describe fleeing from danger.
Roughly equivalent to: Run for the hills.
斧疑 [失斧疑鄰]
Shī fǔ yí lín
Lose an axe and suspect a neighbour
Groundless suspicions. Jumping to conclusions.
退避
Tuì bì sān shè
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.
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.
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