Chinese idioms A to F ordered by English equivalent
A list of Chinese proverbs ordered by the rough English equivalent.
Devil take the hindmost
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 ➚
strive for first afraid behind
Striving to be first and fearing to be last
Striving for position. Over competitive.
Dog eat dog
you cheat me swindle
Cheating and deceiving each other
Mutual distrust and deception. A relationship without any trust.
Don't bite the hand that feeds you
catch fish forget trap
After catching a fish forget the trap
Ungrateful behavior, ignoring help given to make things possible
Don't change horses midstream
aspiration not can slow, time not can lose
Do not let your aspirations weaken; do not waste time
Keep hold of your hopes and dreams, waste no time in achieving them
Don't cut off your nose to spite your face
drink turtledove stop thirst
To quench one's thirst with poisoned wine. The blood of the dove was considered poisonous
To take reckless action regardless of the consequences
Don't judge a book by its cover
凡人不可貌相, 海水不可斗量 [凡人不可貌相海水不可斗量]
every person can not looks mutual, sea water can not argue capacity
Neither a person can be judged by his looks nor can the sea be fathomed
Judging by appearance is dangerous
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
smile inside conceal knife
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.
female male black horse yellow
Choose a black mare instead of a yellow stallion
Don't judge by outward appearance. The horse's ability is more important than the external appearance. The story is that a Duke of Qin wanted a good horse. He was told a yellow stallion had been selected. On seeing it was in fact a black mare the duke was annoyed but the horse expert stood his ground saying it was the character and ability that was the important thing.
outside strong middle dry
Outwardly strong but inwardly weak
Looking strong and powerful but actually weak. Flattering appearance that does not represent true worth.
Don't look a gift horse in the mouth
thousand Chinese mile deliver swan feather
A swan feather from a thousand miles away
Showing appreciation on receiving a gift that shows the sender has taken time and trouble to choose it. Traveling a very long way to deliver what seems to be a trifle. The tale is from the Tang dynasty, when Mian Bogai sent a gift of a special swan to the Emperor. However the feather was all that was left from a swan when he arrived. So this is a rejoinder when someone receives a gift that is seemingly of low value.
Don't put off until tomorrow what can be done today
this day task, this day complete
Today's task, today's job to complete
Finish the current job before starting something new
Don't put the cart before the horse
not good beginning not good end
A bad beginning leads to a bad ending
Need to plan everything from the beginning
Don't stop while you are winning
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.
Dotting the 'i's and crossing the 't's
draw dragon dot eye
To add eyes to a painted dragon
Make the final vital addition to complete something. Add finishing touches. The story is of a great painter who painted four dragons without completing the eyes. When challenged he claimed that it was to ensure they did not come to life and fly away. When pressured he drew in the eyes of two dragons and they promptly came to life and flew away.
ambition exist four directions
Having high ambition
Willing to travel far and wide to achieve aims. Aspiring to achieve great things in life.
Dust yourself off and start all over again
sweep dust again come
Sweeping off the dust and trying again
Making a comeback after a setback - determined to have another go. Like getting back on a horse after being thrown off.
Each to his own
radish cabbage, each have place fond
Some prefer radish while others like cabbage
Everyone has their own preferences
Easier said than done
chat what look easy
Talking makes look easy
Not as easy as it seemed
Empty vessels make the most noise
thunder sound big, rain drop small
Thunder is loud but little rain falls
Overly portentous. Reality does not match expectations
cavity has no thing
Empty and devoid of worthwhile content. Usually applied to poor writing that is devoid of meaning.
Enough is as good as a feast
contented get along yet live
Muddling through life without great ambitions. Contended to just live from day to day.
Every cloud has a silver lining
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 trick in the book
chicken cry dog steal
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
deceive world steal fame
Deceiving the public to gain fame
A con artist. Someone who sets out to become famous by lies and deception.
Everything comes to him who waits
remain get green mountain exist, no fear have no firewood
So long as the green mountains are preserved, there will be no shortage of firewood
Do not despair, there is plenty of time and opportunity
Failing to plan is planning to fail
approach thirsty dig well
Digging a well only when starting to feel thirsty
Begin taking action when it is far too late.
Fair weather friends
wine meat friends
Friends only for the food and drink
Fall on your sword
stand pride jade broken, no pride tile complete
Don't be a proud piece of broken jade, be a complete tile
Stand up against enemies do not give in. Keep your integrity and stand firm
Feed one's mind
start book exist benefit
Reading is always beneficial
There is always something new to be learned from books. An admonishment to keep on studying and learning.
Fight the good fight
jealousy evil as if enemy
Treating evil as an enemy
Determined to confront evil. Not letting evil people or things continue.
Fighting to a standstill
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.
First catch your hare
wipe out this morning eat
Wipe out the enemy before breakfast
Grasp current opportunity; anxious to do battle. Tackle the important problem first.
Flogging a dead horse
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
Following the flow
follow well-disposed as flow
Following good advice just as water flows
Willing to accept other people's advice just as all water in a stream follows the flow. Readily following good leadership.
For the want of a nail .,. the kingdom was lost
All things entirely prepared only lack east wind
Everything is ready, except for the east wind
Lacking one small, but crucial item. It refers to the battle of Red Cliff in the Three Kingdoms period when Cao Cao's great army threatened to overcome his adversaries on the Yangzi River. The clever strategy advocated by Zhuge Liang was to send fire boats into Cao Cao's navy. Everything was prepared but for ages the wind was in the wrong direction. At last it changed to the east and Cao Cao was defeated.
Forewarned is forearmed
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
mind have finished bamboo
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.
Forgive and forget
already past not to blame
It is pointless to blame past events
What is done is done. It is pointless to live a life of regret for things that can't be changed.
Fortune favors the brave. Nothing ventured, nothing gained
not enter tiger den how get tiger cub
Without entering a tiger's den how can you hope to capture a tiger cub?
Great rewards require a great risk.
Frightened of your own shadow
ghost caused by mind life
Ghosts are figments of the mind
Being scared of the paranormal; irrational fear of dark and shadows.
Full of beans
surplus courage can buy
Surplus courage for sale
Enthusiastic to carry on after success. Full of energy
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.