Chinese idioms A to F ordered by English equivalent

A list of Chinese proverbs ordered by the rough English equivalent.

Devil take the hindmost

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
[爭先恐後]
Zhēng xiān kǒng hòu [zheng xian kong hou]
strive for first afraid behind
Striving to be first and fearing to be last
Striving for position. Over competitive.

Dog eat dog

[爾虞我詐]
Ěr yú wǒ zhà [er yu wo zha]
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

[得魚忘筌]
wàng quán [de yu wang quan]
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

[志不可慢旹不可失]
Zhì bù kě màn shí bù kě shī [zhi bu ke man shi bu ke shi]
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

[㱃鳩止渴]
Yǐn jiū zhǐ kě [yin jiu zhi ke]
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]
Fán rén bù kě mào xiàng, hǎi shuǐ bù kě dòu liàng [fan ren bu ke mao xiang, hai shui bu ke dou liang]
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
隔肚
Rén xīn gé dù pí [ren xin ge du pi]
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
Xiào lǐ cáng dāo [xiao li cang dao]
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.
牝牡骊 [牝牡驪黃]
Pìn mǔ lí huáng [pin mu li huang]
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.
[外強中乾]
Wài qiáng zhōng gān [wai qiang zhong gan]
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

送鹅 [千里送鵝毛]
Qiān lǐ sòng é máo [qian li song e mao]
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

,[今日事今日畢]
Jīn shì, jīn [jin ri shi, jin ri bi]
this day task, this day complete
Today's task, today's job to complete
Finish the current job before starting something new
window lattice, Forbidden City, Beijing
Ancient Lattice Windows at the Forbidden City, Beijing

Don't put the cart before the horse

[不善始者不善終]
Bù shàn shǐ zhě bù shàn zhōng [bu shan shi zhe bu shan zhong]
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

[勢如破竹]
Shì rú pò zhú [shi ru po zhu]
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

[畫龍點睛]
Huà lóng diǎn jīng [hua long dian jing]
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.

Driving ambition

Zhì zài fāng [zhi zai si fang]
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

[捲土重來]
Juǎn tǔ chóng lái [juan tu chong lai]
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

, [蘿卜白菜各有所愛]
Luó bo bái cài, gè yǒu suǒ ài [luo bo bai cai, ge you suo ai]
radish cabbage, each have place fond
Some prefer radish while others like cabbage
Everyone has their own preferences

Easier said than done

[談何容易]
Tán hé róng yì [tan he rong yi]
chat what look easy
Talking makes look easy
Not as easy as it seemed

Empty vessels make the most noise

, [雷聲大雨點小]
Léi shēng dà, diǎn xiǎo [lei sheng da, yu dian xiao]
thunder sound big, rain drop small
Thunder is loud but little rain falls
Overly portentous. Reality does not match expectations

Empty words

[空洞無物]
Kōng dòng wú wù [kong dong wu wu]
cavity has no thing
Vacuous
Empty and devoid of worthwhile content. Usually applied to poor writing that is devoid of meaning.

Enough is as good as a feast

[得過且過]
Dé guò qiě guò [de guo qie guo]
contented get along yet live
Getting by
Muddling through life without great ambitions. Contended to just live from day to day.

Every cloud has a silver lining

塞翁, [塞翁失馬安知非福]
Sài wēng shī mǎ, ān zhī fēi fú [sai weng shi ma, an zhi fei fu]
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

[雞鳴狗盜]
Jī míng gǒu dào [ji ming gou dao]
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
[欺世盜名]
Qī shì dào míng [qi shi dao ming]
deceive world steal fame
Deceiving the public to gain fame
A con artist. Someone who sets out to become famous by lies and deception.
Nine Dragon Wall, dragon, Beijing
Nine Dragon Wall in the Forbidden City in Beijing. 2012. All made from ceramic glazed tiles. Photo by Seebeer , available under a Creative Commons license .

Everything comes to him who waits

,[留得青山在不怕沒柴燒]
Liú dé qīng shān zài, bù pà méi chái shāo [liu de qing shan zai, bu pa mei chai shao]
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

临渴掘井 [臨渴掘井]
Lín kě jué jǐng [lin ke jue jing]
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

Jiǔ ròu péng yǒu [jiu rou peng you]
wine meat friends
Friends only for the food and drink
Cupboard love

Fall on your sword

碎, [宁為玉碎不為瓦全]
Nìng wéi yù suì, bù wéi wǎ quán [ning wei yu sui, bu wei wa quan]
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

[開卷有益]
Kāi juàn yǒu yì [kai juan you yi]
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

[嫉惡如仇]
Jí è rú chóu [ji e ru chou]
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

输攻墨守 [輸攻墨守]
Shū gōng mò shǒu [shu gong mo shou]
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

[滅此朝食]
Miè cǐ zhāo shí [mie ci zhao shi]
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

[死馬噹活馬醫]
Sǐ mǎ dāng huó mǎ yī [si ma dang huo ma yi]
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

[從善如流]
Cóng shàn rú liú [cong shan ru liu]
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

俱备, [萬事俱備,只欠東風]
Wàn shì jù bèi, zhǐ qiàn dōng fēng [wan shi ju bei, zhi qian dong feng]
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

[山雨欲來風滿樓]
Shān yù lái fēng mǎn lóu [shan yu yu lai feng man lou]
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
Xiōng yǒu chéng zhú [xiong you cheng zhu]
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.
canal, Jiangsu, bridge
Canal running through ancient 'water' city of Zhouzhuang, Jiangsu

Forgive and forget

Jì wǎng bù jiù [ji wang bu jiu]
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

Bù rù hǔ xué yān dé hǔ zǐ [bu ru hu xue yan de hu zi]
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

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.

Full of beans

余勇[餘勇可賈]
Yú yǒng kě gǔ [yu yong ke gu]
surplus courage can buy
Surplus courage for sale
Enthusiastic to carry on after success. Full of energy


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 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.