Chinese idioms G to P ordered by English equivalent

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

Get fighting fit

[髀肉復生]
Bì ròu fù shēng
The thigh muscles have recovered
To get fit and become reinvigorated. The story is from the end of the Han dynasty after the battle of Guandu Zhi Zhan when Cao Cao beat Liu Bei. Liu Bei then fled to Henan and took things easy. One day he noticed that he had become flabby particularly in his thighs so he realized he had to get fit again. He did so and eventually beat Cao Cao in battle.

Get hold of the wrong end of the stick

[郢書燕說]
Yǐng shū yān shuō
Ying's letter interpreted by Yan
The message has been misunderstood. The story is that someone living in Ying in the Chu kingdom dictated a letter to a friend, the Prime Minister of Yan kingdom. Inadvertently the secretary wrote down 'Raise the lantern' thinking it was part of the letter. The recipient interpreted this to mean he should appoint praiseworthy people to the government. So in this case the misunderstanding gave rise to benefit.

Get the bigger picture

Tuī jǐ jí rén
Imagine being in someone's position
To understand a situation from someone else's perspective.

Gilding the lily

[畫蛇添足]
Huà shě tiān zú
Drawing a foot on a snake
Ruin by over working something. Add superfluous detail. Too meticulous.
[錦上添花]
Jǐn shàng tiān huā
Add another flower to a tapestry
Taking too much trouble with detail to try to achieve perfection. Fiddling when already complete.

Go the extra mile

Yú gōng yí shān
The foolish old man who moved mountains
Anything can be achieved with persistence. The old story is that an old man wanted to move a mountain that blocked his path. Despite widespread cynicism he and his descendents gradually wore down the mountain. Mao Zedong used this proverb to persuade people that the seemingly impossible was achievable. One version of the story has the gods taking pity on the old man and removing the mountain with mighty powers.

Go weak at the knees

Dào xǐ xiāng yíng
Putting on shoes the wrong way aroung when greeting a guest
So keen to meet a guest that shoes are put on the wrong way around. Excitement about meeting someone idolized.

Grasp the nettle

,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.

Green around the gills

,[太公釣魚,願者上鉤]
Tài gōng diào yuàn zhě shàng gōu
Willing fish jumping to Duke Jiang?s hookless line
Trying t o ensnare a gullible person. The ancient story from the Zhou dynasty is of Lord Jiang who used to just hang an unbaited and unhooked line in the air not the water. When asked what he was doing said he was not trying to catch fish but a king who he would serve. After many years of pointless fishing he was appointed to be Prime Minister.

Harboring a grudge

薪尝 [臥薪甞膽]
Wò xīn cháng dǎn
Lying on straw and tasting gall
Patiently suffering while plotting revenge or recovery. Sleeping rough and eating poor food while preparing for a comeback.

Hard work never did anyone any harm

耕耘, 收获 [一分耕耘一分收獲]
fēn gēng yún, yī fēn shōu huò
Half growing the crop; half harvesting it.
Hard work is needed to achieve a good result. Can't expect a harvest without cultivating the crop.

Having an ace up the sleeve

Qī yǐ qí lì
Knowing the approptiate way to cheat
To skilfully deceive. Invent a lie that fools the audience. Playing a clever trick.

He who hesitates is lost

[不到黃河不死心]
Bù dào Huáng hé bù sǐ xīn
Not giving up until one reaches the Yellow River
Keep going until you hit an insurmountable obstacle.
soldier, Tiananmen Square, Beijing
A Chinese People's Armed Police guard on Tiananmen Square, in front of the portrait of Mao Zedong. His rank is the second lowest, Private First Class [1]. 4th June 2007. Photo by Luo Shaoyang from Beijing available under a Creative Commons license .

He who sups with the Devil should have a long spoon

[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.

He/she will go far

[後起之秀]
Hòu qǐ zhī xiù
Promising young talent
Said of someone showing talent at an early age.

Head in the clouds

Xiǎng rù fēi fēi
Indulge in fantasy
Let imagination run wild.

Heart of stone

rén shí xīn
Body of wood, heart of stone
A heartless person or also someone who is unwaveringly determined to carry out a task and will not be distracted.

Hemming and hahing

Zhāo sān mù
Say three in the morning, four in the evening
Indecisive saying one thing and then changing mind later and saying another. The story is of a monkey trainer who reduced their chestnut rations from 3 in the morning and 4 in the evenings. The monkeys were most unhappy but when the trainer changed it to 4 in the morning and 3 in the evenings they were delighted. And so the phrase can also mean being foolishly deceived.

Hiding your light under a bushel

养晦 [韜光養晦]
Tāo guāng yǎng huì
Conceal your strength
Bide your time before showing your strength.

Hit a man when he is down

落井
Luò jǐng xià shí
After someone falls into a well throw in a stone
To add needlessly to someone's misfortunes.

Hit the books

引锥刺股 [引錐刺股]
Yǐn zhuī cì gǔ
Pricking your thigh with an awl
Study hard with great determination. An awl is a sharp pointed tool for making holes in wood. The story is from the Three Character classic which tells how Su Qin of the Han dynasty pricked himself in the thigh to keep himself awake and alert for study. Used as a parent or teacher's encouragement for children to study diligently.

Hive of industry

[門庭若市]
Mén tíng ruò shì
Front yard is like a market
The house is thronged with visitors. The place is all astir.

Hobson's choice

shàng Liáng Shān
Compelled to become a Liangshan rebel
Forced to take an undesirable action. The story is of Lin Chong who was hounded down by Chao Gai because he wanted Lin's wife. After being falsely accused of attempted murder Lin was further victimized by Chao Gai until he was left with no choice but to join the rebels. So it means left with no choice at all.

Hope springs eternal

[多難興邦]
Duō nàn xīng bāng
Many hardships can rejuvenate a nation
A calamity that may prompt a resurgence. An encouragement to continue striving in the hope that things will improve.

If a job is worth doing it is worth doing well

[力不從心]
Lì bù cóng xīn
Strong ambition but no motivation
Lacking in motivation to achieve aims.
[一絲不苟]
sī bù gǒu
To take care of every thread in a cloth
To be meticulous. To pay atttention to every detail.
Chongqing
A dusk view of Chongqing Downtown. April 2009. Image by Chen Hualin available under a Creative Commons License

If life deals you lemons, make lemonade

逆境
Nì jìng chū rén cái
Rebellion creates capability
Hardship and adversity foster talent.

If wishes were horses, beggars would ride

[夜長夢多]
Yè cháng mèng duō
The longer the night, the more dreams there will be
When in hard times it is foolish to merely dream of better things.

If you cant stand the heat get out of the kitchen

[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.

If you want something done ask a busy man

[能者多勞]
Néng zhě duō láo
The talented are kept busy
Busy people are busy because they are capable.

Ill fortune comes in threes

,祸 [福無重至旤不單行]
Fú wú chóng zhì, huò bú dān xíng
Blessings come along alone; troubles often come together
Bad fortune is more frequent than good.

I'm all right Jack

洋洋
Dé yì yáng yáng
Smug and self-satisfied
To be very pleased with oneself. Giving an air of sublime complacency.

Improve beyond recognition

[點石成金]
Diǎn shí chéng jīn
Turn stone into gold
To turn something of little worth into something of great value.

In dire straits

[水深火熱]
Shuǐ shēn huǒ rè
In deep water and fierce fire
In very deep trouble. A desperate situation with nowhere to turn.
狼狈[狼狽不堪]
Láng bèi bù kān
In a sorry plight
Facing total defeat. Left high and dry. The story is of Ma Chao in the Three Kingdoms Period who was out maneuvered by Cao Cao and faced total defeat.
涸辙[涸轍之鮒]
Hé zhé zhī fù
A carp in a dry rut
In a desperate situation. A fish stuck in a rut in the road will soon die if not moved. In need of immediate assistance.

In league with the devil

[包藏禍心]
Bāo cáng huò xīn
Harboring evil intentions
Having evil intent; concealing malice.

In one's element

[如魚得水]
dé shuǐ
Like a fish returned to water
Glad to be back in familiar surroundings. Applied to people returning home after a long absence or someone who has at last found their proper place in life.

It takes all sorts to make a world

Rén gè yǒu néng yǒu bù néng
Every person has things that he can do and those that he cannot do
Everyone has their own particular set of skills.
Guangdong, Shenzhen, skyscraper, modern housing
Shenzhen, skyline at twilight, Guangdong
[同床異夢]
Tóng chuáng yì mèng
Dream different dreams on the same bed
Not everyone thinks the same.

It takes two to Tango

[八字沒一撇]
zì méi piě
The character for eight takes two strokes to write not just one
You can't do everything on your own.
[孤掌難鳴]
Gū zhǎng nán míng
You can not clap with just one hand
It is difficult to achieve anything on your own.

Judging a book by its cover

,[人不可貌相海水不可斗量]
Rén bù kě mào xiàng, hǎi shuǐ bù kě dǒu liáng
A person cannot be judged by appearance just as the sea cannot be measured with a bucket
First appearances can be deceptive.

Keep a cool head

[見怪不怪]
Jiàn guài bù guài
Calm at the sight of the unknown
Face the unexpected and disturbing with calmness and fortitude.

Keep on keeping on

穿
Dī shuǐ chuān shí
Dripping water can bore into stone
Long perseverance will win in the end, even stone wears away. Nothing is permanent.

Keep your chin up

xiào jiě qiān chóu
One smile can erase a myriad worries
Keep cheerful against all the odds.

Keeping mum

[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.

Kicking a brick wall

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.

Kill the goose that lays the golden eggs

[竭澤而漁]
Jié zé ér yú
Drain the pond to harvest the fish
Choose short-term gain for long-term sorrow. Not planning for the long term. Short-termism. Similar to burning down a forest to capture wild animals - unsustainable.

Killing two birds with one stone

[一箭雙鵰]
jiàn shuāng diāo
Shooting two hawks with one arrow
Completing two (or more) tasks at the same time. A fortunate coincidence.
[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.

Know for a fact

[實事求是]
Shí shì qiú shì
Seek truth from facts
Base judgment on the true facts of the situation and not rumor or custom.
Nanjing, Jiangsu
Nanjing skyline. September 2012.
Image by Ozonefrance available under a Creative Commons license

Know thyself

Zì zhī zhī míng
Knowing oneself
Knowing your own strengths and weaknesses is an essential first step in life. being able to judge yourself objectively as others see you is a path to harmony and true friendship.

Land of milk and honey

桃源
Shì wài táo yuán
The land of peach blossoms
A mythical land of peace and harmony. The story is of a hidden land that a fisherman found while trying to escape turmoil and war in the Qin dynasty. Try as he might he never found the land again.

Last throw of the dice

孤注[孤注一擲]
Gū zhù zhì
Stake all on a single throw
Taking desperate measures to try to save a situation. Gambling everything on a change of fortune.

Learn from your mistakes

堑,[吃一塹長一智]
Chī qiàn, cháng zhì
Fall into a pit but learn from the experience
Gain wisdom from experience of set backs.

Less haste more speed

Shì bèi gōng bàn
Work very hard for half the result
Work with care rather than speed.

Let sleeping dogs lie

[打草驚蛇]
Dǎ cǎo jīng shé
Striking the grass alerts the snake
It is unwise to alert an enemy of your presence.

Lights, camera, action

, [箭在弦上不得不發]
Jiàn zài xián shàng, bù dé bù fā
Once the arrow is on the bow string, it must be shot
Things have reached a point when its necessary for something to be done. No choice.

Like a moth to a flame

蛾投 [飛蛾投火]
Fēi é tóu huǒ
A moth throws itself into a flame
Heading for self destruction.

Like father, like son

[虎父無犬子]
Hǔ fù wú quǎn zǐ
A tiger does not father a dog
A son is similar to his father.

Little knowledge is a dangerous thing

井底
Jǐng dǐ zhī wā
A blinkered approach to life. Living in a fantasy world.
A frog in a well. The story is of a frog that only knows of the water in the well and knew nothing of the sea, and can only see a small portion of the sky.

Little strokes fell great oaks

磨杵[磨杵成針]
Mó chǔ chéng zhēn
Grinding an iron pestle down to a needle
Patiently setting about a great, lengthy task step by step. Anything can be achieved with a firm resolve,

Little things please little minds

[玩物喪志]
Wán wù sàng zhì
Obsessional play ruins the will
Spending too much time on trivia. Excessive attention to detail. Losing the big picture.

Locked and loaded

[厲兵秣馬]
Lì bīng mò mǎ
Sharpening the weapons and feeding the horses
Making preparations for imminent battle. Committed to meet an enemy head-on.
suzhou,  garden
Suzhou garden. Copyright Richard Wingfield, October 2017.

Look before you leap

[前車之鋻]
Qián chē zhī jiàn
Watch the route of the preceding carriage. A carriage that overturned ahead can be a lesson for those to follow.
Take account of what has gone before.

Look out for number one

[以鄭爲壑]
Yǐ zhèng wèi hè
Building a drain onto neighbor's land
Diverting flood water onto neighbor's land - moving a problem onto others rather than try to solve it. Acting selfishly.

Lost touch with reality

Bù zhī ròu wèi
Not notice the smell of meat
Totally entranced and distracted. The story is from the Analects of Confucius. The great sage was walking in woodland and heard someone performing Shao music. He was so entranced by the blissful sound that he could not be distracted even by the smell of roasting meat (then a rare treat).

Love is blind

[愛屋及烏]
Ài wū jí wū
Strong love that encompasses all, including the crow sitting on the roof
In love with everything in the world.
西
Qíng ren yǎn lǐ chū xī shī
The lover's eye sees the legendary beauty of Xi Shi in his plain mistress
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Love thy neighbor as thyself

蜡烛,却毁 [蠟燭照亮別人㕁毀滅了自己]
Là zhú zhào liàng bié rén, què huǐ miè le zì jǐ
A candle illuminates others at the cost of burning itself up
Helping others at the cost of not looking after yourself.

Lucky chance

[千慮一得]
Qiān lù:
Thousand tries, one success
An expression of modesty when accounting for success. Discounting skill and perseverance as just a lucky break.

Make a mountain out of a molehill

[小題大作]
Xiǎo zuò
To talk a lot about very little
Procrastination and exaggeration.

Make an ass of yourself

邯郸 [邯鄲學步]
Hán dān xué bù
Trying too hard to impress
Learning how the residents of Handan walk . The story is of a man back in the Warring States period who took on the gait of grand city folk trying to impress but could no longer walk properly. Pompous and pretentious.

Make it snappy

[遠水救不了近火]
Yuǎn shuǐ jiǔ bù liaǒ huǒ
Distant water will not extinguish the nearby fire
There is no point in waiting for far off help. Get to it and solve the problem now.

Man with a plan

筹帷幄 [運籌帷幄]
Yùn chóu wéi wò
Formulate plans in a tent
Careful planning for the future - not just a victim of events. An analogy to commanders devising their plans in a tent on the eve of battle.
破浪 [乘風破浪]
Chéng fēng pò làng
Ride the winds and break the waves
To have high ambitions. The story is Zong Que who lived in southern China around 450CE. On his wedding day at the age of 14 (as was the tradition then) a group of bandits attacked the village. Zong Que fought them off almost single-handed. He was asked what was his future ambition and he replied that he wanted to 'ride the wind and break the waves'. He went on to be a leading general who helped maintain the peace in the region.

Many hands make light work

蜂酿[一只蜂釀不成蜜一顆米熬不成粥]
zhī fēng niáng bù chéng mì kē mǐ áo bù chéng zhōu
One bee cannot produce honey; one grain of rice cannot produce a meal
It needs joint effort to achieve anything worthwhile.
Western Xia, tomb, Ningxia
西塔, August 2013. Two tombs of the Western Xia at Helan Shan, Ningxia. Image by Jayavarman available under a Creative Commons license .
[眾人拾柴火焰高]
Zhòng rén shí chái huǒyàn gāo
Only when all contribute their firewood can they build up a big fire
People need to pull together to achieve something significant.
Duō duō yì shàn
The more, the better
Safety in numbers. Wanting to invite as many people as possible to improve chances of success.

Marriage made in heaven

Tiān zuò zhī hé
Heaven made intimacy
Blissful affection.

Marry in haste, repent at leisure

畋,竭 [焚林而畋竭澤而漁]
Fén lín ěr tián, jié zé ěr yú
Burn a forest to farm; drain a pond to fish
Ignoring the consequences.

Mending the stable door after the horse has bolted

补牢 [亡羊補牢]
Wáng yáng bǔ láo
Mend the pen after the sheep are lost
Can mean taking action too late or else taking action to protect against a future repeat of misfortune.

Mighty oaks from little acorns grow

Qiān lǐ zhī xíng shǐ yú zú xià
A long march starts from a single step
Perseverance will lead to eventual success.
穿
Shuǐ dī shí chuān
Dripping water eventually wears away stone
If you persevere, you will eventually achieve your goal.

Monkey see: monkey do

[生吞活剝]
Shēng tūn huó bāo
Swallowing it all
To unthinkingly take on board someone's opinion. Uncritical application. Copying someone else's actions. The story is of Zhang Huaiqing of the Tang dynasty who plagiarized other poet's work by mechanically adding a few characters here and there. The resultant poems were gibberish.

More haste less speed

[欲速則不達]
Yù sù zé bù dá
A desire for speed but unable to reach destination
More interest in working fast than working effectively. Too much interest in the short term rather than the overall strategy.

Mutton dressed as lamb

[東施效顰]
Dōng shī xiaò pín
Ludicrous self conceit
The story is of Dong Shi, an ugly person imitating the posture of famous beautiful woman Xi Shi by knitting his eyebrows.

Mutually assured destruction

败俱伤 [兩敗俱傷]
Liǎng bài jù shāng
Both sides will suffer
Heading towards a Pyrric victory - neither side wins. A conflict neither side can win.

Neither fish nor fowl

[非驢非馬]
Fēi lú: fēi mǎ
Neither a donkey nor a horse
A person or place that is neither one thing nor another. Indeterminate or strange combination.

New lease of life

[返老還童]
Fǎn lǎo huán tóng
Return to youthful vigour
Returning to youthful energy. Turning back the years. Often used as a compliment to someone sprightly in old age.
Hangzhou, Zhejiang, temple
Qian King Temple on the West Lake in Hangzhou, Zhejiang. October 2008.
Image by kanegen available under a Creative Commons license

Nipping it in the bud

微杜渐 [防微杜漸]
Fáng wēi dù jiàn
Prevent problems by early action
A stitch in time saves nine. Tackle problems when they are small and can be dealt with before they get out of hand.

No man is an island

焉附 [皮之不存毛將焉附]
Pí zhī bù cún maó jiāng yān fù
If the skin is missing hair can not grow
Everything needs its proper environment for nurture.

No smoke without fire

[空穴來風未必無因]
Kōng xuè lái féng wèi bì wú yīn
If wind comes from an empty cave it did not come from nowhere
There are always clues that something is about to happen.
[無風不起浪]
Wú fēng bù qǐ làng
No wind, no waves
There must have been signs that it was going to happen.

No space to swing a cat

[立錐之地]
Lì zhuī zhī dì
A place to stick an awl
A very small piece of property. Often said of someone who has fallen on hard times and has only a very small place to live or just to describe a very small space.

None the wiser

囫囵吞枣 [囫圇吞棗]
Hú lún tūn zǎo
Swallow a date along with its stone
To read something without fully understanding it.

Not looking beyond your nose

骑驴[騎馿找馿]
Qí lǖ zhǎo lǖ
Looking for a donkey while sitting on its back
Ignoring the obvious. Absent mindedness.

Not seeing the full picture

Máng rén xiàng
Blind people touch an elephant
Seeing only part of the situation. A Buddhist tale of how a group of blind men each felt a different part of an elephant and came to very different ideas of what it was. One felt a tusk (a huge carrot?), one a ear (a flat dish?), one a leg (a column?) and the fourth the tail (a rope?). None could agree as to what it was.

Not the ghost of a chance

膏肓
Bìng rù gāo huāng
The disease has penetrated the vitals
Beyond hope and cure. A hopeless situation.

Nothing ventured nothing gained

守株待
Shǒu zhū dài tù
Watching a tree waiting for rabbits
Do not just count on luck, need action to reach your goals.

Off you own bat

[先斬後奏]
Xiān zhǎn hòu zòu
Execute first, report later
Taking the initiative; acting without orders. The story is of a newly appointed magistrate who was seeking a murderer. When she was found, the magistrate had her executed on the spot in spite of she being a servant to the Emperor's sister. An execution requires the Emperor's sanction and so the magistrate was in deep trouble,. In this case the magistrate managed to escape with his life.

Old soldiers never die, they just fade away

骥伏枥, [老驥伏櫪志在千里]
Lǎo jì fú lì, zhì zài qiān lǐ
The old horse in the stable still yearns to gallop 1,000 miles
Ambitions never fade. An old person still has high hopes.

On everyone's lips

[滿城風雨]
Mǎn chéng fēng
Everywhere is lashed by wind and rain
The whole community is awash with scandal or a sensational story.
Dali, lake, Yunnan
Erhai, Dali Lake, Yunnan. November 2009
Image by Brücke-Osteuropa available under a Creative Commons license

On last legs

暮途 [日暮途窮]
mù tú qióng
The day is ending and the road narrows
The end game is upon us.

On the ball

Míng chá qiū háo
Able to see an animal's autumn fur
A perceptive and sharp-sighted person who is able to grasp all the detail. In autumn some animals grow new, fine fur to keep themselves warm in winter.

Once bitten, twice shy

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.

One good turn deserves another

,堵墙 [交個朋友多條路樹個敵人多堵墻]
Jiāo gè péng you duō tiáo lù, shù gè dí rén duō dǔ qiáng
Making a friend is an open road; making an enemy builds a wall
It is better to make friends than enemies.
感恩图 [感恩圖報]
Gǎn ēn tú bào
Gratefully returning kindness
Repaying a debt of kindness. The story is from the Zhou dynasty when the state of Wu was mounting a war against the state of Zheng. A Zheng fisherman offered to try to stop the conflict. He boldly went to the enemy general Wu Zixu and reminded him that his father had saved Wu's life a long time ago. The general then recalled the incident and in repayment of the kindness called off his attack on Zheng.

One is just as bad as the other

[難兄難弟]
Nàn xiōng nàn dì
Brothers of the same ilk
Two brothers showing similar personalities. Two people hard to tell apart.

One man's meat is another man's poison

[眾口難調]
Zhòng kǒu nán tiáo
Difficult to make a meal to suit everyone
You can't please everyone all the time. Everyone has different tastes.

Outliving your usefulness

Tù sǐ gǒu pēng
Trusted helpers are dispensable once their job is done
Watch your back. Once the mission is accomplished you may be sacked.

Over in a flash

zhāo
One morning and one evening
A short space of time. Something transient that will soon pass.

Patience is a virtue

[百折不撓]
Bǎi zhé bù náo
Not to falter despite many setbacks
Persistence pays off in the end.
揠苗助 [揠苗助長]
Yà miáo zhù zhǎng
Stretching young plants to make them grow
Be patient and let nature run its course.

Pearls before swine

弹琴 [對牛彈琴]
Duì niú tán qín
To play a lute to a cow
Wasting your time on pointless efforts. The 'lute' in this case is the qin, a traditional musical instrument. To address an inappropriate and unappreciative audience. A story from the Han dynasty when Mouzi Lihuolun, a Confucian scholar, who failed to describe Buddhist teaching because his audience had no basic understanding of it.

Penny wise, pound foolish

[買櫝還珠]
Mǎi dú huán zhū
Buy the box yet return the pearls inside
To make a foolish action - the pearls were worth far more than the box. Missing the main opportunity.
Gansu, mountains
Qilian mountains on the border of Gansu and Qinghai
[貪小失大]
Tān xiǎo shī
Coveting small gains and incurring great losses
Paying attention to the unimportant details not the big picture. Concentration on trivia.

Plain for all to see

Yǒu gòng dǔ
Seen by everyone. There for all to see
Obvious to everybody.

Plain Jane

[其貌不揚]
Qí mào bù yáng
Undistinguished in appearance
Unappealing appearance.

Poke your nose in someone else's business

越俎
Yuè zǔ dài páo
Laying down the sacrificial vessels and take over the kitchen
To move beyond current work and meddle in other's duties. To take things into your own hands. A back seat driver.

Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely

[假公濟私]
Jiǎ gōng jì sī
Swindle public to help yourself
Use public office for personal gain.

Practice makes perfect

,[人往高處走水往低處流]
Rén wǎng gāo chù zǒu, shuǐ wǎng dī chù liú
A person moves up while water always trickles down
There is always room for improvement.
Shú néng shēng qiǎo
Learning a skill from long experience
With long practice one can learn any skill. Sometimes used disparagingly of a skill anyone can learn given enough time.

Practise what you preach

[身體力行]
Shēn tǐ lì xíng
To maintain health by strenuous walk
Following the advice given oneself.
,,[我看見我忘記我听見我記住我做我了解]
Wǒ kàn jiàn wǒ wàng jì, wǒ tīng jiàn wǒ jì zhù, wǒ zuò wǒ liǎo jiě
When I see, I forget; when I hear, I remember but when I do, I understand.
You learn only by trying it, not by just observing or talking about it.

Pride comes before a fall

[驕兵必敗]
Jiāo bīng bì bài
An arrogant army is certain to be defeated
Over-confidence will lead to defeat.
shí bù xiào bǎi
Fifty steps laugh at a hundred steps
Being complacent about the future. Believing a job is all but done when only half done.
招愮 [招愮過市]
Zhāo yáo guò shì
Parading through the busy streets
Boastful behavior; to be puffed up with pride . Walking the streets seeking the adulation of the crowds.
[趾高氣揚]
Zhǐ gāo qì yáng
Putting on airs and graces
An arrogant person who may well face a comeuppance due to complacency and self-conceit.
Diamond Sutra, image_bookcover, printing
A page from the oldest known printed book - the Diamond Sutra, discovered near Dunhuang by Sir Marc Aurel Stein in 1907.
British Library, London
Image available under a Creative Commons license
Wàng zì zūn
Having an inflated opinion of oneself
Full of inflated pride. There are many examples throughout history of people thinking rather too highly of themselves.
Kuā Fù zhuī
Kua Fu chasing the sun
Pride leading to attempting the impossible. Over confidence in skills. Over-arching ambition. The story is of a giant called Kua Fu who was immensely strong and swift. He attempted to chase the sun but in so doing became so hot he died from thirst that could not be quenched. A similar tale to Icarus flying too close to the sun.

Pulling a fast one

滥竽充数 [濫竽充數]
Làn yú chōng shù
Passing oneself off as a proficient Yu pipe player
Pretending to be well qualified for a job. The story is that the king of Qi loved to hear an ensemble of yu players. A lazy sponger Nanguo wanted the plum job as a yu player. He faked playing the yu in the large ensemble. It came to an end with the next king of Qi who preferred soloists rather than an ensemble and so, expecting exposure, quickly fled away.

Put everyone in the shade

[後來居上]
Hòu lái jū shàng
A later-comer surpasses everyone
A new arrival outperforms everyone present. A youngster outstrips the older generation.

Put on the back-burner

[束之高閣]
Shù zhī gāo gé
Store away in the attic
Dismiss someone or something for the moment as currently unimportant. Designate something as low priority.

Putting on a brave face

[葉公好龍]
Yè gōng hào lóng
Duke Ye's love of dragons
Pretending to be fond of something which is actually greatly feared. The story is of Duke Ye who decorated whole his house and clothes with dragon motifs. However when a real dragon flew over and landed near his house he trembled in fear. Said of someone hiding their true feelings.

Putting the cart before the horse

逐末 [捨本逐末]
Shě běn zhú mò
Pursuing trivia while neglecting essentials
Concentrating on the little details rather than the important stuff.


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