Chinese idioms G to P ordered by English equivalent
A list of Chinese proverbs ordered by the rough English equivalent.
Get fighting fit
thigh flesh return life
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 t o 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
Ying letter Yan explain
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
push self to reach person
Imagine being in someone's position
To understand a situation from someone else's perspective.
Gilding the lily
draw snake add foot
Drawing a foot on a snake
Ruin by over working something. Add superfluous detail. Too meticulous
tapestry up add flower
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
foolish man move mountain
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
backwards slippers mutually welcome
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
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.
Green around the gills
High Duke fish bait fish wish above to hook
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
lie fuel taste gall
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
一分耕耘, 一分收获 [一分耕耘一分收獲]
one part cultivation, one part harvest
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
cheat according to its ability
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
not arrive Yellow River not die heart
Not giving up until one reaches the Yellow River
Keep going until you hit an insurmountable obstacle
He who sups with the Devil should have a long spoon
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/she will go far
after raise him refined
Promising young talent
Said of someone showing talent at an early age.
Head in the clouds
want enter wrong wrong
Indulge in fantasy
Let imagination run wild
Heart of stone
wood person rock heart
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
morning three evening four
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
hide brightness nourish darkness
Conceal your strength
Bide your time before showing your strength
Hit a man when he is down
fall well throw stone
After someone falls into a well throw in a stone
To add needlessly to someone's misfortunes
Hit the books
pull awl prick thigh
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
door hall like market
Front yard is like a market
The house is thronged with visitors. The place is all astir
compel get into Liang mountain
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
many difficulty flourish nation
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
strength not from feeling
Strong ambition but no motivation
Lacking in motivation to achieve aims
one thread not careless
To take care of every thread in a cloth
To be meticulous. To pay atttention to every detail
If life deals you lemons, make lemonade
disobey border go out person ability
Rebellion creates capability
Hardship and adversity foster talent
If wishes were horses, beggars would ride
night long dream many
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
storm know strength grass
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
capable those who many work
The talented are kept busy
Busy people are busy because they are capable
Ill fortune comes in threes
good fortune not double arrive, misfortune not single walk
Blessings come along alone; troubles often come together
Bad fortune is more frequent than good
I'm all right Jack
Smug and self-satisfied
To be very pleased with oneself. Giving an air of sublime complacency.
Improve beyond recognition
touch stone accomplish gold
Turn stone into gold
To turn something of little worth into something of great value
In dire straits
water deep fire hot
In deep water and fierce fire
In very deep trouble. A desperate situation with nowhere to turn.
wolf distressed not endure
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.
dry rut silver carp
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
cover conceal misfortune mind
Harboring evil intentions
Having evil intent; concealing malice.
In one's element
as fish obtain water
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
person each have capability have no capability
Every person has things that he can do and those that he cannot do
Everyone has their own particular set of skills
same bed different dream
Dream different dreams on the same bed
Not everyone thinks the same
It takes two to Tango
eight character not one neglect
The character for eight takes two strokes to write not just one
You can't do everything on your own
solitary palm difficult sound
You can not clap with just one hand
It is difficult to achieve anything on your own
Judging a book by its cover
person not judge appearance mutual, sea water not judge bucket measure
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
see monster not monster
Calm at the sight of the unknown
Face the unexpected and disturbing with calmness and fortitude
Keep on keeping on
drip water penetrate stone
Dripping water can bore into stone
Long perseverance will win in the end, even stone wears away. Nothing is permanent
Keep your chin up
one smile separate ten thousand worries
One smile can erase a myriad worries
Keep cheerful against all the odds
silent as cold cicada
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
use egg strike stone
Try to smash a stone with an egg
Overrating strength and being defeated. Defeat guaranteed.
Kill the goose that lays the golden eggs
exhaust pond to fish
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
one arrow two eagles
Shooting two hawks with one arrow
Completing two (or more) tasks at the same time. A fortunate coincidence.
one move two gains
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
true matter seek exist
Seek truth from facts
Base judgment on the true facts of the situation and not rumor or custom.
self know self understand
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
world foreign peach source
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
single stake one toss
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
eat one chasm long one wise
Fall into a pit but learn from the experience
Gain wisdom from experience of set backs
Less haste more speed
work multiple times merit half
Work very hard for half the result
Work with care rather than speed
Let sleeping dogs lie
strike grass startled snake
Striking the grass alerts the snake
It is unwise to alert an enemy of your presence
Lights, camera, action
arrow exist string on, not get no deliver
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
fly moth hurl fire
A moth throws itself into a flame
Heading for self destruction
Like father, like son
tiger father not dog child
A tiger does not father a dog
A son is similar to his father
Little knowledge is a dangerous thing
well bottom's frog
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
grind pestle accomplish needle
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
play thing lose ambition
Obsessional play ruins the will
Spending too much time on trivia. Excessive attention to detail. Losing the big picture.
Locked and loaded
sharpen weapons feed horse
Sharpening the weapons and feeding the horses
Making preparations for imminent battle. Committed to meet an enemy head-on
Look before you leap
preceding vehicle's reflect
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
use Zheng as gully
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
not know meat smell
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
love house reach crow
Strong love that encompasses all, including the crow sitting on the roof
In love with everything in the world
lover eye inside produce Xi Shi
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
candle illuminate bright other people, but destroy extinguish itself
A candle illuminates others at the cost of burning itself up
Helping others at the cost of not looking after yourself
thousand tries one completed
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
small topic large work
To talk a lot about very little
Procrastination and exaggeration
Make an ass of yourself
Handan study gait
Trying too hard to impress
Make it snappy
far water rescued not near fire
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
fortune plan curtain tent
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.
ride wind break wave
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
only one bee not produce honey, one grain rice cook not complete meal
One bee cannot produce honey; one grain of rice cannot produce a meal
It needs joint effort to achieve anything worthwhile
many people pick up firewood fire flames high
Only when all contribute their firewood can they build up a big fire
People need to pull together to achieve something significant
many many benefit improve
The more, the better
Safety in numbers. Wanting to invite as many people as possible to improve chances of success
Marriage made in heaven
heaven make someone close
Heaven made intimacy
Marry in haste, repent at leisure
burn forest but cultivate, exhaust pool but fishing
Burn a forest to farm; drain a pond to fish
Ignoring the consequences
Mending the stable door after the horse has bolted
lose sheep mend pen
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
thousand mile's walk begin goto foot down
A long march starts from a single step
Perseverance will lead to eventual success
water drip stone penetrate
Dripping water eventually wears away stone
If you persevere, you will eventually achieve your goal
Monkey see: monkey do
raw swallow alive skin
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
desire fast level not extend
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
Dong Shi imitate knit eyebrows
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
both damage entirely injure
Both sides will suffer
Heading towards a Pyrric victory - neither side wins. A conflict neither side can win.
Neither fish nor fowl
not donkey not horse
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
return old return child
Return to youthful vigour
Returning to youthful energy. Turning back the years. Often used as a compliment to someone sprightly in old age.
Nipping it in the bud
prevent decline restrict gradual
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
skin no exist hair support how add
If the skin is missing hair can not grow
Everything needs its proper environment for nurture
No smoke without fire
empty cave arrive wind surely nothing not follow
If wind comes from an empty cave it did not come from nowhere
There are always clues that something is about to happen
no wind no rise wave
No wind, no waves
There must have been signs that it was going to happen
No space to swing a cat
establish awl's place
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
whole all swallow date
Swallow a date along with its stone
To read something without fully understanding it
Not looking beyond your nose
ride donkey look for donkey
Looking for a donkey while sitting on its back
Ignoring the obvious. Absent mindedness
Not seeing the full picture
blind person touch elephant
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
disease enter moisten vitals
The disease has penetrated the vitals
Beyond hope and cure. A hopeless situation.
Nothing ventured nothing gained
guard trunk wait for hare
Watching a tree waiting for rabbits
Do not just count on luck, need action to reach your goals
Off you own bat
early behead afterwards report
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
old thoroughbred hidden stable, aspiration exist 1000 miles
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
full town wind rain
Everywhere is lashed by wind and rain
The whole community is awash with scandal or a sensational story.
On last legs
sunset road exhausted
The day is ending and the road narrows
The end game is upon us.
On the ball
clear observe autumn hair
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
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.
One good turn deserves another
exchange friend many paved road, tree enemy many stop wall
Making a friend is an open road; making an enemy builds a wall
It is better to make friends than enemies
feeling kindness plan recompense
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
problem elder brother problem younger brother
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
many mouth difficult mix
Difficult to make a meal to suit everyone
You can't please everyone all the time. Everyone has different tastes
Outliving your usefulness
rabbit dog cook
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
one morning one evening
One morning and one evening
A short space of time. Something transient that will soon pass.
Patience is a virtue
hundred bend not scratch
Not to falter despite many setbacks
Persistence pays off in the end
pull up seedling help lengthen
Stretching young plants to make them grow
Be patient and let nature run its course
Pearls before swine
face ox play musical qin
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
buy casket return pearl
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.
covet tiny lose large
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
has eye common observe
Seen by everyone. There for all to see
Obvious to everybody
its appearance not raised
Undistinguished in appearance
Poke your nose in someone else's business
surpass sacrificial food replace kitchen
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
false public aid self
Swindle public to help yourself
Use public office for personal gain
Practice makes perfect
person towards high place walk, water towards low place flow
A person moves up while water always trickles down
There is always room for improvement
mature can produce skill
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
health strength walk
To maintain health by strenuous walk
Following the advice given oneself
I catch sight of I forget, I hear I remember, I do explained
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
haughty weapon certainly defeated
An arrogant army is certain to be defeated
Over-confidence will lead to defeat
50 pace smile 100 pace
Fifty steps laugh at a hundred steps
Being complacent about the future. Believing a job is all but done when only half done.
provoke agitation cross market
Parading through the busy streets
Boastful behavior; to be puffed up with pride . Walking the streets seeking the adulation of the crowds.
toe high energy raise
Putting on airs and graces
An arrogant person who may well face a comeuppance due to complacency and self-conceit.
absurd self respect great
Having an inflated opinion of oneself
Full of inflated pride. There are many examples throughout history of people thinking rather too highly of themselves.
Kua Fu chase after sun
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
excessive yu pipe supply fate
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
behind arrive reside above
A later-comer surpasses everyone
A new arrival outperforms everyone present. A youngster outstrips the older generation
Put on the back-burner
bundle on high shelf
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
Ye Gong fond of dragon
Duke ?e'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
abandon foundation pursue end
Pursuing trivia while neglecting essentials
Concentrating on the little details rather than the important stuff
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.