Chinese idioms G to P ordered by English equivalent
A list of Chinese proverbs ordered by the rough English equivalent.
Get fighting fit
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
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
Imagine being in someone's position
To understand a situation from someone else's perspective.
Gilding the lily
Drawing a foot on a snake
Ruin by over working something. Add superfluous detail. Too meticulous.
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
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
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
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
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
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]
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
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 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
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
Promising young talent
Said of someone showing talent at an early age.
Head in the clouds
Indulge in fantasy
Let imagination run wild.
Heart of stone
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
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
Conceal your strength
Bide your time before showing your strength.
Hit a man when he is down
After someone falls into a well throw in a stone
To add needlessly to someone's misfortunes.
Hit the books
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
Front yard is like a market
The house is thronged with visitors. The place is all astir.
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 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
Strong ambition but no motivation
Lacking in motivation to achieve aims.
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
Rebellion creates capability
Hardship and adversity foster talent.
If wishes were horses, beggars would ride
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
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
The talented are kept busy
Busy people are busy because they are capable.
Ill fortune comes in threes
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
Turn stone into gold
To turn something of little worth into something of great value.
In dire straits
In deep water and fierce fire
In very deep trouble. A desperate situation with nowhere to turn.
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.
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
Harboring evil intentions
Having evil intent; concealing malice.
In one's element
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
Every person has things that he can do and those that he cannot do
Everyone has their own particular set of skills.
Dream different dreams on the same bed
Not everyone thinks the same.
It takes two to Tango
The character for eight takes two strokes to write not just one
You can't do everything on your own.
You can not clap with just one hand
It is difficult to achieve anything on your own.
Judging a book by its cover
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
Calm at the sight of the unknown
Face the unexpected and disturbing with calmness and fortitude.
Keep on keeping on
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 can erase a myriad worries
Keep cheerful against all the odds.
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
Try to smash a stone with an egg
Overrating strength and being defeated. Defeat guaranteed.
Kill the goose that lays the golden eggs
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
Shooting two hawks with one arrow
Completing two (or more) tasks at the same time. A fortunate coincidence.
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
Seek truth from facts
Base judgment on the true facts of the situation and not rumor or custom.
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
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
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
Fall into a pit but learn from the experience
Gain wisdom from experience of set backs.
Less haste more speed
Work very hard for half the result
Work with care rather than speed.
Let sleeping dogs lie
Striking the grass alerts the snake
It is unwise to alert an enemy of your presence.
Lights, camera, action
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
A moth throws itself into a flame
Heading for self destruction.
Like father, like son
A tiger does not father a dog
A son is similar to his father.
Little knowledge is a dangerous thing
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
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
Obsessional play ruins the will
Spending too much time on trivia. Excessive attention to detail. Losing the big picture.
Locked and loaded
Sharpening the weapons and feeding the horses
Making preparations for imminent battle. Committed to meet an enemy head-on.
Look before you leap
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
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 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
Strong love that encompasses all, including the crow sitting on the roof
In love with everything in the world.
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
A candle illuminates others at the cost of burning itself up
Helping others at the cost of not looking after yourself.
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
To talk a lot about very little
Procrastination and exaggeration.
Make an ass of yourself
Trying too hard to impress
Make it snappy
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
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 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
One bee cannot produce honey; one grain of rice cannot produce a meal
It needs joint effort to achieve anything worthwhile.
Only when all contribute their firewood can they build up a big fire
People need to pull together to achieve something significant.
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 made intimacy
Marry in haste, repent at leisure
Burn a forest to farm; drain a pond to fish
Ignoring the consequences.
Mending the stable door after the horse has bolted
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
A long march starts from a single step
Perseverance will lead to eventual success.
Dripping water eventually wears away stone
If you persevere, you will eventually achieve your goal.
Monkey see: monkey do
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
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
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 sides will suffer
Heading towards a Pyrric victory - neither side wins. A conflict neither side can win.
Neither fish nor fowl
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 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 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
If the skin is missing hair can not grow
Everything needs its proper environment for nurture.
No smoke without fire
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 waves
There must have been signs that it was going to happen.
No space to swing a cat
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
Swallow a date along with its stone
To read something without fully understanding it.
Not looking beyond your nose
Looking for a donkey while sitting on its back
Ignoring the obvious. Absent mindedness.
Not seeing the full picture
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
The disease has penetrated the vitals
Beyond hope and cure. A hopeless situation.
Nothing ventured nothing gained
Watching a tree waiting for rabbits
Do not just count on luck, need action to reach your goals.
Off you own bat
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
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
Everywhere is lashed by wind and rain
The whole community is awash with scandal or a sensational story.
On last legs
The day is ending and the road narrows
The end game is upon us.
On the ball
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
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
Making a friend is an open road; making an enemy builds a wall
It is better to make friends than enemies.
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
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
Difficult to make a meal to suit everyone
You can't please everyone all the time. Everyone has different tastes.
Outliving your usefulness
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 and one evening
A short space of time. Something transient that will soon pass.
Patience is a virtue
Not to falter despite many setbacks
Persistence pays off in the end.
Stretching young plants to make them grow
Be patient and let nature run its course.
Pearls before swine
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 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.
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
Seen by everyone. There for all to see
Obvious to everybody.
Undistinguished in appearance
Poke your nose in someone else's business
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
Swindle public to help yourself
Use public office for personal gain.
Practice makes perfect
A person moves up while water always trickles down
There is always room for improvement.
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
To maintain health by strenuous walk
Following the advice given oneself.
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
An arrogant army is certain to be defeated
Over-confidence will lead to defeat.
Fifty steps laugh at a hundred steps
Being complacent about the future. Believing a job is all but done when only half done.
Parading through the busy streets
Boastful behavior; to be puffed up with pride . Walking the streets seeking the adulation of the crowds.
Putting on airs and graces
An arrogant person who may well face a comeuppance due to complacency and self-conceit.
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 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
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
A later-comer surpasses everyone
A new arrival outperforms everyone present. A youngster outstrips the older generation.
Put on the back-burner
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
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
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 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.