Chinese idioms R to Z ordered by English equivalent

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

Reading between the lines

[字里行間]
Zì lǐ háng jiān
Between the lines
Uncovering the hidden meaning or character.

Reap what you sow

[種瓜得瓜種豆得豆]
Zhòng guā dé guā zhòng dòu dé dòu
Plant melons and you will harvest melons; plant beans and you will harvest beans
Live with the consequences of your actions.

Rearing a nest of vipers

遗患 [養虎遺患]
Yǎng hǔ yí huàn
Helping a tiger invites misfortune
Being too softhearted with an enemy who is bound at some time later to bite the hand that fed it.

Rearranging the deckchairs while the ship is sinking

换汤 [換湯不換葯]
Huàn tāng bú huàn yaò
Change the soup but not the medicine
Not getting to the root of a problem, making superficial changes.

Rip off

豪夺 [巧取豪奪]
Qiǎo qǔ háo duó
Grab by trick or by force
Cheat others of their valuables by trickery or force.

Rome was not built in a day

尺, [冰凍三尺非一日之寒]
Bīng dòng sān chǐ, fēi zhī hán
Three feet of ice is not formed in a single day
It takes time to achieve satisfactory results.
[不怕路長只怕志短]
Bù pà lù cháng zhǐ pà zhì duǎn
Not fear a long road; fear aspiration to start
Do not be afraid of a long road to success only be afraid of a shortage of ambition.
bù dēng tiān
Approach heaven with a single stride
An attempt to achieve a goal all in one go without hard work.
脚印 [一步一個腳印兒]
gè jiǎo yìnr
Every step leaves a footprint
Work steadily one step at a time in order to make solid progress.
qì wǎn chéng
Large vessels take longer to complete
It takes a long time and great care to make something worthwhile. An admonishment to persevere in studies or work. Often used to describe late developing talent.

Rough justice

[貪天之功]
Tān tiān zhī gōng
Appropriate the achievements of others
Cheating others of their just reward. The story is of an official who was swindled out of his just reward for good service. Eventually the ruler worked out what had happened and he was given an even greater reward.

Run for the hills

[如鳥獸散]
niǎo shòu sàn
Scattering like birds and beasts
To flee in all directions. Trying to escape from catastrophe - often used to describe fleeing from danger.

Running out of steam

郎才尽 [江郎才盡]
Jiāng láng cái jìn
Master Jiang has exhausted his talent
Losing your creative spark. Jiang Yan was an official in the Southern Liang dynasty [502-557] achieved early repute as a poet and writer but in later years struggled to write anything of value. He dreamed that he owed his talent to the pen of Guo Pu who then reclaimed it.
dragon, graphic
Carving of a dragon at a Chinese temple

Schadenfreude

[幸災樂禍]
Xìng zāi lè huò
Delighting in the misfortune of others
The story is of a king who delighted in the plight of the neighboring kingdom that was suffering from famine and would not help them even though he had received help when his people were suffering. So it means sadistic glee.

See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil

Shǒu kǒu rú píng
To keep mouth shut, like a bottle
To avoid giving the game away; to not breathe a word.

Seeing is believing

[百聞不如一見]
Bǎi wén bù rú jiàn
Hearing a hundred times is not as good as seeing once
Delighted to meet you in person at last. Seeing at first hand gives valuable information. The story is of a Han dynasty veteran general Zhao Chongguo who went to see the situation for himself at the frontier rather than relying on secondhand reports. His wise analysis quickly solved the problem with the incursions of northern tribes.

Seeing someone in a new light

Guā xiāng kàn
Rubbing one's eyes when seeing someone
Noticing that someone has changed for the better. Show respect for improvement and progress. Changing a view of someone's abilities.

Sell your grandmother

[殺妻求將]
Shā qī qiú jiàng
Killing your wife to become a general
Ruthless action to further one's ambition. The story is of Wu Qi who served the state of Lu. His wife originally came from the enemy state of Qi; seeing this as an obstacle to his ambition to become a general, he killed his wife. He got the promotion so it is about ruthless but effective action.

Shake like a leaf

[不寒而慄]
Bù hán ér lì
Shivering yet not cold
Shudder with fear and dread. There is a story of a sadistic official of the Han dynasty who arbitrarily sentenced to death. When their relatives and friends came to protest he had them executed too. Everyone was quaking with fear when they saw the official.

She who must be obeyed

[河東獅吼]
Hé dōng shī hǒu
The lioness from Hedong roars
A husband under the control of a domineering wife. The story is of Chen Zao of the Song dynasty who often had guests around in the evening. If his wife got to hear that there were other women with him she would knock on the wall and roar. A hen-pecked man.

Shoot your mouth off

Shí yán ér féi
Getting fat by eating one's words
Someone is forever retracting what was previously said. Someone with poor judgment and a big mouth. The story is of a minister Meng Wubo of the kingdom of Lu who often pontificated only to contradict himself. A snide commentator suggested that Meng was growing fat because he ate so many of his own words.

Shot across the bows

曲突徙薪
Qū tū xǐ xīn
Bend the chimney and move the firewood
A warning to avoid danger. The story of a man who was advised that his chimney was too straight and the stack of firewood too close to the fire as these could easily cause a fire to take hold. The advice was ignored and sure enough a serious fire damaged the house,

Sitting on the fence

模棱 [模棱兩可]
Mó léng liǎng kě
To equivocate
Position is unclear or uncertain. Failing to make up your mind.

Six of one, and half a dozen of the other

[半斤八兩]
Bàn jīn liǎng
Two equivalent measures
Nothing to choose between two alternatives.

Slash and burn

除根 [斬草除根]
Zhǎn cǎo chú gēn
Dig up the weeds by the roots
To eradicate completely; to ensure thorough and long term victory. Eliminate all possibility of future trouble.

Slow but sure

Fǎn fù tuī qiāo
Carefully considering the words push and knock
Spending considerable time to get the words just right. Showing excessive concern on minor details. Said to be the story of an Tang dynasty official who could not choose whether 'knock' or 'push' was the appropriate word in a poem.
temple, roof
Yellow glazed tiles on a temple roof

Smile of the crocodile

寄腹剑 [口寄腹劍]
Kǒu jì fù jiàn
Honeyed mouth but harboring dagger
Machiavellian. Using kind words to conceal malice.

Sofa spud

酖毒
Yàn ān zhèn dú
Comfortable living is like drinking poisoned wine
Lulled into laziness and indifference by comfortable living.

Soft in the head

饼充饥 [畫餅充飢]
Huà bǐng chōng jī
Drawing a biscuit to satisfy hunger
To act foolishly and ineffectively. Wasting time on fruitless projects.
徙宅
Xǐ zhái wàng qī
Move house but overlook wife
Foolish and forgetful. Move to a new house and take everything - except your partner.

Spare the rod and spoil the child

严师[嚴師出高徒]
Yán shī chū gāo tú
Strict teachers produce successful students
Strict discipline is needed to teach effectively.

Speak of the devil and he is sure to appear

曹操,曹操 [說曹操曹操到]
Shuō Cáo Cāo, Cáo Cāo dào
Speak of Cao Cao and he arrives
'Cao Cao of the Three Kingdoms is the embodiment of evil. Someone who you are talking about happens to appear unexpectedly.

Spoil the ship for a ha'pworth of tar

堤,溃 [千里之堤潰于蟻穴]
Qiān lǐ zhī dī, kuì yú yǐ xué
An ant may destroy an entire dam
Take full attention to detail to avoid catastrophe.

Standing head and shoulders above the opposition.

[鶴立雞群]
Hè lì jī qún
A crane standing amidst a flock of chickens
Being conspicuously different (often superior)

Stare into the abyss

釜底游 [釜底游魚]
Jǐn dǐ yóu
A fish at the bottom of the pot
In desperate straits. Life threatening situation - the last fish swimming at the bottom of a barrel.

Starting again from scratch

Bù pò bù lì
If do not destroy will not stand
The old needs to be demolished before building the new.

Steely-eyed

yì gū xíng
Obstinately clinging to one's course
Acting dogmatically in pursuit of own objectives without regard to others. Dogged determination. Sometimes this approach is honorable and sometimes leads to ruin but it is the single-mindedness that is being admired.

Step into someone's shoes

Qǔ ér dài zhī
Taking another person?s place
To act as a substitute or replacement for someone.

Stick to your guns

[半途而廢]
Bàn tú ér fèi
Give up half way through
To abandon work half done. Lacking determination to see the job through.
Hainan, Guanyin, Sanya, deity
Statue of Guanyin (Guanshiyin or Avalokitesvara), Goddess of Mercy, Sanya, Hainan

Sticky situation

[一髮千鈞]
fà qiān jūn
Single hair holding a heavy weight
At a critical point. A single hair holds back a heavy weight. A very dangerous situation.

Still waters run deep

zhì ruò yú
A wise person may seem silent as often remains silent
A wise person holds his counsel.
[莫測高深]
Mò cè gāo shēn
Too high or deep to measure
Enigmatic, unfathomable. Too profound to be readily understood.

Strike while the iron is hot

[先下手為強]
Xiān xià shǒu wéi qiáng
Striking first to demonstrate strength
To gain the upper hand by striking first.

Stupid is as stupid does

盗铃 [掩耳盜鈴]
Yǎn ěr daò líng
Covering your ears while stealing the bell
Failing to think things through. Taking a rash action without applying logic. A foolish plan.
[鄭人買履]
Zhèng rén mǎi lǔ:
The man from Zheng buys shoes
Stubbornly sticking to a silly plan; inflexible and stupid. The story is of a man from Zheng who measured his own feet in readiness to buying new shoes. When he reached the shop in a distant town he found he had forgotten the paper on which the measurement was recorded. So he walked all the way home to fetch it rather than just try on shoes in the shop.

Supping with the Devil

助桀[助桀爲虐]
Zhù jié wéi nu:è
Aiding King Jie in his cruelty
An admonishment not to turn to the dark side. King Jie was the last ruler of the Xia dynasty and a byword for cruelty and depravity.

Swallowing your pride

负荆[負荊請罪]
Fù jīng qǐng zuì
To carry a cane and ask to be punished
Admit a fault and offer an apology. The story is from the Zhou dynasty when Lin Xiangru of the Zhao kingdom had an adversity in Lian Po. Lian Po used every opportunity to dis his boss Lin Xiangru. Lian Po was then shown that solidarity was key to the state's survival and offered a humble apology. Lian Po carried brambles on his back for some distance to show his contrition.

Sweep it under the carpet

讳疾忌 [諱疾忌醫]
Huì jí jì yī
Hiding sickness for fear of treatment
Keeping mistakes and shortcomings to yourself. Refuse to listen to advice.

Swinging the lead

[差強人意]
Chā qiáng rén
Just passable
Just about good enough an effort. Someone showing minimum of commitment to meet a goal. Barely satisfactory.

Swings and roundabounts

Wáng jǐ dé máo
Losing a halberd but gaining a spear
Losing something but gaining something of similar value. A halberd is rather similar to a spear - having a different blade on the end of a pole. No overall impact - both losses and gains.

Taking the flak

忍辱负 [忍辱負重]
Rěn rǔ fù zhòng
Enduring humiliations in line of duty
Willing to put up with disgrace and humiliation so that work can be done. Often applied to someone given a very difficult but important task.

Teaching your grandmother to suck eggs

弄斧 [班門弄斧]
Bān mén nòng fǔ
Demonstrating the axe at Ban's door
Lu Ban (c. 500BCE) was a master engineer inventor and carpenter. So trying to show off you skills with an axe (or adze in those days) at his door was being rather pretentious. So the phrase means to show off your feeble skills in front of a real expert.
Qinghai, lake, mountains
Mirror lake in Qinghai

The brink of disaster

Wēi rú lěi luǎn
As precarious as a pile of eggs
In a dangerous state - about to collapse. Just about to fall and break apart.

The chickens havee come home to roost

[東窗事發]
Dōng chuāng shì fā
The plot at the east window has been exposed
The game is up. Generally said of villains whose evil plans have been thwarted. The story is of Qin Hui of the Song dynasty who hatched a plot under the east window of his house to tell lies about General Yue Fei. Qin Hui and his son died shortly after Yue Fei was executed. Qin's wife Wang used a necromancer who discovered the truth and was told by Qin's spirit that the East window plot had been exposed.

The cupboard is bare

[別無長物]
Bié wú cháng wù
Having nothing to spare
In great poverty, possessing nothing other than the bare essentials.

The darkest hour is just before the dawn

[苦儘甘來]
Kǔ jìn gān lái
Bitterness over, happiness arrives. At the end of suffering comes relief
After troubles comes happiness.
否极泰 [否極泰來]
Pǐ jí tài lái
At the extreme point of misfortune, good will surely arrive
Things at the worst will mend.

The difficult we do immediately; the impossible takes a little longer

[金石為開]
Jīn shí wéi kāi
Even metal and stone can be pierced
Any difficulty can be overcome given time and commitment. The story is of the famous archer Xiong Quzi of the Zhou dynasty. At dusk he mistook a stone for a tiger and shot an arrow at it. In the morning he found his arrow had penetrated deep into the stone. This led to the idiom that with great skill and determination the apparently impossible can be achieved.

The early bird catches the worm

Jié zú xiān dēng
The winning foot is the first to climb
To succeed need to start off first.
[先發制人]
Xiān fā zhì rén
Strike first to gain the upper hand
The first side to attack/move often has the advantage. An admonishment to act now and not dither about.
[聞雞起舞]
Wén jī qǐ wǔ
Begin at cock's crow
Keen to begin a task even at daybreak. Diligent in action, losing no time.

The end justifies the means

急跳墙 [狗急跳墻]
Gǒu jí tiaò qiáng
A cornered dog will leap over a wall
Extreme circumstances require extreme measures.

The face that launched a thousand ships

[傾城傾國]
Qīng chéng qīng guó
Triumph over city and country
Overwhelm the entire area. Usually applied to a woman of outstanding beauty.

The fruit does not fall far from the tree

舐犊 [舐犢之愛]
Shì dú zhī ài
The love of a cow licking her calf
An example of parental love and devotion. A biased assessment due to family ties - caring for one's own relatives.

The leopard does not change his spots

病复 [舊病復發]
Jiù bìng fù fā
An old ailment returns
It is difficult to shake off a deeply rooted habit.
xiangqi, chess
Playing Chinese Chess. 2010. For more evocative images visit aburyan.com . Image by Endrjuch available under a Creative Commons license
狐谋 [與狐謀皮]
Yǔ hú móu pí
Asking a fox for its skin
Make an unrealistic request of someone who is bound to refuse. A pointless request requiring someone to act against their normal character.

The pride of the peacock

[畫虎類犬]
Huà hǔ lèi quǎn
A drawing of a tiger that looks like a dog
Foolishly undertaking something over-ambitious and coming a cropper. Taking on something beyond your ability. Puffed up with self-conceit.

The road to hell is paved with good intentions

, [學好三年學壞三天]
Xué hǎo sān nián, xué huài sān tiān
It takes three years to learn well; it takes only three days to degrade
Falling into bad ways is far easier than keeping to the good.

The secret is out

[圖窮匕見]
Tú qióng bǐ xiàn
When the map is unrolled the dagger is revealed
A secret plan is revealed, a conspiracy unmasked. The story is of an assassination attempt on the King of Qin back in the Warring States Period. Pretending to cede territory Prince Dan concealed a dagger in a scrolled up map.

The tide is on the turn

[水滿則溢]
Shuǐ mǎn zé yì
Water rises only to overflow
At the point of a crisis. Things are about to turn around.
[物極必反]
Wù jí bì fǎn
Extreme conditions will surely calm down
Things will turn around in the opposite direction when they reach the highest point.

The tortoise beats the hare. The early bird catches the worm

[笨鳥先飛早入林]
Bèn niǎo xiān fēi zǎo rù lín
A clumsy bird that flies first will get to the forest earlier
Starting early helps achieve success.

The wheel has come full circle

浦珠 [合浦珠還]
Hé pǔ zhū huán
The Hepu pearls return home
Something or someone returns to its original source. Often said of someone returning to their original home district after years of wandering. The story is from the Han dynasty of Hepu, Gunagxi which was a leading center for pearl fishing until a local official over exploited the beds of pearls leading to Vietnam taking over as the leading procedure. Only when the pearl beds were left for years to recover did the pearl industry return.

The word on the street

[曾參殺人]
Zēng Shēn shā rén
Zeng Shen committed murder
A false rumor. The story is that the mother of Zeng Shen was weaving cloth. Someone came in to tell her that her son had been found guilty of murder. She did not believe it saying he would not do such a thing. Another person came with the same report and she still would not believe it. Only when the third person gave the same story did she reacted and stopped her work. The story was in fact of another man called 'Zeng Shen' and not her son.

There's many a good tune played on an old fiddle

Lǎo bàng shēng zhū
An old oyster yields pearls
Remaining fit and healthy into old age, specifically can mean fathering children in advanced years.

There's many a slip 'twixt cup and lip

[頭頭是道]
Tóu tóu shì daò
Thinking carefully about the way to proceed
Logically and rigorously argued.

There's more than one way to skin a cat

Jiǎo tù sān kū
A crafty rabbit has three burrows
To succeed you must must have alternative options, in particular several ways of escape from danger.
[山不轉路轉]
Shān bù zhuǎn lù zhuǎn
A mountain cannot turn, but a road can
It is not necessary to continue in the same direction, there are other alternatives to avoid an obstacle.
Tianjin, railway station
Tianjin Train station. November 2012.
Image by Drgkl available under a Creative Commons license

There's no place like home

落叶[落叶歸根]
Luò yè guī gèn
Fallen leaves return to the root
Returning to place of birth.
, [月到中秋分外明每逢佳節倍思親]
Yuè dào zhōng qiū fèn wài míng, měi féng jiā jié bèi sī qīn
The moon is brightest at the Mid-Autumn Festival, and the feeling of homesickness will be strongest during the festival
Longing to see family from far away.

There's no use crying over spilt milk

[覆水難收]
Fù shuǐ nán shōu
Spilled water can not be recovered
What is done is done. The situation can not be restored to how it once was.

Through thick and thin

Chū shēng rù sǐ
To risk one's life
Offer unquestioning support.
糟糠
Zāo kāng zhī qī
A wife of chaff-eating days
A loyal wife. Chaff is only eaten when no other food is available and so it means someone who is prepared to share in depredations - sharing the bad times as well as the good.

Ticks all the boxes

[天衣無縫]
Tiān yī wú fèng
Heavenly robe without seams
A perfect result, clothes so well made that the seams cannot be seen. Used to describe an excellent piece of work - especially an essay or speech.

Time drags on

[度日如年]
nián
Each day passes as a year
Time seems to pass very slowly.

To boldly go

[開天闢地]
Kāi tiān pì dì
To separate heaven from earth
The beginning of a great task. In one creation myth Pangu set about his momentous work by first separating heaven (yang) from earth (yin). An epic undertaking.

To carry water in a sieve

[緣木求魚]
Yuán mù qiú
To catch fish in a tree
To look at a tree hoping it will somehow catch fish. Waste time doing something pointless and bound to fail. The tale goes back 2,300 years to the life of Mengciuswho advised the King of Qi against pointless further conquests.

To cry 'wolf'

[噁人先告狀]
È rén xiān gàozhuàng
The offender is the first to complain
The perpetrator diverts attention by being the first to complain.

To err is human; to forgive divine

[打人不打臉]
rén bù dǎ liǎn
Better to hit a person than their reputation. Losing 'face' is a major consideration for Chinese people
Be diplomatic and tactful when being critical.

To give someone a taste of their own medicine

[請君入甕]
Qǐng jūn rù wèng
Please step into the vat
To fall victim to a punishment that you yourself devised. The story is from the reign of Empress Wuzetian when two cruel ministers vied to create the vilest tortures. Zhou Ying suggested a large vat should be heated and the victim placed in it. His fellow minister threatened to apply the torture on Zhou Ying himself. He then confessed to all his crimes.

To let someone off the hook

[網開一面]
Wǎng kāi miàn
To leave one side of the net open
To give someone a chance of escape.
Fujian, Tulou, lantern
Tradition Fujian Tulou house

To make a comeback

[東山再起]
Dōng shān zài qǐ
To rise again from the east mountain
Coming back after voluntary retirement into public life. Particularly for taking on high office after a long break away from all the action.

To spit nails

[大發雷霆]
léi tíng
Develop large thunderstorm
Fly into a furious rage.

To weep crocodile tears

狐悲
Tù sǐ hú bēi
A fox mourns the death of a rabbit
Feigning concern to conceal true feeling.

Too many cooks spoil the broth

,, [一個和尚挑水喝兩個和尚抬水喝三個和尚沒水喝]
gè hé shang tiāo shuǐ hē, liǎng gè hé shang tái shuǐ hē, sān ge hé shang méi shuǐ hē
One monk shoulders water by himself; two can still share the labor between them. When it comes to three, they all go thirsty.
Sometimes work is best done alone, a group may procrastinate without achieving anything.

Transport of delight

绕梁 [餘音繞樑]
Yú yīn rào liáng
The music lingers around the roof beams
Music so beautiful it seems to reverberate around the roof. A pleasant musical performance and by analogy memory of a joyous occasion.

Truth will out

,谎 [泥人怕雨謊言怕理]
rén yǔ, huǎng yán pà lǐ
A mud figure fears rain; a lie fears truth
Over time lies will eventually be laid bare.
[帋包不住火]
Zhǐ bāo bù zhù huǒ
Paper can not wrap up a fire
The truth can not be concealed.

Turn over a new leaf

改邪 [改邪歸正]
Gǎi xié guī zhèng
Abandon evil and turn to good
Reject bad ways and turn to the good.

Two faced

[前倨後恭]
Qián jù hòu gōng
First scornful then respectful
Treating people in a two-faced manner according to people's perceived power and influence. A snobbish person who changes their manner according to who they are dealing with.

Two heads are better than one

[獨木難支]
Dú mù nán zhī
A single stick will not prop up a whole building
It often requires more than one person to resolve problems.
匠,凑诸葛亮 [三個臭皮匠湊個諸葛亮]
Sān gè chòu pí jiàng, còu gè Zhūgě Liàng
Three humble shoemakers brainstorming make a great statesman like Zhuge Liang
Joint effort can help solve big problems.

Using a sledgehammer to crack a nut

[殺雞焉用牛刀]
Shā jī yān yòng niú dāo
Using an ox-cleaver to kill a chicken
Taking unnecessary effort to tackle a small problem. Using an inappropriately large tool for the job.

Vim and vigour

Rú huǒ rú tú
Raging like a fire
Daunting and vigorous. An intimidating prospect.
tea, plantation, Zhejiang
Tea plantation near Hangzhou
Image by Shizhao available under a Creative Commons license

Wet fish

鼻息
Yǎng rén bí xī
Depend on someone, even for breathe
To be totally dependent on others, as if unable to breathe without their help. Showing great weakness.

What a tangled web we weave

指鹿 [指鹿爲馬]
Zhǐ lù wéi mǎ
Making a deer out to be a horse
Lying to mislead others; a deliberate misrepresentation often to please someone important. The famous story goes back to the time of the second Qin Emperor (c. 209BCE) who was an infant and the effective ruler was the despotic Zhao Gao. He presented a stag to the Emperor proclaiming it to be a fine horse. The Imperial ministers were so fearful that when asked whether a stag was a stag or a horse many said a horse. Zhao Gao had all those who told the truth and said 'stag' executed as he wanted ministers who would so anything he said.

What you sow, so shall you reap

[出爾反爾]
Chū ěr fǎn ěr
Getting just reward
Do as you would be done to. Repay past behavior appropriately. In modern times this has changed meaning to be more to with inconsistency and self contradictory behavior than justice.

What's done is done

Mù yǐ chéng zhōu
The tree has been made into a boat
Too late to change anything.
[生米煮成熟飯]
Shēng mǐ zhǔ chéng shú fàn
The rice has already been cooked
What has been done can not be undone.

What's sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander

Nán nǔ píng děng
Equality between the sexes
Treating men and women the same.

When in Rome do as the Romans do

, 嫁 [嫁雞隨雞嫁狗隨狗]
Jià jī suí jī, jià gǒu suí gǒu
Marry a chicken and live with its ways, marry a dog and live with its ways
Changing approach and actions according to who you are with.
随俗 [入鄉隨俗]
Rù xiāng suí sú
When entering a village, follow its customs
Take account of local people and opinions.
[染於蒼則蒼,染於黃則黃]
Rǎn yú cāng zé cāng rǎn yú huáng zé huáng
Dyeing dark blue makes dark blue, dyeing yellow makes yellow
People behave differently according to circumstance. Taking on local conventions and customs.

When it rains, it pours

[旤不單行]
Huò bù dān xíng
Disasters do not walk alone
Misfortunes tend to come all at once.
漏偏 [屋漏偏逢連夜雨]
Wū lòu piān féng lián yè
When the roof is leaking, there will be continuous nights of rain
Misfortunes tend to come all at once.

Where there's a will, there's a way

Niàn niàn bù wàng
Do not neglect your studies. Ponder on problems
Study hard. Keep thinking about a problem.
, [有志者事竟成]
Yǒu zhì zhe, shì jìng chéng
If a person has ambition, anything can be accomplished
It requires ambition to succeed in life. The story comes from the Han dynasty when Emperor Guangwu praised Geng Yan for steadfastly completed his task of mopping up opponents in Shandong.
Changsha, Hunan
The Huángxīng Lù Commercial Pedestrian Street in Changsha. 15 Jun 2006
Image by X. Zhou available under a Creative Commons license

Whom the Gods love die young

[香消玉損]
Xiāng xiāo yù sǔn
Fragrance is dissipated; jade is broken
Spoken of on the death of a beautiful young woman.

Wild goose chase

[刻舟求劍]
Kè zhōu qiú jiàn
Marking the boat to locate a sunken sword
A venture made pointless by changing circumstances. The story is of a man who accidentally dropped a sword in the lake while being ferried across it. He reasoned that if he made a notch in the side of the boat that would let him find the sword again,

Wish for the moon

鸿鹄 [鴻鵠之志]
Hóng hú zhī zhì
The aspirations of a great swan
Having unrealistic ambitions.

Wishful thinking

[一廂情願]
xiāng qíng yuàn
A private wish
Acting on a personal wish not shared by others.

With all guns blazing

革裹 [馬革裹屍]
Mǎ gé guǒ shī
Wrapping the body in horsehide
A wish to die in action on the battlefield. A heroic wish to serve until death.

Without a care in the world

[從容不迫]
Cóng róng bù pò
Calm and unhurried
Taking life calmly and in your stride. Untroubled.

Worth its weight in gold

zì qiān jīn
One word is worth a thousand gold coins
A literary work of great quality and perfection that can not be improved and more generally applied to very helpful words of advice. The story is of a great writer who offered a reward to anyone who could suggest adding or removing a single character from a work he was very pleased with - the reward went unclaimed.

You can't have your cake and eat it

, [也要馬兒好也要馬兒不吃草]
Yě yaò mǎ ér haǒ, yě yaò mǎ ér bù chī caǒ
Want the horse to prosper, but not want the horse to eat grass
To prosper you must make compromises, you can not have it all your own way.

You get what you pay for

,[一分錢一分貨]
fēn qián, fēn huò
With only a penny you can't buy much
You cant buy something for nothing.


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