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.
To flee in all directions. Trying to escape from catastrophe - often used to describe fleeing from danger.
Running out of steam
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.
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.
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.
Noticing that someone has changed for the better. Show respect for improvement and progress. Changing a view of someone's abilities.
Sell your grandmother
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
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 people 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
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 the 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
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
Mó léng liǎng kě
Position is unclear or uncertain. Failing to make up your mind.
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. Based on the story of an Tang dynasty official who spent ages deciding whether 'knock' or 'push' was the appropriate word in a poem.
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
Bàn tú ér fèi
Give up half way through
To abandon work half done. Lacking determination to see the job through.
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
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
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
Huì jí jì yī
Hiding sickness for fear of treatment
Keeping mistakes and shortcomings to yourself. Refuse to listen to advice.
Lu Ban (c. 500BCE) was a master engineer inventor and carpenter. So trying to show off your skills with an axe (or adze in those days) at Lu Ban's door is behaving rather pretentiously. So the phrase means to stupidly show off your feeble skills in front of a real expert.
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 have come home to roost
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
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
Kǔ jìn gān lái
Bitterness over, happiness arrives. At the end of suffering comes relief
After troubles comes happiness.
Pǐ jí tài lái
At the extreme point of misfortune, good will surely arrive
When the situation reaches its lowest point it will then begin to improve.
The difficult we do immediately; the impossible takes a little longer
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.
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
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
Shuǐ mǎn zé yì
Water rises only to overflow
At the point of a crisis. Things are about to turn around.
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
A clumsy bird that flies first will get to the forest earlier
Starting early helps achieve success.
The wheel has come full circle
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.
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.
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 Mencius who advised the King of Qi against pointless further conquests.
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
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 Wu Zetian 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 Zhou Ying with his own torture. Zhou then rapidly confessed to all his crimes!
To be totally dependent on others, as if unable to breathe without their help. Showing great weakness.
What a tangled web we weave
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
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.
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
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.
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.
Whom the Gods love die young
Xiāng xiāo yù sǔn
Fragrance is dissipated; jade is broken
Spoken of on the death of a beautiful young woman.
Wild goose chase
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,
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
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.
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 (normally a 成语 chéng yǔ) 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.
For background on the types and history of proverbs please see our guide.
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