Chinese idioms R to Z ordered by English equivalent
A list of Chinese proverbs ordered by the rough English equivalent.
Reading between the lines
Between the lines
Uncovering the hidden meaning or character.
Reap what you sow
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
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
Change the soup but not the medicine
Not getting to the root of a problem, making superficial changes.
Grab by trick or by force
Cheat others of their valuables by trickery or force.
Rome was not built in a day
Three feet of ice is not formed in a single day
It takes time to achieve satisfactory results.
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.
Approach heaven with a single stride
An attempt to achieve a goal all in one go without hard work.
Every step leaves a footprint
Work steadily one step at a time in order to make solid progress.
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.
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
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
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.
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
To keep mouth shut, like a bottle
To avoid giving the game away; to not breathe a word.
Seeing is believing
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Position is unclear or uncertain. Failing to make up your mind.
Six of one, and half a dozen of the other
Two equivalent measures
Nothing to choose between two alternatives.
Slash and burn
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
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.
Smile of the crocodile
Honeyed mouth but harboring dagger
Machiavellian. Using kind words to conceal malice.
Comfortable living is like drinking poisoned wine
Lulled into laziness and indifference by comfortable living.
Soft in the head
Drawing a biscuit to satisfy hunger
To act foolishly and ineffectively. Wasting time on fruitless projects.
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
Strict teachers produce successful students
Strict discipline is needed to teach effectively.
Speak of the devil and he is sure to appear
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
An ant may destroy an entire dam
Take full attention to detail to avoid catastrophe.
Standing head and shoulders above the opposition.
A crane standing amidst a flock of chickens
Being conspicuously different (often superior)
Stare into the abyss
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
If do not destroy will not stand
The old needs to be demolished before building the new.
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
Taking another person?s place
To act as a substitute or replacement for someone.
Stick to your guns
Give up half way through
To abandon work half done. Lacking determination to see the job through.
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
A wise person may seem silent as often remains silent
A wise person holds his counsel.
Too high or deep to measure
Enigmatic, unfathomable. Too profound to be readily understood.
Strike while the iron is hot
Striking first to demonstrate strength
To gain the upper hand by striking first.
Stupid is as stupid does
Covering your ears while stealing the bell
Failing to think things through. Taking a rash action without applying logic. A foolish plan.
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
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
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
Hiding sickness for fear of treatment
Keeping mistakes and shortcomings to yourself. Refuse to listen to advice.
Swinging the lead
Just about good enough an effort. Someone showing minimum of commitment to meet a goal. Barely satisfactory.
Swings and roundabounts
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
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
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.
The brink of disaster
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
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
Having nothing to spare
In great poverty, possessing nothing other than the bare essentials.
The darkest hour is just before the dawn
Bitterness over, happiness arrives. At the end of suffering comes relief
After troubles comes happiness.
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
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
The winning foot is the first to climb
To succeed need to start off first.
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.
Begin at cock's crow
Keen to begin a task even at daybreak. Diligent in action, losing no time.
The end justifies the means
A cornered dog will leap over a wall
Extreme circumstances require extreme measures.
The face that launched a thousand ships
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
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
An old ailment returns
It is difficult to shake off a deeply rooted habit.
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
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
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
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
Water rises only to overflow
At the point of a crisis. Things are about to turn around.
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
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
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
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
Thinking carefully about the way to proceed
Logically and rigorously argued.
There's more than one way to skin a cat
A crafty rabbit has three burrows
To succeed you must must have alternative options, in particular several ways of escape from danger.
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.
There's no place like home
Fallen leaves return to the root
Returning to place of birth.
月到中秋分外明, 每逢佳节倍思亲 [月到中秋分外明每逢佳節倍思親]
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
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
To risk one's life
Offer unquestioning support.
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
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
Each day passes as a year
Time seems to pass very slowly.
To boldly go
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
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'
The offender is the first to complain
The perpetrator diverts attention by being the first to complain.
To err is human; to forgive divine
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
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
To leave one side of the net open
To give someone a chance of escape.
To make a comeback
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
Develop large thunderstorm
Fly into a furious rage.
To weep crocodile tears
A fox mourns the death of a rabbit
Feigning concern to conceal true feeling.
Too many cooks spoil the broth
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
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
A mud figure fears rain; a lie fears truth
Over time lies will eventually be laid bare.
Paper can not wrap up a fire
The truth can not be concealed.
Turn over a new leaf
Abandon evil and turn to good
Reject bad ways and turn to the good.
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
A single stick will not prop up a whole building
It often requires more than one person to resolve problems.
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
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
Raging like a fire
Daunting and vigorous. An intimidating prospect.
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
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
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
The tree has been made into a boat
Too late to change anything.
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
Equality between the sexes
Treating men and women the same.
When in Rome do as the Romans do
嫁鸡随鸡, 嫁狗随狗 [嫁雞隨雞嫁狗隨狗]
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.
When entering a village, follow its customs
Take account of local people and opinions.
染于苍则 染于黄则黄 [染於蒼則蒼,染於黃則黃]
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
Disasters do not walk alone
Misfortunes tend to come all at once.
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
Do not neglect your studies. Ponder on problems
Study hard. Keep thinking about a problem.
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
Fragrance is dissipated; jade is broken
Spoken of on the death of a beautiful young woman.
Wild goose chase
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
The aspirations of a great swan
Having unrealistic ambitions.
A private wish
Acting on a personal wish not shared by others.
With all guns blazing
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
Calm and unhurried
Taking life calmly and in your stride. Untroubled.
Worth its weight in gold
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
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
With only a penny you can't buy much
You cant buy something for nothing.
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.