Chinese idioms keeping bad things at bay

A set of proverbs that warn of evil and demonstrate how it can be withstood or avoided.

陶醉
Zì wǒ táo zuì [zi wo tao zui]
self I drunk
Drunk with oneself. Narcissistic
Conceited and arrogant
, [學好三年學壞三天]
Xué hǎo sān nián, xué huài sān tiān [xue hao san nian, xue huai san tian]
study well three year, study bad three days
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 road to hell is paved with good intentions
Láng xīn gǒu fèi [lang xin gou fei]
wolf feeling dog lungs
Wolves are aggressive, dog bark. Ungrateful; cruel and unscrupulous
Ungrateful and unscrupulous
[請君入甕]
Qǐng jūn rù wèng [qing jun ru weng]
invite lord enter vat
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 give someone a taste of their own medicine
Xiaò lǐ cáng dāo [xiao li cang dao]
smile inside conceal knife
A dagger concealed in a smile
Malice concealed by apparent friendliness. There is a story of Li Yifu who was a great flatterer of the early Tang dynasty. He was always smiles but sought to blackmail and deceive. Eventually Emperor Gaozong discovered his duplicity and he was banished.
Don't judge a book by its cover
[臭不可噹]
Chòu bù kě dāng [chou bu ke dang]
smelly not can equal
Worst ever smell
To give off an unbearable stink
[噁人先告狀]
È rén xiān gàozhuàng [e ren xian gaozhuang]
evil person first tell complaint
The offender is the first to complain
The perpetrator diverts attention by being the first to complain
To cry 'wolf'
[天下烏鴉一般黑]
Tiān xià wū yā bān hēi [tian xia wu ya yi ban hei]
world black crow one kind black
Crows everywhere are all black
Bad people are all the same. You find bad people everywhere
[打草驚蛇]
Dǎ cǎo jīng shé [da cao jing she]
strike grass startled snake
Striking the grass alerts the snake
It is unwise to alert an enemy of your presence
Let sleeping dogs lie
[幸災樂禍]
Xìng zāi lè huò [xing zai le huo]
lucky calamity laugh misfortune
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.
Schadenfreude
视眈眈 [虎眎眈眈]
Hǔ shì dān dān [hu shi dan dan]
tiger look at stare stare
A tiger's stare. To look covetously
To eye enviously
贼喊捉贼 [賊喊捉賊]
Zéi hǎn zhuō zéi [zei han zhuo zei]
thief shout 'stop thief'
A thief cries 'Stop thief!'
Diverting attention to cover misdoing
Crying 'wolf'
[殺妻求將]
Shā qī qiú jiàng [sha qi qiu jiang]
kill wife seek general
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.
Sell your grandmother
含沙
Hán shā shè yǐng [han sha she ying]
keep sand shoot shadow
Making insinuations
To spit sand at someone's shadow, in other words to attack someone indirectly by innuendo. There is a legend of a three-legged turtle that would spit out sand at anyone who passed. Its spittle was so noxious that it would infect someone even if it only hit their shadow.
蜜腹剑 [口蜜腹劍]
Kǒu mì fù jiàn [kou mi fu jian]
mouth honey belly sword
Mouth of honey, heart of daggers
Disguising ill intent with honeyed words. Deceitful and dangerous
加霜
Xuě shàng jiā shuāng [xue shang jia shuang]
snow up add frost
Add frost to snow
To add to misfortunes unnecessarily
Add insult to injury
[害群之馬]
Hài qún zhī mǎ [hai qun zhi ma]
injure crowd this horse
The horse that causes trouble to the herd
The bad person of the family or group
Bad apple; Black sheep
Xīn ruò sǐ huī [xin ruo si hui]
heart like dead ash
Heart reduced to ashes
Desperately unhappy
[東窗事發]
Dōng chuāng shì fā [dong chuang shi fa]
east window matter expose
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 chickens havee come home to roost
Ningxia, mosque, muslim
Mosque for Hui people, Ningxia
[不寒而慄]
Bù hán ér lì [bu han er li]
not cold but trembling
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.
Shake like a leaf
Daǒ gē xiāng xiàng [dao ge xiang xiang]
fall spear mutual direction
Attack own party
Betray one's own side
[兔子不吃窩邊草]
Tù zi bù chī wō biān cǎo [tu zi bu chi wo bian cao]
rabbit no eat burrow side grass
Rabbits do not eat the grass around their burrows
Thieves do not steal from neighbors
曹操,曹操 [說曹操曹操到]
Shuō Cáo Cāo, Cáo Cāo dào [shuo Cao Cao, Cao Cao dao]
speak Cao Cao, Cao Cao arrives
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
Speak of the devil and he is sure to appear
[一正壓百邪]
zhèng yā bǎi xié [yi zheng ya bai xie]
one correct flatten hundred evil
Justice can overpower a hundred evils
Justice is the main defense against evil
Zì gāo zì [zi gao zi da]
self tall self big
Think oneself tall and great
Full of conceit and ego
[恩將仇報]
Ēn jiāng chóu baò [en jiang chou bao]
kindness will enemy repay
Repay kindness with hostility
Reject kindness
Biting the hand that feeds it
[噁貫滿盈]
È guàn mǎn yíng [e guan man ying]
evil string of cash everywhere full
If evil was placed like discs on a string it would be always be full.
Evil is all around. Traditionally coins had holes in them and they were strung together.
, [沒做虧心事不怕鬼叫門]
Méi zuò kuī xīn shì, bù pà guǐ jiào mén [mei zuo kui xin shi, bu pa gui jiao men]
haven't made damage heart affair, no fear devil call gate
Clear conscience does not fear a knock at midnight
If you have done nothing wrong, there is no worry over retribution
As you make your bed, so you must lie upon it
[假公濟私]
Jiǎ gōng jì sī [jia gong ji si]
false public aid self
Swindle public to help yourself
Use public office for personal gain
Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely
[言而無信]
Yán ér wú xìn [yan er wu xin]
word but nothing true
Speak but not mean it
To go back on one's word
碎, [逢奸宁可玉碎氣正不求瓦全]
Féng jiān nìng kě yù suì, qì zhèng bù qiú wǎ quán [feng jian ning ke yu sui, qi zheng bu qiu wa quan]
come upon traitor stand approve jade, spirit straight no beg tile complete
In face of evil, rather be a broken jade than an intact brick
It is better to die with honor than surrender
[賠了夫人又折兵]
Péi le fū rén yòu zhé bīng [pei le fu ren you zhe bing]
Lose lady also lose soldiers
Losing the lady and the soldiers
Hatching an evil plot that backfires spectacularly. The story is that Sun Quan in the Three Kingdoms period wanted to take territory from the Shu kingdom. He offered his sister's hand in marriage but secretly plotted to attack Liu Bei's troops at the ceremony. Master strategist Zhuge Liang saw through the trap and Liu Bei managed to marry Sun's sister as well as defeat Sun's troops.
落井
Luò jǐng xià shí [luo jing xia shi]
fall well throw stone
After someone falls into a well throw in a stone
To add needlessly to someone's misfortunes
Hit a man when he is down
改邪 [改邪歸正]
Gǎi xié guī zhèng [gai xie gui zheng]
change evil return correct
Abandon evil and turn to good
Reject bad ways and turn to the good
Turn over a new leaf
苛政猛 [苛政猛於虎]
Kē zhèng měng yú hǔ [ke zheng meng yu hu]
severe government fierce tiger
Tyranny is more terrible than tigers
The story is that Confucius met a woman near mount Taishan who was weeping bitterly. When asked, she said she had lost father-in-law, husband and son to marauding tigers. When Confucius asked why then she did not move to a safer village she replied that she was sheltering from a despotic government and would rather risk tigers than oppression. Evil government is the worst of evils.
[百足之蟲死而不僵]
Bǎi zú zhī chóng sǐ ér bù jiāng [bai zu zhi chong si er bu jiang]
hundred foot insect dead but not motionless
A centipede with a hundred legs does not lose its life after one blow
An evil is not easily disposed of; old institutions take a long time to renew
偷梁换柱 [偷梁換柱]
Tōu liáng huàn zhù [tou liang huan zhu]
steal girder change post
Steal beams replaced with wooden poles
To carry out a crafty deception
尺,魔[道高一尺魔高一丈]
Dào gāo chǐ, mó gāo zhàng [dao gao yi chi, mo gao yi zhang]
virtue tall one foot, devil tall ten foot
Where good flourishes, evil can flourish even more
There is always opportunity for evil to take root
Tianjin
Tianjin City. March 2008.
Image by ASDFGH available under a Creative Commons license
,谎 [泥人怕雨謊言怕理]
rén yǔ, huǎng yán pà lǐ [ni ren pa yu, huang yan pa li]
clay figure fear rain, lie speech fear logic
A mud figure fears rain; a lie fears truth
Over time lies will eventually be laid bare
Truth will out
,[人噁人怕天不怕人善人欺天不欺]
Rén è rén tiān bù pà, rén shàn rén tiān bù qī [ren e ren pa tian bu pa, ren shan ren qi tian bu qi]
person evil person fear heaven no fear, person good person cheat heaven no deceive
Evil people are dreaded by other people not by heaven; good people may be cheated by people but not by heaven
Even though evil works may go unpunished on earth, good works do not go unnoticed in heaven. Reward for good may not be immediately received.
[煽風點火]
Shān fēng diǎn huǒ [shan feng dian huo]
incite wind spot fire
Create wind and fire
Create a lot of trouble
芒刺
Máng cì zài bèi [mang ci zai bei]
tip thorn exist back
A thorn in one?s flesh
Someone or something is causing continuous irritation.
[邪門歪道]
Xié mén wāi daò [xie men wai dao]
evil people crooked way
Evil people in crooked ways
Dishonesty and deceit
Gǒu měng jiǔ suān [gou meng jiu suan]
dog fierce wine acid
A fierce dog bankrupts a liquor store. A story of a shopkeeper who lost all his customers due to his ferocious dog
Bad company discourages true friends
China motif
Our proverbs come with full information. The modern Chinese characters are given first with links that give information on the character. If the phrase uses traditional characters these are shown in brackets and gray text. As proverbs are so old you will often see them written in the old form. 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 included at the end.

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.

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