Chinese idioms keeping bad things at bay
A set of proverbs that warn against evil and demonstrate how it can be withstood or avoided.
Rabbits do not eat the grass around their burrows
Thieves do not steal from neighbors.
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.
Roughly equivalent to: What a tangled web we weave.
Clear conscience does not fear a knock at midnight
If you have done nothing wrong, there is no worry over retribution.
Roughly equivalent to: As you make your bed, so you must lie upon it.
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.
Roughly equivalent to: Don't judge a book by its cover.
In face of evil, rather be a broken jade than an intact brick
It is better to die with honor than surrender.
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.
A thorn in one's flesh
Someone or something is causing continuous irritation.
Repay kindness with hostility
Roughly equivalent to: Biting the hand that feeds it.
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.
Roughly equivalent to: Sell your grandmother.
Crows everywhere are all black
Bad people are all the same. You find bad people everywhere.
Mouth of honey, heart of daggers
Disguising ill intent with honeyed words. Deceitful and dangerous.
Abandon evil and turn to good
Reject bad ways and turn to the good.
Roughly equivalent to: Turn over a new leaf.
Drunk with oneself. Narcissistic
Conceited and arrogant.
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.
A mud figure fears rain; a lie fears truth
Over time lies will eventually be laid bare.
Roughly equivalent to: Truth will out.
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.
Swindle public to help yourself
Use public office for personal gain.
Roughly equivalent to: Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.
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.
Roughly equivalent to: Speak of the devil and he is sure to appear.
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.
Roughly equivalent to: To give someone a taste of their own medicine.
Heart reduced to ashes
A thief cries 'Stop thief!'
Diverting attention to cover misdoing.
Roughly equivalent to: Crying 'wolf'
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.
Think oneself tall and great
Full of conceit and ego.
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.
Roughly equivalent to: The chickens havee come home to roost.
Striking the grass alerts the snake
It is unwise to alert an enemy of your presence.
Roughly equivalent to: Let sleeping dogs lie.
Worst ever smell
To give off an unbearable stink.
Where good flourishes, evil can flourish even more
There is always opportunity for evil to take root.
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.
Roughly equivalent to: The road to hell is paved with good intentions.
Steal beams replaced with wooden poles
To carry out a crafty deception.
Xiang Zhuang performs the sword dance but his intention was to kill Liu Bang
An elaborate evil deception. The Duke of Pei was one of the titles of the first Han Emperor (r. 202-195BCE) Liu Bang. Xiang Zuang was a sword-fighter who intended to murder Liu Bang. In order to get close to Liu he performed a sword dance in front of him. fortunately for Liu the plot was unmasked by Fan Kuai and Liu escaped unharmed. Refers to a hidden malicious agenda.
After someone falls into a well throw in a stone
To add needlessly to someone's misfortunes.
Roughly equivalent to: Hit a man when he is down.
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.
Roughly equivalent to: Rough justice.
A nail in the eye
Real adversity. The story is of Zhao Zaili of the Later Jin dynasty [936-946] who was a cruel and unjust governor. When it was rumored that he would be moved to another region the people rejoiced about their nail in their eyes being removed.. However the jubilation was premature, as when Zhao heard about it he determined to stay on and what is more charge the people of Songzhou a new 'nail removal tax'.
Roughly equivalent to: A thorn in the flesh.
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.
Evil people in crooked ways
Dishonesty and deceit.
Grab by trick or by force
Cheat others of their valuables by trickery or force.
Roughly equivalent to: Rip off.
So many crimes that there is not enough bamboo to record them all
So evil that there is not enough paper to record all the misdemeanors. Records used to be made on bamboo strips before paper was invented.
Wolves are aggressive, dog bark. Ungrateful; cruel and unscrupulous
Ungrateful and unscrupulous.
Add frost to snow
To add to misfortunes unnecessarily.
Roughly equivalent to: Add insult to injury.
A tiger's stare. To look covetously
To eye enviously.
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.
Hanging up a sheep?s head but selling dog meat
Deceiving people into believing you are selling something much less valuable than it appears to be. A con trick. Dishonest advertising.
Roughly equivalent to: Buying a pig in a poke.
The horse that causes trouble to the herd
The bad person of the family or group.
Roughly equivalent to: Bad apple; Black sheep.
The gentleman on the roof beam
Euphemism for a thief. As traditional Chinese roof tiles were not tacked down it was very easy to access a house via the roof.
Roughly equivalent to: Caught with your hand in the cookie jar.
Justice can overpower a hundred evils
Justice is the main defense against evil.
The offender is the first to complain
The perpetrator diverts attention by being the first to complain.
Roughly equivalent to: To cry 'wolf'
Create wind and fire
Create a lot of trouble.
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.
Roughly equivalent to: Shake like a leaf.
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.
Roughly equivalent to: Schadenfreude.
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.
Roughly equivalent to: Supping with the Devil.
Persisting in evil leads to self-destruction
Turning to bad deeds will ultimately bring ruin. This is a form of Karma - divine justice which catch up with you one day.
There is always a crime that somebody can be accused of
No-one is spotless and so everyone can be rightly accused of a crime. Nobody's perfect.
Deceiving the public to gain fame
A con artist. Someone who sets out to become famous by lies and deception.
Roughly equivalent to: Every trick in the book.
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.
Harbouring evil designs
Concealing malicious plans. Harbor evil designs.
Harboring evil intentions
Having evil intent; concealing malice.
Roughly equivalent to: In league with the devil.
Attack own party
Betray one's own side.
Killing without blinking an eye
Treating evil as an enemy
Determined to confront evil. Not letting evil people or things continue.
Roughly equivalent to: Fight the good fight.
Speak but not mean it
To go back on one's word.
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.