Chinese idioms keeping bad things at bay

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 (normally a 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.

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

Chòu bù kě dāng
Worst ever smell
To give off an unbearable stink.
Dǎ cǎo jīng shé
Striking the grass alerts the snake
It is unwise to alert an enemy of your presence.
Roughly equivalent to: Let sleeping dogs lie.
Dào gāo chǐ, mó gāo zhàng
Where good flourishes, evil can flourish even more
There is always opportunity for evil to take root.
È guàn mǎn yíng
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.
Ēn jiāng chóu baò
Repay kindness with hostility
Reject kindness.
Roughly equivalent to: Biting the hand that feeds it.
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
In face of evil, rather be a broken jade than an intact brick
It is better to die with honor than surrender.
改邪 [改邪歸正]
Gǎi xié guī zhèng
Abandon evil and turn to good
Reject bad ways and turn to the good.
Roughly equivalent to: Turn over a new leaf.
Gǒu měng jiǔ suān
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.
Jiǎ gōng jì sī
Swindle public to help yourself
Use public office for personal gain.
Roughly equivalent to: Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.
蜜腹剑 [口蜜腹劍]
Kǒu mì fù jiàn
Mouth of honey, heart of daggers
Disguising ill intent with honeyed words. Deceitful and dangerous.
Luò jǐng xià shí
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.
, [沒做虧心事不怕鬼叫門]
Méi zuò kuī xīn shì, bù pà guǐ jiào mén
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.
,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.
Roughly equivalent to: Truth will out.
Qinghai, lake, mountains
Mirror lake in Qinghai
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.
Roughly equivalent to: Speak of the devil and he is sure to appear.
Tiān xià wū yā bān hēi
Crows everywhere are all black
Bad people are all the same. You find bad people everywhere.
偷梁换柱 [偷梁換柱]
Tōu liáng huàn zhù
Steal beams replaced with wooden poles
To carry out a crafty deception.
Tù zi bù chī wō biān cǎo
Rabbits do not eat the grass around their burrows
Thieves do not steal from neighbors.
Xiào lǐ cáng dāo
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.
Xīn ruò sǐ huī
Heart reduced to ashes
Desperately unhappy.
, [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.
Roughly equivalent to: The road to hell is paved with good intentions.
贼喊捉贼 [賊喊捉賊]
Zéi hǎn zhuō zéi
A thief cries 'Stop thief!'
Diverting attention to cover misdoing.
Roughly equivalent to: Crying 'wolf'
Zì gāo zì
Think oneself tall and great
Full of conceit and ego.
Zì wǒ táo zuì
Drunk with oneself. Narcissistic
Conceited and arrogant.
Máng cì zài bèi
A thorn in one's flesh
Someone or something is causing continuous irritation.
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!
Roughly equivalent to: To give someone a taste of their own medicine.
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.
Roughly equivalent to: The chickens have come home to roost.
window lattice, Forbidden City, Beijing
Ancient Lattice Windows at the Forbidden City, Beijing
苛政猛 [苛政猛於虎]
Kē zhèng měng yú hǔ
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.
Péi le fū rén yòu zhé bīng
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.
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.
Roughly equivalent to: Sell your grandmother.
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.
Roughly equivalent to: What a tangled web we weave.
项庄舞剑, [項莊舞劍,意在沛公]
Xiàng zhuāng wǔ jiàn yì zài pèi gōng
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.
È rén xiān gàozhuàng
The offender is the first to complain
The perpetrator diverts attention by being the first to complain.
Roughly equivalent to: To cry 'wolf'
Hài qún zhī mǎ
The horse that causes trouble to the herd
The bad person of the family or group.
Roughly equivalent to: Bad apple; Black sheep.
视眈眈 [虎眎眈眈]
Hǔ shì dān dān
A tiger's stare. To look covetously
To eye enviously.
Láng xīn gǒu fèi
Wolves are aggressive, dog bark. Ungrateful; cruel and unscrupulous
Ungrateful and unscrupulous.
Rén è rén tiān bù pà, rén shàn rén tiān bù qī
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.
Xié mén wāi daò
Evil people in crooked ways
Dishonesty and deceit.
Xuě shàng jiā shuāng
Add frost to snow
To add to misfortunes unnecessarily.
Roughly equivalent to: Add insult to injury.
zhèng yā bǎi xié
Justice can overpower a hundred evils
Justice is the main defense against evil.
canal, Jiangsu, bridge
Canal running through ancient 'water' city of Zhouzhuang, Jiangsu
Bǎi zú zhī chóng sǐ ér bù jiāng
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.
Qìng zhú nán shū
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.
Guà yáng tóu mài gǒu ròu
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.
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.
Roughly equivalent to: Rough justice.
Yǎn zhōng zhī dīng
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.
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.
Roughly equivalent to: Rip off.
Liáng shàng jūn zǐ
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.
Shān fēng diǎn huǒ
Create wind and fire
Create a lot of trouble.
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.
Roughly equivalent to: Schadenfreude.
Hán shā shè yǐng
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.
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.
Roughly equivalent to: Shake like a leaf.
Daǒ gē xiāng xiàng
Attack own party
Betray one's own side.

See also