Chinese idioms keeping bad things at bay
A set of proverbs that warn of evil and demonstrate how it can be withstood or avoided.
self I drunk
Drunk with oneself. Narcissistic
Conceited and arrogant
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
wolf feeling dog lungs
Wolves are aggressive, dog bark. Ungrateful; cruel and unscrupulous
Ungrateful and unscrupulous
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
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
smelly not can equal
Worst ever smell
To give off an unbearable stink
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'
world black crow one kind black
Crows everywhere are all black
Bad people are all the same. You find bad people everywhere
strike grass startled snake
Striking the grass alerts the snake
It is unwise to alert an enemy of your presence
Let sleeping dogs lie
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.
tiger look at stare stare
A tiger's stare. To look covetously
To eye enviously
thief shout 'stop thief'
A thief cries 'Stop thief!'
Diverting attention to cover misdoing
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
keep sand shoot shadow
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.
mouth honey belly sword
Mouth of honey, heart of daggers
Disguising ill intent with honeyed words. Deceitful and dangerous
snow up add frost
Add frost to snow
To add to misfortunes unnecessarily
Add insult to injury
injure crowd this horse
The horse that causes trouble to the herd
The bad person of the family or group
Bad apple; Black sheep
heart like dead ash
Heart reduced to ashes
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
Mosque for Hui people, Ningxia
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
fall spear mutual direction
Attack own party
Betray one's own side
rabbit no eat burrow side grass
Rabbits do not eat the grass around their burrows
Thieves do not steal from neighbors
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
one correct flatten hundred evil
Justice can overpower a hundred evils
Justice is the main defense against evil
self tall self big
Think oneself tall and great
Full of conceit and ego
kindness will enemy repay
Repay kindness with hostility
Biting the hand that feeds it
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.
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
false public aid self
Swindle public to help yourself
Use public office for personal gain
Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely
word but nothing true
Speak but not mean it
To go back on one's word
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
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.
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
change evil return correct
Abandon evil and turn to good
Reject bad ways and turn to the good
Turn over a new leaf
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.
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
steal girder change post
Steal beams replaced with wooden poles
To carry out a crafty deception
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
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
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.
incite wind spot fire
Create wind and fire
Create a lot of trouble
tip thorn exist back
A thorn in one?s flesh
Someone or something is causing continuous irritation.
evil people crooked way
Evil people in crooked ways
Dishonesty and deceit
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
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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