Chinese idioms about foolishness

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.

Sayings that show the pitfalls of being foolish.

Bào xīn jiù huǒ
Using wood to put out a fire
Not choosing an appropriate solution to a problem. Making matters worse.
Bì kēng luò jǐng
Avoid falling into a pit to fall into a well
Avoid one obstacle only to hit another.
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.
Dōng shī xiaò pín
Ludicrous self conceit
The story is of Dong Shi, an ugly person imitating the posture of famous beautiful woman Xi Shi by knitting his eyebrows.
Roughly equivalent to: Mutton dressed as lamb.
弹琴 [對牛彈琴]
Duì niú tán qín
To play a lute to a cow
Wasting your time on pointless efforts. The 'lute' in this case is the qin, a traditional musical instrument. To address an inappropriate and unappreciative audience. A story from the Han dynasty when Mouzi Lihuolun, a Confucian scholar, tried to describe Buddhist teaching to an audience but failed because his audience had no basic understanding of the concepts.
Roughly equivalent to: Pearls before swine.
蛾投 [飛蛾投火]
Fēi é tóu huǒ
A moth throws itself into a flame
Heading for self destruction.
Roughly equivalent to: Like a moth to a flame.
畋,竭 [焚林而畋竭澤而漁]
Fén lín ěr tián, jié zé ěr yú
Burn a forest to farm; drain a pond to fish
Ignoring the consequences.
Roughly equivalent to: Marry in haste, repent at leisure.
Fèng máo lín jiǎo
As rare as phoenix feathers and unicorn horns
Seeking the unobtainable.
Gé xuē sāo yǎng
Scratching an itch from outside of the shoe
An ineffective solution to a problem.
邯郸 [邯鄲學步]
Hán dān xué bù
Trying too hard to impress
Learning how the residents of Handan walk . The story is of a man back in the Warring States period who took on the gait of grand city folk trying to impress but could no longer walk properly. Pompous and pretentious.
Roughly equivalent to: Make an ass of yourself.
kǒu bá yá
To extract a tooth from a tiger's mouth
To be very daring and/or to take unnecessary risks.
饼充饥 [畫餅充飢]
Huà bǐng chōng jī
Drawing a biscuit to satisfy hunger
To act foolishly and ineffectively. Wasting time on fruitless projects.
Roughly equivalent to: Soft in the head.
Huà shě tiān zú
Drawing a foot on a snake
Ruin by over working something. Add superfluous detail. Too meticulous.
Roughly equivalent to: Gilding the lily.
Modern Chinese Dushan jade sculpture from central China.
It shows the variability of color within a block of jade. Here the artist has used the variation to exquisite effect.
Image by Artfiber available under a Creative Commons license
换汤 [換湯不換葯]
Huàn tāng bú huàn yaò
Change the soup but not the medicine
Not getting to the root of a problem, making superficial changes.
Roughly equivalent to: Rearranging the deckchairs while the ship is sinking.
Jǐng dǐ zhī wā
A blinkered approach to life. Living in a fantasy world.
A frog in a well. The story is of a frog that only knows of the water in the well and knew nothing of the sea, and can only see a small portion of the sky.
Roughly equivalent to: Little knowledge is a dangerous thing.
Jiǔ niú maó
Nine cows are missing just one hair
An insignificant amount. A trivial matter.
Roughly equivalent to: A drop in the ocean.
Say yes when mean no
To say the opposite of what you really think.
, [雷聲大雨點小]
Thunder is loud but little rain falls
Overly portentous. Reality does not match expectations.
Roughly equivalent to: Empty vessels make the most noise.
临渴掘井 [臨渴掘井]
Lín kě jué jǐng
Digging a well only when starting to feel thirsty
Begin taking action when it is far too late.
Roughly equivalent to: Failing to plan is planning to fail.
Lǖ chún bù duì mǎ zuǐ
Donkey's lips do not fit a horse's mouth
Something that is out of place and inappropriate.
Pò fǔ chén zhōu
Smash the pots and sink the boats
A story at the fall of the Qin dynasty 207BCE tells of the general Xiang Yu who refused to accept possibility of retreat at the battle of Julu by burning the boats and smashing the cooking pots. So it means no going back whatever happens. Cutting off all possibility of retreat.
Roughly equivalent to: Burning your boats.
Ròu bāo zǐ dǎ gǒu
Hitting a dog with a meat bun
To use a self defeating method to solve a problem.
Shì shí shèng yú xióng biàn
A real victory is better than a great debate
Better to act than just talk about it.
Roughly equivalent to: Actions speak louder than words.
Shǒu zhū dài tù
Watching a tree waiting for rabbits
Do not just count on luck, need action to reach your goals.
Roughly equivalent to: Nothing ventured nothing gained.
Shǔ cùn guāng
A mouse's vision is only one inch long
Looking ahead for only a short time. Only planning for the immediate future.
Wàng méi zhǐ kě
Gaze at a plum to quench thirst
Offering hope by thinking of something currently out of reach.
mythical beast, kylin, sculpture
补牢 [亡羊補牢]
Wáng yáng bǔ láo
Mend the pen after the sheep are lost
Can mean taking action too late or else taking action to protect against a future repeat of misfortune.
Roughly equivalent to: Mending the stable door after the horse has bolted.
, [無源之水無本之木]
Wú yuán zhī shuǐ, wú běn zhī mù
A river without a source, a tree without roots
Something without a proper foundation. Not properly planned.
Xiā bīng xiè jiàng
Shrimp soldiers led by a crab general. An ineffective army
A laughably ineffective solution to a problem.
Xuē zú shì lǚ
Reshape feet to fit new shoes
Take the wrong decision. Apply an inappropriate solution.
盗铃 [掩耳盜鈴]
Yǎn ěr daò líng
Covering your ears while stealing the bell
Failing to think things through. Taking a rash action without applying logic. A foolish plan.
Roughly equivalent to: Stupid is as stupid does.
, [也要馬兒好也要馬兒不吃草]
Yě yaò mǎ ér haǒ, yě yaò mǎ ér bù chī caǒ
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.
Roughly equivalent to: You can't have your cake and eat it.
卵击 [以卵擊石]
Yǐ luǎn tóu shí
Try to smash a stone with an egg
Overrating strength and being defeated. Defeat guaranteed.
Roughly equivalent to: Kicking a brick wall.
, [一犬吠影白犬吠聲]
quǎn fèi yǐng, bǎi quǎn fèi shēng
One dog snarls at a shadow; a hundred howl at each other's barking
Blindly follow a trend without even knowing its origin.
Yǐn jiū zhǐ kě
To quench one's thirst with poisoned wine. The blood of the dove was considered poisonous
To take reckless action regardless of the consequences.
Roughly equivalent to: Don't cut off your nose to spite your face.
Yuán mù qiú
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 Mencius who advised the King of Qi against pointless further conquests.
Roughly equivalent to: To carry water in a sieve.
Zhǐ shàng tán bīng
Fighting war on paper
An armchair general. Making plans without knowledge of the actualité
Roughly equivalent to: A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.
Zhòng guā dé guā zhòng dòu dé dòu
Plant melons and you will harvest melons; plant beans and you will harvest beans
Live with the consequences of your actions.
Roughly equivalent to: Reap what you sow.
Zì xiāng máo dùn
Hit your shield with your own spear
To speak in contradictions. The story is about the man who said he had a spear that could pierce anything in the world, but also a shield that was impenetrable to any spear. Both claims could not be true.
mahjong, people
Mahjong game
井观 [坐井觀天]
Zuò jǐng guān tiān
To sit at the bottom of a well and view the sky
A blinkered or limited view of the world.
Zhōu guān fàng huǒ
The magistrate burns down the town
Bewailing pompous and incompetent officials. The story is that an official who did not want his name 'Deng' to be used in any official proclamation. The problem arose when the Lantern or 'Deng' festival was to be announced. Instead of 'Deng' he used the character for Fire instead and so announced the coming of Fire throughout the town - causing widespread alarm.
Roughly equivalent to: Couldn't organize a piss-up in a brewery.
Yáng zhì hǔ pí
A goat in a tiger's skin
Someone not living up to outward appearance. Looking fierce but actually timid.
Roughly equivalent to: All that glisters is not gold.
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.
狐谋 [與狐謀皮]
Yǔ hú móu pí
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.
Roughly equivalent to: The leopard does not change his spots.
Zuò fǎ zì bì
Making laws that harm yourself
To fall foul of rules of your own making.
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.
Kōng zhōng lóu gé
A pavilion in the air
A fanciful and impossible scheme. An impractical idea with a streak of vanity.
Roughly equivalent to: A flight of fancy.
Xǐ zhái wàng qī
Move house but overlook wife
Foolish and forgetful. Move to a new house and take everything - except your partner.
Roughly equivalent to: Soft in the head.
遗患 [養虎遺患]
Yǎng hǔ yí huàn
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.
Roughly equivalent to: Rearing a nest of vipers.
Shí yán ér féi
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 the 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.
Roughly equivalent to: Shoot your mouth off.
Bēi shuǐ chē xīn
A glass of water won't put out a car on fire
Not putting in enough effort to solve a problem.
Qián pà láng hòu pà hǔ
To fear wolves ahead and tigers behind
To be obsessed by fears of attack from all sides.
Henan, Kaifeng, garden, bridge, pagoda
Classical garden at Qingming Riverside, Kaifeng, Henan
逐末 [捨本逐末]
Shě běn zhú mò
Pursuing trivia while neglecting essentials
Concentrating on the little details rather than the important stuff.
Roughly equivalent to: Putting the cart before the horse.

See also