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 成语 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.
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.
Fēi é tóu huǒ
A moth throws itself into a flame
Heading for self destruction.
Roughly equivalent to: Like a moth to a flame.
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.
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.
Overly portentous. Reality does not match expectations.
Roughly equivalent to: Empty vessels make the most noise.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.