Chinese idioms about foolishness

Sayings that show the pitfalls of being foolish.

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.
避坑落井
Bì kēng luò jǐng
Avoid falling into a pit to fall into a well
Avoid one obstacle only to hit another.
[事實勝于雄辯]
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.
Ròu bāo zǐ dǎ gǒu
Hitting a dog with a meat bun
To use a self defeating method to solve a problem.
[鳳毛麟角]
Fèng máo lín jiǎo
As rare as phoenix feathers and unicorn horns
Seeking the unobtainable.
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 a 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.
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.
[作法自斃]
Zuò fǎ zì bì
Making laws that harm yourself
To fall foul of rules of your own making.
, [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.
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.
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.
望梅
Wàng méi zhǐ kě
Gaze at a plum to quench thirst
Offering hope by thinking of something currently out of reach.
Summer palace, Beijing, roof animals, PKChina-68
Roof animals at Kunming Lake, Summer Palace, Beijing. September 2019. Image by Paul Kerswill
[談虎色變]
Tán hǔ sè biàn
Turning pale at the mere mention of a tiger
To be so timid that even mentioning danger causes fear.
Roughly equivalent to: Afraid of your own shadow.
[蝦兵蟹將]
Xiā bīng xiè jiàng
Shrimp soldiers led by a crab general. An ineffective army
A laughably ineffective solution to a problem.
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.
[東施效顰]
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.
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.
[打草驚蛇]
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.
守株待
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.
徙宅
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.
败俱伤 [兩敗俱傷]
Liǎng bài jù shāng
Both sides will suffer
Heading towards a Pyrric victory - neither side wins. A conflict neither side can win.
Roughly equivalent to: Mutually assured destruction.
, [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.
拔牙
kǒu bá yá
To extract a tooth from a tiger's mouth
To be very daring and/or to take unnecessary risks.
, [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.
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.
temple, roof
Yellow glazed tiles on a temple roof
[種瓜得瓜種豆得豆]
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.
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.
隔靴搔痒
Gé xuē sāo yǎng
Scratching an itch from outside of the shoe
An ineffective solution to a problem.
[㱃鳩止渴]
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.
[空中樓閣]
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.
[黃粱美夢]
Huáng liáng měi mèng
A golden millet dream
A fanciful day dream. The story is of a man who took a brief nap while his host was cooking a bowl of millet. He dreamed of becoming married to a beautiful wife and immensely rich and living to a great age. When he woke up the millet was cooked but he found he was still poor.
Roughly equivalent to: Cloud cuckoo land.
[畫蛇添足]
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.
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 brewey.
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, who failed to describe Buddhist teaching because his audience had no basic understanding of it.
Roughly equivalent to: Pearls before swine.
井底
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.
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.
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.
, [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.
SunXinde, calligraphy
Calligraphy by the Chinese calligrapher Sun Xinde July 2005 Photo by Immanuel Giel , available under a Creative Commons license .
[緣木求魚]
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 Mengciuswho advised the King of Qi against pointless further conquests.
Roughly equivalent to: To carry water in a sieve.
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.
[賠了夫人又折兵]
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.
[羊質虎皮]
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.
[殃及池魚]
Yāng jí chí
Calamity has spread to the fish in the pond
Suffering collateral damage. Draining a fish pond to search for some treasure would kill off all the fish as a consequence. An action that creates unintended victims.
Roughly equivalent to: Cannon fodder.
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.
弄斧 [班門弄斧]
Bān mén nòng fǔ
Demonstrating the axe at Ban's door
Lu Ban (c. 500BCE) was a master engineer inventor and carpenter. So trying to show off you skills with an axe (or adze in those days) at his door was being rather pretentious. So the phrase means to show off your feeble skills in front of a real expert.
Roughly equivalent to: Teaching your grandmother to suck eggs.
[帋上談兵]
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.
Jiǔ niú maó
Nine cows are missing just one hair
An insignificant amount. A trivial matter.
Roughly equivalent to: A drop in the ocean.
[請君入甕]
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 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.
[刻舟求劍]
Kè zhōu qiú jiàn
Marking the boat to locate a sunken sword
A venture made pointless by changing circumstances. The story is of a man who accidentally dropped a sword in the lake while being ferried across it. He reasoned that if he made a notch in the side of the boat that would let him find the sword again,
Roughly equivalent to: Wild goose chase.
适履
Xuē zú shì lǚ
Reshape feet to fit new shoes
Take the wrong decision. Apply an inappropriate solution.
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.
Shanxi, Sui dynasty
Traditional style academy building at old town of Yuci, Shanxi
破釜沉
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.
,败絮 [金玉其外,敗絮其中]
Jīn yù qí wài ? bài xù qí zhōng
Precious on the outside but shabby on the inside
Don't be fooled by outward appearances.
Roughly equivalent to: Beauty is only skin deep.
驴唇[馿唇不對馬嘴]
Lǖ chún bù duì mǎ zuǐ
Donkey's lips do not fit a horse's mouth
Something that is out of place and inappropriate.
薪救
Bào xīn jiù huǒ
Using wood to put out a fire
Not choosing an appropriate solution to a problem. Making matters worse.
Say yes when mean no
To say the opposite of what you really think.
[杯水車薪]
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.
骑驴[騎馿找馿]
Qí lǖ zhǎo lǖ
Looking for a donkey while sitting on its back
Ignoring the obvious. Absent mindedness.
Roughly equivalent to: Not looking beyond your nose.
[干活不由東累死也無功]
Gàn huó bú yóu dōng lèi sǐ yě wú gōng
Working without obeying the boss will bring only hard work and no merit
Only work on what is needed to be done.
螳臂 [螳臂當車]
Táng bì dāng chē
Mantis obstructing a chariot
Overrate abilities and attempt the impossible. A mantis is a fearsome insect that does not back down even if faced with a much larger predator. So it means someone full of pride making an idle threat.
卫填 [精衛填海]
Jīng wèi tián hǎi
Jingwei tries to fill up the ocean
Even the mythical bird Jing Wei will be unable to fill the oceans with pebbles. Facing a Herculean task. Determined against impossible odds. The story is of Jing Wei who was the daughter of Emperor Yan. A great typhoon came and killed her and she was then transformed into a bird. In revenge for her early death she determined to fill up the ocean by filling it with pebbles one by one.
Roughly equivalent to: A forlorn hope.
窥豹 [管中窺豹]
Guǎn zhōng kuī bào
View a leopard through a tube
A narrow-minded view of something. Not seeing the full picture.
Roughly equivalent to: Cant see the wood for the trees.
[生吞活剝]
Shēng tūn huó bāo
Swallowing it all
To unthinkingly take on board someone's opinion. Uncritical application. Copying someone else's actions. The story is of Zhang Huaiqing of the Tang dynasty who plagiarized other poet's work by mechanically adding a few characters here and there. The resultant poems were gibberish.
Roughly equivalent to: Monkey see: monkey do.
[夏蟲疑冰]
Xià chóng yí bīng
The summer insect doubts the existence of ice
An ignorant person doesn't understand the wider truth.
Hong Kong, zodiac, sculpture
The Garden of the Chinese Zodiac features twelve carved animals in the gardens of Kowloon Walled City Park, Hong Kong
[買櫝還珠]
Mǎi dú huán zhū
Buy the box yet return the pearls inside
To make a foolish action - the pearls were worth far more than the box. Missing the main opportunity.
Roughly equivalent to: Penny wise, pound foolish.
[竭澤而漁]
Jié zé ér yú
Drain the pond to harvest the fish
Choose short-term gain for long-term sorrow. Not planning for the long term. Short-termism. Similar to burning down a forest to capture wild animals - unsustainable.
Roughly equivalent to: Kill the goose that lays the golden eggs.
[鄭人爭年]
Zhèng rén zhēng nián
Zheng men argue over their age
A futile quarrel over a trifling matter. The story is of two men from the state of Zheng arguing endlessly and furiously as to who was born first.
Roughly equivalent to: Apropos of nothing.
Zhāo sān mù
Say three in the morning, four in the evening
Indecisive saying one thing and then changing mind later and saying another. The story is of a monkey trainer who reduced their chestnut rations from 3 in the morning and 4 in the evenings. The monkeys were most unhappy but when the trainer changed it to 4 in the morning and 3 in the evenings they were delighted. And so the phrase can also mean being foolishly deceived.
Roughly equivalent to: Hemming and hahing.
[玩物喪志]
Wán wù sàng zhì
Obsessional play ruins the will
Spending too much time on trivia. Excessive attention to detail. Losing the big picture.
Roughly equivalent to: Little things please little minds.
鼎烹 [牛鼎烹雞]
Niú dǐng pēng jī
Cooking a chicken in a pot designed for an ox
An in appropriate tool or scale of preparation for a job. Also refers to when a person of great skill is given a menial job.
[曾參殺人]
Zēng Shēn shā rén
Zeng Shen committed murder
A false rumor. The story is that the mother of Zeng Shen was weaving cloth. Someone came in to tell her that her son had been found guilty of murder. She did not believe it saying he would not do such a thing. Another person came with the same report and she still would not believe it. Only when the third person gave the same story did she reacted and stopped her work. The story was in fact of another man called 'Zeng Shen' and not her son.
Roughly equivalent to: The word on the street.
[畫虎類犬]
Huà hǔ lèi quǎn
A drawing of a tiger that looks like a dog
Foolishly undertaking something over-ambitious and coming a cropper. Taking on something beyond your ability. Puffed up with self-conceit.
Roughly equivalent to: The pride of the peacock.
[大手大腳]
shǒu jiaǒ
Large hands and feet
Lavish and grandiose expenditure on tasteless trifles.
Roughly equivalent to: A fool and his money are soon parted.
数典 [數典忘祖]
Shǔ diǎn wàng zǔ
Recounting history but forgeting ancestors
Lose connection with ancestors - lose one's roots. Ignorance of own origins or country.
漏洞
Lòu dòng bǎi chū
Leaking through one hundred holes
Full of mistakes and errors.
[死馬噹活馬醫]
Sǐ mǎ dāng huó mǎ yī
Treating a dead horse as if it is still alive
Persevering when it is already too late. A lost cause.
Roughly equivalent to: Flogging a dead horse.
Bēi gōng shé yǐng
Seeing a bow's reflection in a cup as a snake
Suspicious and frightened; plagued by fearful imagination. The story is of a man who was terrified by the sight of what he thought was a snake swimming in the cup of tea he was drinking. The experience made him ill and only when it was demonstrated that it was just the reflection of a bow left hanging on the wall did he recover.
Roughly equivalent to: Afraid of your own shadow.
Buddhism , temple , roof, Sichuan
Historic drum tower and prayer hall with distinctive flying eave roofs at Wenshu Buddhist temple, Chengdu
使舵 [看風使舵]
Kàn fēng shǐ duò
Steer the boat wherever the winds lead
Not sticking to the big plan. A fickle mind.
Yè láng zì
Ye Lang thinks highly of himself
Pompous and conceited. The story is of the king of Ye Lang a tiny country in south-western China who in Han dynasty times considered himself the equal of the Emperor of China.
Roughly equivalent to: As proud as a peacock.
Gē ròu zì dàn
Eating one's own flesh
A foolish, self defeating stratagem.
Roughly equivalent to: Cutting off your nose to spite your face.
[吳牛喘月]
Wú niú chuǎn yuè
The ox from Wu pants at the sight of the moon
Unnecessarily fearful of something. The story is of an ox from Wu that thought the moon was the sun and panted through the assumed heat it expected to experience.
Roughly equivalent to: Afraid of your own shadow.
[一竅不通]
qiào bù tōng
All parts of the body are not working together
Incoherent action, not making any sense.
Qí lù wáng yáng
The sheep goes astray at the fork of a road
Taking a wrong decision and now hopelessly lost. Unable to work out a way forward because the true situation has not been appreciated,
[貪小失大]
Tān xiǎo shī
Coveting small gains and incurring great losses
Paying attention to the unimportant details not the big picture. Concentration on trivia.
Roughly equivalent to: Penny wise, pound foolish.
[小題大作]
Xiǎo zuò
To talk a lot about very little
Procrastination and exaggeration.
Roughly equivalent to: Make a mountain out of a molehill.
[齊人擢金]
rén zhuó jīn
The gold grabber from Qi
Blinded by lust for gain. Greed. Avarice. Blinded by ambition. The story if of a man from the kingdom of Qi who seeing gold just grabbed it and ran off, oblivious of the consequences.
Roughly equivalent to: Blind ambition.
[聞風喪膽]
Wén fēng sàng dǎn
Panic on hearing news
Panic stricken; terrified by news.
Yǒu gòng dǔ
Seen by everyone. There for all to see
Obvious to everybody.
Roughly equivalent to: Plain for all to see.
[倒繃孩兒]
Dào bēng hái ér
Wrap up a baby upside down
Accidentally wrapping a new-born baby the wrong way round. Said of someone who though skilled can sometimes make mistakes. An occasional error out of character.
[鄭人買履]
Zhèng rén mǎi lǔ:
The man from Zheng buys shoes
Stubbornly sticking to a silly plan; inflexible and stupid. The story is of a man from Zheng who measured his own feet in readiness to buying new shoes. When he reached the shop in a distant town he found he had forgotten the paper on which the measurement was recorded. So he walked all the way home to fetch it rather than just try on shoes in the shop.
Roughly equivalent to: Stupid is as stupid does.
school, Suzhou, Qing dynasty
Village School. Detail of scroll about Suzhou made on the order of Emperor Qianlong Image by Xu Yang, 18th century painter from Suzhou, China [1736-96] scan by Szilas available under a Creative Commons license .
[趾高氣揚]
Zhǐ gāo qì yáng
Putting on airs and graces
An arrogant person who may well face a comeuppance due to complacency and self-conceit.
Roughly equivalent to: Pride comes before a fall.
[殺雞焉用牛刀]
Shā jī yān yòng niú dāo
Using an ox-cleaver to kill a chicken
Taking unnecessary effort to tackle a small problem. Using an inappropriately large tool for the job.
Roughly equivalent to: Using a sledgehammer to crack a nut.
招愮 [招愮過市]
Zhāo yáo guò shì
Parading through the busy streets
Boastful behavior; to be puffed up with pride . Walking the streets seeking the adulation of the crowds.
Roughly equivalent to: Pride comes before a fall.
[味如雞肋]
Wèi rú jī lèi
As tasteless as chicken ribs
A humdrum, boring activity and by extension a person lacking character. Insipid, bland.
[言過其實]
Yán guò qí shí
To embellish the facts
Overstate the facts or exaggerate skills. Someone who is a bit of a windbag.
Wàng zì zūn
Having an inflated opinion of oneself
Full of inflated pride. There are many examples throughout history of people thinking rather too highly of themselves.
Roughly equivalent to: Pride comes before a fall.
揖盗 [開門揖盜]
Kāi mén yī dào
Opening the door and welcoming in the thief
To welcome a thief or bandit into your home. Bringing disaster upon yourself by your own foolish actions.
眼泪救 [眼淚救不了火]
Yǎn lèi jiù bù liǎo huǒ
Tears do not put out the fire
Decisive action is needed in a crisis not regrets.
[屠龍之技]
Tú lóng zhī jì
Skilled in killing dragons
Possessing a useless skill. Pointless training to achieve something of no value. Wasting time and effort.
[多行不義必自斃]
Duō xíng bù yì bì zì bì
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.
[此地無銀三百兩]
Cǐ dì wú yín sān bǎi liǎng
Three hundred silver taels are not buried here
Accidentally giving away the hidden truth in an explanation. The story is of a man who buried 300 pieces of stolen silver. Strangely he put up a sign to say that the 300 pieces were not buried on top of his horde. Someone a little more clever dug up the cash and replaced the sign to say he had not dug up the cash buried there.
[以鄭爲壑]
Yǐ zhèng wèi hè
Building a drain onto neighbor's land
Diverting flood water onto neighbor's land - moving a problem onto others rather than try to solve it. Acting selfishly.
Roughly equivalent to: Look out for number one.
Qián pà láng hòu pà hǔ
To fear wolves ahead and tigers behind
To be obsessed by fears of attack from all sides.
wedding, marriage, dress
Traditional Chinese wedding dress with phoenix crown () headpiece, Qing Dynasty style. Still used in many parts of southeast Asia, including Taiwan. 26th December 2011. Image by Kelidimari available under a Creative Commons license .
Xiǎng rù fēi fēi
Indulge in fantasy
Let imagination run wild.
Roughly equivalent to: Head in the clouds.
[煽風點火]
Shān fēng diǎn huǒ
Create wind and fire
Create a lot of trouble.
[各自為政]
Gè zì wéi zhèng
Each following his own policy
Acting selfishly. Following own plans and ideas with no regard for others.
Zhì sǐ bù wù
Failing to understand even to death
Stubbornly holding to views. Obstinate and set in ways.
Roughly equivalent to: As stubborn as a mule.
鼻息
Yǎng rén bí xī
Depend on someone, even for breathe
To be totally dependent on others, as if unable to breathe without their help. Showing great weakness.
Roughly equivalent to: Wet fish.
续貂 [狗尾續貂]
Gǒu wěi xù diāo
Use a dog's tail to replace a sable
A poor substitute for the original. Said of poor follow-up to promising earlier work. The story is of a usurper to the Jin dynasty throne who gave honors and titles to his whole family and household. There was insufficient sable tails to make the formal robes for all these people so dog tails were used instead.
然,
Zhī qí rán, bù zhī qí suǒ yǐ rán
To know the how but not the why
Having a limited understanding of something. Only seeing half the problem.
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.
孤注[孤注一擲]
Gū zhù zhì
Stake all on a single throw
Taking desperate measures to try to save a situation. Gambling everything on a change of fortune.
Roughly equivalent to: Last throw of the dice.
洋洋
Dé yì yáng yáng
Smug and self-satisfied
To be very pleased with oneself. Giving an air of sublime complacency.
Roughly equivalent to: I'm all right Jack.
[痴人說夢]
Chī rén shuō mèng
A fool describing his dream
Talking irrelevant nonsense. Ravings of no possible interest.
Roughly equivalent to: A load of codswallop.
Kuā Fù zhuī
Kua Fu chasing the sun
Pride leading to attempting the impossible. Over confidence in skills. Over-arching ambition. The story is of a giant called Kua Fu who was immensely strong and swift. He attempted to chase the sun but in so doing became so hot he died from thirst that could not be quenched. A similar tale to Icarus flying too close to the sun.
Roughly equivalent to: Pride comes before a fall.
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 (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.

See also