Chinese idioms about foolishness

Sayings that show the pitfalls of foolishness.

[空中樓閣]
Kōng zhōng lóu gé [kong zhong lou ge]
sky middle storied pavilion
A pavilion in the air
A fanciful and impossible scheme. An impractical idea with a streak of vanity.
A flight of fancy
眼泪救 [眼淚救不了火]
Yǎn lèi jiù bù liǎo huǒ [yan lei jiu bu liao huo]
tears rescued not fire
Tears do not put out the fire
Decisive action is needed in a crisis not regrets
[種瓜得瓜種豆得豆]
Zhòng guā dé guā zhòng dòu dé dòu [zhong gua de gua zhong dou de dou]
plant melon get melon, plant beans get beans
Plant melons and you will harvest melons; plant beans and you will harvest beans
Live with the consequences of your actions
Reap what you sow
盗铃 [掩耳盜鈴]
Yǎn ěr daò líng [yan er dao ling]
conceal ear steal bell
Covering your ears while stealing the bell
Failing to think things through. Taking a rash action without applying logic. A foolish plan
Stupid is as stupid does
井底
Jǐng dǐ zhī wā [jing di zhi wa]
well bottom's frog
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.
Little knowledge is a dangerous thing
徙宅
Xǐ zhái wàng qī [xi zhai wang qi]
change residence forget wife
Move house but overlook wife
Foolish and forgetful. Move to a new house and take everything - except your partner.
Soft in the head
[杯水車薪]
Bēi shuǐ chē xīn [bei shui che xin]
cup water vehicle firewood
A glass of water won't put out a car on fire
Not putting in enough effort to solve a problem
[各自為政]
Gè zì wéi zhèng [ge zi wei zheng]
each person act as government
Each following his own policy
Acting selfishly. Following own plans and ideas with no regard for others.
Kǒu shì xīn fēi [kou shi xin fei]
mouth OK feeling wrong
Say yes when mean no
To say the opposite of what you really think
临渴掘井 [臨渴掘井]
Lín kě jué jǐng [lin ke jue jing]
approach thirsty dig well
Digging a well only when starting to feel thirsty
Begin taking action when it is far too late.
Failing to plan is planning to fail
遗患 [養虎遺患]
Yǎng hǔ yí huàn [yang hu yi huan]
raise tiger bequeath misfortune
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.
Rearing a nest of vipers
[蝦兵蟹將]
Xiā bīng xiè jiàng [xia bing xie jiang]
shrimp soldier crab general
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 [yu hu mou pi]
with fox seek skin
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
The leopard does not change his spots
Ròu bāo zǐ dǎ gǒu [rou bao zi da gou]
meat wrap child hit dog
Hitting a dog with a meat bun
To use a self defeating method to solve a problem
鼎烹 [牛鼎烹雞]
Niú dǐng pēng jī [niu ding peng ji]
ox cauldron boil chicken
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
补牢 [亡羊補牢]
Wáng yáng bǔ láo [wang yang bu lao]
lose sheep mend pen
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
Mending the stable door after the horse has bolted
驴唇[馿唇不對馬嘴]
Lǖ chún bù duì mǎ zuǐ [lu chun bu dui ma zui]
donkey lips no match horse mouth
Donkey's lips do not fit a horse's mouth
Something that is out of place and inappropriate
使舵 [看風使舵]
Kàn fēng shǐ duò [kan feng shi duo]
look wind steer rudder
Steer the boat wherever the winds lead
Not sticking to the big plan. A fickle mind
, [一犬吠影白犬吠聲]
quǎn fèi yǐng, bǎi quǎn fèi shēng [yi quan fei ying, bai quan fei sheng]
one dog bark shadow, one hundred dog bark noise
One dog snarls at a shadow; a hundred howl at each other's barking
Blindly follow a trend without even knowing its origin
printing, calligraphy
Printing using movable wooden block Chinese characters
[作法自斃]
Zuò fǎ zì bì [zuo fa zi bi]
compose law self harm
Making laws that harm yourself
To fall foul of rules of your own making.
漏洞
Lòu dòng bǎi chū [lou dong bai chu]
leak hole hundred get out
Leaking through one hundred holes
Full of mistakes and errors
[東施效顰]
Dōng shī xiaò pín [dong shi xiao pin]
Dong Shi imitate knit eyebrows
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
Mutton dressed as lamb
Yǒu gòng dǔ [you mu gong du]
has eye common observe
Seen by everyone. There for all to see
Obvious to everybody
Plain for all to see
隔靴搔痒
Gé xuē sāo yǎng [ge xue sao yang]
separate boot scratch itch
Scratching an itch from outside of the shoe
An ineffective solution to a problem
Shǔ cùn guāng [shu mu cun guang]
mouse eye inch bright
A mouse's vision is only one inch long
Looking ahead for only a short time. Only planning for the immediate future
[緣木求魚]
Yuán mù qiú [yuan mu qiu yu]
cause tree seek fish
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.
To carry water in a sieve
Zhōu guān fàng huǒ [zhou guan fang huo]
prefecture to be set on fire
The magistrate burns down the town
Bewailing pompous and incompetent officials. The story is that an official refused that his name 'Deng' should be used in any official proclamation. A problem arose when the Lantern or 'Deng' festival was to be announced. Instead of 'Deng' he used the character for Fire instead announcing the coming of Fire throughout the town
Couldn't organize a piss-up in a brewey
Jiǔ niú maó [jiu niu yi mao]
nine ox one hair
Nine cows are missing just one hair
An insignificant amount. A trivial matter
A drop in the ocean
[大手大腳]
shǒu jiaǒ [da shou da jiao]
big hand big foot
Large hands and feet
Lavish and grandiose expenditure on tasteless trifles
A fool and his money are soon parted
[㱃鳩止渴]
Yǐn jiū zhǐ kě [yin jiu zhi ke]
drink turtledove stop thirst
To quench one's thirst with poisoned wine. The blood of the dove was considered poisonous
To take reckless action regardless of the consequences
Don't cut off your nose to spite your face
适履
Xuē zú shì lǚ [xue zu shi lu]
trim foot fit shoe
Reshape feet to fit new shoes
Take the wrong decision. Apply an inappropriate solution
守株待
Shǒu zhū dài tù [shou zhu dai tu]
guard trunk wait for hare
Watching a tree waiting for rabbits
Do not just count on luck, need action to reach your goals
Nothing ventured nothing gained
薪救
Bào xīn jiù huǒ [bao xin jiu huo]
hold firewood rescue fire
Using wood to put out a fire
Not choosing an appropriate solution to a problem. Making matters worse
Gē ròu zì dàn [ge rou zi dan]
cut flesh oneself eat
Eating one's own flesh
A foolish, self defeating stratagem.
Cutting off your nose to spite your face
换汤 [換湯不換葯]
Huàn tāng bú huàn yaò [huan tang bu huan yao]
change hot water no change medicine
Change the soup but not the medicine
Not getting to the root of a problem, making superficial changes
Rearranging the deckchairs while the ship is sinking
骑驴[騎馿找馿]
Qí lǖ zhǎo lǖ [qi lu zhao lu]
ride donkey look for donkey
Looking for a donkey while sitting on its back
Ignoring the obvious. Absent mindedness
Not looking beyond your nose
拔牙
kǒu bá yá [hu kou ba ya]
tiger mouth pull up tooth
To extract a tooth from a tiger's mouth
To be very daring and/or to take unnecessary risks
蛾投 [飛蛾投火]
Fēi é tóu huǒ [fei e tou huo]
fly moth hurl fire
A moth throws itself into a flame
Heading for self destruction
Like a moth to a flame
lion dance, people, festival
Young lion dancers
避坑落井
Bì kēng luò jǐng [bi keng luo jing]
evade pit drop well
Avoid falling into a pit to fall into a well
Avoid one obstacle only to hit another
[賠了夫人又折兵]
Péi le fū rén yòu zhé bīng [pei le fu ren you zhe bing]
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.
招愮 [招愮過市]
Zhāo yáo guò shì [zhao yao guo shi]
provoke agitation cross market
Parading through the busy streets
Boastful behavior; to be puffed up with pride . Walking the streets seeking the adulation of the crowds.
Pride comes before a fall
[聞風喪膽]
Wén fēng sàng dǎn [wen feng sang dan]
hear news lose courage
Panic on hearing news
Panic stricken; terrified by news
饼充饥 [畫餅充飢]
Huà bǐng chōng jī [hua bing chong ji]
draw biscuit fill hunger
Drawing a biscuit to satisfy hunger
To act foolishly and ineffectively. Wasting time on fruitless projects
Soft in the head
[死馬噹活馬醫]
Sǐ mǎ dāng huó mǎ yī [si ma dang huo ma yi]
die horse equal live horse doctor
Treating a dead horse as if it is still alive
Persevering when it is already too late. A lost cause
Flogging a dead horse
弹琴 [對牛彈琴]
Duì niú tán qín [dui niu tan qin]
face ox play musical qin
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
Pearls before swine
[請君入甕]
Qǐng jūn rù wèng [qing jun ru weng]
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
, [無源之水無本之木]
Wú yuán zhī shuǐ, wú běn zhī mù [wu yuan zhi shui, wu ben zhi mu]
no source water, no root tree
A river without a source, a tree without roots
Something without a proper foundation. Not properly planned
[帋上談兵]
Zhǐ shàng tán bīng [zhi shang tan bing]
paper on chat weapon
Fighting war on paper
An armchair general. Making plans without knowledge of the actualité
A little knowledge is a dangerous thing
井观 [坐井觀天]
Zuò jǐng guān tiān [zuo jing guan tian]
sit well watch sky
To sit at the bottom of a well and view the sky
A blinkered or limited view of the world
[言過其實]
Yán guò qí shí [yan guo qi shi]
words excessively that's true
To embellish the facts
Overstate the facts or exaggerate skills. Someone who is a bit of a windbag.
鼻息
Yǎng rén bí xī [yang ren bi xi]
rely on person nose breath
Depend on someone, even for breathe
To be totally dependent on others, as if unable to breathe without their help. Showing great weakness.
Wet fish
Qián pà láng hòu pà hǔ [qian pa lang hou pa hu]
before fear wolf behind fear tiger
To fear wolves ahead and tigers behind
To be obsessed by fears of attack from all sides
[鳳毛麟角]
Fèng máo lín jiǎo [feng mao lin jiao]
phoenix hair unicorn horn
As rare as phoenix feathers and unicorn horns
Seeking the unobtainable
[羊質虎皮]
Yáng zhì hǔ pí [yang zhi hu pi]
goat character tiger skin
A goat in a tiger?s skin
Someone not living up to outward appearance. Looking fierce but actually timid.
All that glisters is not gold
[生吞活剝]
Shēng tūn huó bāo [sheng tun huo bao]
raw swallow alive skin
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.
Monkey see: monkey do
[一竅不通]
qiào bù tōng [yi qiao bu tong]
all orifice not linked up
All parts of the body are not working together
Incoherent action, not making any sense
卵击 [以卵擊石]
Yǐ luǎn tóu shí [yi luan tou shi]
use egg strike stone
Try to smash a stone with an egg
Overrating strength and being defeated. Defeat guaranteed.
Kicking a brick wall
temple, roof
Yellow glazed tiles on a temple roof
[小題大作]
Xiaǒ zuò [xiao ti da zuo]
small topic large work
To talk a lot about very little
Procrastination and exaggeration
Make a mountain out of a molehill
破釜沉
Pò fǔ chén zhōu [po fu chen zhou]
broken pot sink boat
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
Burning your boats
[事實勝于雄辯]
Shì shí shèng yú xióng biàn [shi shi sheng yu xiong bian]
affair real victory goto mighty debate
A real victory is better than a great debate
Better to act than just talk about it
Actions speak louder than words
[煽風點火]
Shān fēng diǎn huǒ [shan feng dian huo]
incite wind spot fire
Create wind and fire
Create a lot of trouble
望梅
Wàng méi zhǐ kě [wang mei zhi ke]
gaze plum stop thirst
Gaze at a plum to quench thirst
Offering hope by thinking of something currently out of reach
[干活不由東累死也無功]
Gàn huó bú yóu dōng lèi sǐ yě wú gōng [gan huo bu you dong lei si ye wu gong]
do live no reason master pile up die also no merit
Working without obeying the boss will bring only hard work and no merit
Only work on what is needed to be done
, [也要馬兒好也要馬兒不吃草]
Yě yaò mǎ ér haǒ, yě yaò mǎ ér bù chī caǒ [ye yao ma er hao, ye yao ma er bu chi cao]
also want horse good, also want horse not eat grass
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
You can't have your cake and eat it
邯郸 [邯鄲學步]
Hán dān xué bù [han dan xue bu]
Handan study gait
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.
Make an ass of yourself
[夏蟲疑冰]
Xià chóng yí bīng [xia chong yi bing]
summer insect doubt ice
The summer insect doubts the existence of ice
An ignorant person doesn't understand the wider truth
逐末 [捨本逐末]
Shě běn zhú mò [she ben zhu mo]
abandon foundation pursue end
Pursuing trivia while neglecting essentials
Concentrating on the little details rather than the important stuff
Putting the cart before the horse
[打草驚蛇]
Dǎ cǎo jīng shé [da cao jing she]
strike grass startled snake
Striking the grass alerts the snake
It is unwise to alert an enemy of your presence
Let sleeping dogs lie
[畫蛇添足]
Huà shě tiān zú [hua she tian zu]
draw snake add foot
Drawing a foot on a snake
Ruin by over working something. Add superfluous detail. Too meticulous
Gilding the lily
Xiǎng rù fēi fēi [xiang ru fei fei]
want enter wrong wrong
Indulge in fantasy
Let imagination run wild
Head in the clouds
Zì xiāng máo dùn [zi xiang mao dun]
self mutual spear shield
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
[齊人擢金]
rén zhuó jīn [qi ren zhuo jin]
Qi man grab gold
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.
Blind ambition
畋,竭 [焚林而畋竭澤而漁]
Fén lín ěr tián, jié zé ěr yú [fen lin er tian, jie ze er yu]
burn forest but cultivate, exhaust pool but fishing
Burn a forest to farm; drain a pond to fish
Ignoring the consequences
Marry in haste, repent at leisure
, [雷聲大雨點小]
Léi shēng dà, diǎn xiǎo [lei sheng da, yu dian xiao]
thunder sound big, rain drop small
Thunder is loud but little rain falls
Overly portentous. Reality does not match expectations
Empty vessels make the most noise
China motif
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.

Copyright © Chinasage 2012 to 2019