Chinese idioms about co-operation

Working together in harmony and co-operation will get everything done quicker and better … but sometimes it can be a strain getting along with everybody. This is part of our extensive set of proverbs and sayings.

shān bù róng èr
Two tigers cannot share one mountain
Two equally talented or able employees do not work well together.
匠,凑诸葛亮 [三個臭皮匠湊個諸葛亮]
Sān gè chòu pí jiàng, còu gè Zhūgě Liàng
Three humble shoemakers brainstorming make a great statesman like Zhuge Liang
Joint effort can help solve big problems.
Roughly equivalent to: Two heads are better than one.
[殺一儆百]
Shā jǐng bǎi
Kill one to warn a hundred
To warn many people by punishing a few. Making example punishments.
Sān rén chéng hǔ
It only takes three people to confirm a sighting of a tiger.
A rumour can build up to a mighty story when only a handful confirm it. Basing a story on rumor and gossip rather than hard facts.
, [獨木不成林單弦不成音]
Dú mù bù chéng lín, dān xián bù chéng yīn
A single tree does not make a forest; a single string can not make music
Many things require people to work together to achieve an end.
Roughly equivalent to: All pull together.
[普天同慶]
tiān tóng qìng
Everyone in celebration
The whole nation is rejoicing at some happy event.
[龍爭虎斗]
Lóng zhēng hǔ dòu
Bitter fight between a dragon and tiger. An evenly matched big fight
Struggle between two equal leaders.
Shàng xià qí shǒu
To raise and lower the hand
A conspiracy is at work. A deft gesture signaling important information. The story is that back in the Spring and Autumn period two soldiers both claimed to have captured a prince and demanded their reward. When Bo Zhouli arbitrated he used a hand gesture to signal who he wished to receive the money.
,, [一個和尚挑水喝兩個和尚抬水喝三個和尚沒水喝]
gè hé shang tiāo shuǐ hē, liǎng gè hé shang tái shuǐ hē, sān ge hé shang méi shuǐ hē
One monk shoulders water by himself; two can still share the labor between them. When it comes to three, they all go thirsty.
Sometimes work is best done alone, a group may procrastinate without achieving anything.
Roughly equivalent to: Too many cooks spoil the broth.
覆巢完卵 [覆巢無完卵]
Fù cháo wú wán luǎn
When the nest is overturned, no egg is left unbroken
In a disaster everyone will feel the consequences. Failure will affect everyone involved.
[八字沒一撇]
zì méi piě
The character for eight takes two strokes to write not just one
You can't do everything on your own.
Roughly equivalent to: It takes two to Tango.
蜂酿[一只蜂釀不成蜜一顆米熬不成粥]
zhī fēng niáng bù chéng mì kē mǐ áo bù chéng zhōu
One bee cannot produce honey; one grain of rice cannot produce a meal
It needs joint effort to achieve anything worthwhile.
Roughly equivalent to: Many hands make light work.
, [水能載舟亦能覆舟]
Shuǐ néng zài zhōu, yì néng fù zhōu
Not only does water float a boat, it can sink it too
Events and people can have both positive and negative influences.
Forbidden City, Beijing
Image by Jacob Ehnmark from Sendai, Japan available under a Creative Commons license
[藏龍臥虎]
Cáng lóng wò hǔ
Hidden dragon, crouching tiger
There are often people around with great power and skill.
, [八仙過海各顯神通]
xiān guò hǎi, gè xiǎn shén tōng
The Eight Immortals crossing the sea all have there own particular skills
Everyone has their own special skills to contribute.
[孤掌難鳴]
Gū zhǎng nán míng
You can not clap with just one hand
It is difficult to achieve anything on your own.
Roughly equivalent to: It takes two to Tango.
[眾人拾柴火焰高]
Zhòng rén shí chái huǒyàn gāo
Only when all contribute their firewood can they build up a big fire
People need to pull together to achieve something significant.
Roughly equivalent to: Many hands make light work.
[風雨同舟]
Fēng tóng zhōu
In the same boat in a storm
Facing troubles together.
Roughly equivalent to: A trouble shared is a trouble halved.
送炭
Xuě lǐ sòng tàn
Send charcoal in a snow storm
To offer assistance when it is needed.
Roughly equivalent to: A friend in need is a friend indeed.
齿 [唇亡齒寒]
Chún wáng chǐ hán
Without lips the teeth feel the cold
Two interdependent things or people. The story of is of an attack on two kingdoms, as they were so mutually dependent the fall of one led directly to the fall of the other.
[獨木難支]
Dú mù nán zhī
A single stick will not prop up a whole building
It often requires more than one person to resolve problems.
Roughly equivalent to: Two heads are better than one.
[郢書燕說]
Yǐng shū yān shuō
Ying's letter interpreted by Yan
The message has been misunderstood. The story is that someone living in Ying in the Chu kingdom dictated a letter to a friend, the Prime Minister of Yan kingdom. Inadvertently the secretary wrote down 'Raise the lantern' thinking it was part of the letter. The recipient interpreted this to mean he should appoint praiseworthy people to the government. So in this case the misunderstanding gave rise to benefit.
Roughly equivalent to: Get hold of the wrong end of the stick.
猢狲 [樹倒猢猻散]
Shù daǒ hú sūn sàn
When the tree falls, the monkeys scatter
When a leader loses power, his followers are disorganized and also lose power. Often said to warn someone that they hold their position only so long as their patron is in power.
麻雀,脏俱 [麻雀雖小五臟俱全]
Má què suī xiǎo, zàng jù quán
Small as it is, the sparrow has all the vital organs
A person is a person regardless of size. Complete in every detail.
[一衣帶水]
yī dài shuǐ
Separated by a narrow ditch
Close neighbors. Located physically (or emotionally) close together with very little to separate.
Roughly equivalent to: Cheek by jowl.
qiū zhī hé
Raccoons of the same mound
People of the same bad character. Referring to people of similar ill repute who tend to behave the same way.
Roughly equivalent to: Birds of a feather flock together.
Xian, muslim, shops, PKChina-07
Street scene in Muslim quarter of Xi'an. September 2019. Image by September 2019.
[約法三章]
Yuē fǎ sān zhāng
Setting out the three articles of law
Imposing simple and clear laws. At the end of the bitter Civil War that brought the Qin dynasty to an end in 206BCE, the leader Liu Bang chose to dispose of all the laws of the Qin, replacing them with three simple laws: do not kill; do not harm and do not steal. Liu Bang went on to found the Han dynasty that ruled for 400 years.
破镜[破鏡重圓]
Pò jìng chóng yuán
A broken mirror remade
A reunion after a couple are separated or patching up after a quarrel. There are several legends in China about a couple who on separation each took one half of a mirror (which used to be of bronze) and when they eventually they are reunited they found each other by matching up the two pieces of mirror.
[殺雞給猴看]
Shā jī gěi hóu kàn
Kill a chicken before a monkey. The monkey can then take the message as a warning
To punish somebody as a lesson and warning to others.
补短 [取長補短]
Qǔ cháng bǔ duǎn
Learn from other's good points to offset your own shortcomings
Take notice of other people's admirable qualities.
[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.
Duō duō yì shàn
The more, the better
Safety in numbers. Wanting to invite as many people as possible to improve chances of success.
Roughly equivalent to: Many hands make light work.
嫁祸 [嫁旤于人]
Jià huò yú rén
A person in misfortune blames someone else
Spread blame onto others.
Jiě yī tuī shí
Sharing garments and food
Sharing clothes and food with someone in need. To treat with great kindness and consideration.
糟糠
Zāo kāng zhī qī
A wife of chaff-eating days
A loyal wife. Chaff is only eaten when no other food is available and so it means someone who is prepared to share in depredations - sharing the bad times as well as the good.
Roughly equivalent to: Through thick and thin.
[其貌不揚]
Qí mào bù yáng
Undistinguished in appearance
Unappealing appearance.
Roughly equivalent to: Plain Jane.
[從善如流]
Cóng shàn rú liú
Following good advice just as water flows
Willing to accept other people's advice just as all water in a stream follows the flow. Readily following good leadership.
Roughly equivalent to: Following the flow.
休戚 [休戚相關]
Xiū qī xiāng guān
Share both joys and sorrows
People with close ties and shared interests, Mutual dependency.
Roughly equivalent to: Common ground.
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