Chinese idioms to discourage procrastination

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.

Proverbs aimed at encouraging people to snap out of idleness and laziness.

Cū zhī
A large branch with large leaves. Unable to draw in fine detail
Lack of attention to detail.
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.
shí bù xiào bǎi
Fifty steps laugh at a hundred steps
Being complacent about the future. Believing a job is all but done when only half done.
Roughly equivalent to: Pride comes before a fall.
旁观 [袖手旁觀]
Xiù shǒu páng guān
To look on with folded arms
To look on without offering any help or showing concern.
, [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.
bù dēng tiān
Approach heaven with a single stride
An attempt to achieve a goal all in one go without hard work.
Roughly equivalent to: Rome was not built in a day.
Yuǎn shuǐ jiǔ bù liaǒ huǒ
Distant water will not extinguish the nearby fire
There is no point in waiting for far off help. Get to it and solve the problem now.
Roughly equivalent to: Make it snappy.
Zǒu mǎ kàn huā
Looking at the flowers while riding a horse
To take a cursory look at something. Smug.
Ān bù dàng chē
Choosing to walk rather than take the limousine
Turn down luxury and high office for a simpler life. The story is of a scholar from the Warring States period who was offered great wealth and his own carriage to serve the King of Qi.
Huá ér bù shí
Flowering but not bearing fruit
Said of someone is all show and no substance.
Roughly equivalent to: All that glitters is not gold.
Lè bù sī Shǔ
So happy that the kingdom of Shu is forgotten
Lost in present pleasures so as to forget home and duties. Said of Liu Chan ruler of the Shu kingdom (Sichuan province) who when defeated and in exile heard songs of his old kingdom but did not become melancholy like his other guests. So it refers to someone living in the present and not caring about the past. Lost in the moment.
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.
西宿 [東食西宿]
Dōng shí xī sù
Eating in the east and sleeping in the west
Taking fully advantage of kindly offers - accepting hospitality in a selfish way. The story is of a girl who was asked to choose whether to live with a family in the east or west side of a village. She chose to eat with the rich family of one suitor on the east side but also sleep with the poor but good looking suitor on the west side.
Roughly equivalent to: Butter one's bread on both sides.
shanghai, children
Copyright Richard Wingfield, October 2017.
Yàn ān zhèn dú
Comfortable living is like drinking poisoned wine
Lulled into laziness and indifference by comfortable living.
Roughly equivalent to: Sofa spud.
悬崖勒 [懸崖勒馬]
Xuán yá lè mǎ
Rein in the horse at the cliff edge
Realize danger at the last moment.
Kuàng chí jiǔ
Wasting a great deal of time
Spending a protracted length of time on a task. A waste of time.
Roughly equivalent to: A wild goose chase.
Guǒ zú bù qián
Dithering about
Unable to move forward due to misgivings. To hesitate about getting on and doing something.
Roughly equivalent to: All of a dither.
Jīn shì, jīn
Today's task, today's job to complete
Finish the current job before starting something new.
Roughly equivalent to: Don't put off until tomorrow what can be done today.
Nì lái shùn shòu
Do not block but welcome arrival
Deal with things as they happen; do not put them off.
Zhì bù kě màn shí bù kě shī
Do not let your aspirations weaken; do not waste time
Keep hold of your hopes and dreams, waste no time in achieving them.
Roughly equivalent to: Don't change horses midstream.
shí hán
One day in the sun and then ten days of freezing
The story is that second sage of Confucianism, Mencius (Menzi) said this of the king of Qi. He considered him a person who only showed enthusiasm for Mencius' ideas for a short time while he was around to encourage him to rule well. So it has come to describe the many people who have short bursts of enthusiasm - no staying power.
Roughly equivalent to: Blowing hot and cold.
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.
Hǎo hǎo xiān shēng
Someone who agrees with everything said. More likely to be so as to not give any offense rather than ingratiating.
Chā qiáng rén
Just passable
Just about good enough an effort. Someone showing minimum of commitment to meet a goal. Barely satisfactory.
Roughly equivalent to: Swinging the lead.
Dào tīng tú shuō
Paying heed to gossip
Listening to roadside gossip or tittle-tattle.
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.
Dowager Empress Cixi, Qing dynasty
Dowager Empress Cixi with the wives of European diplomats in western clothing standing on either side, together with an adopted Chinese orphan. 1902. Image from available under a Creative Commons license .
怀 [懷安喪志]
Huái ān sàng zhì
A contented life saps the will
Living a life of idleness and contentment can lead to idleness and laziness.
Roughly equivalent to: A Lotus eater.

See also