Chinese idioms A to D
A list of Chinese proverbs ordered by pinyin spelling.
A vengeful army will certainly win
Strong emotion galvanizes effort.
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.
Live and work in peace and contentment
Wishing you well in a new home.
Locked in love's clutches.
Strong love that encompasses all, including the crow sitting on the roof
In love with everything in the world.
Roughly equivalent to: Love is blind.
Choosing a fine horse using only a picture
Following a rigid framework to carry out a task. Using standard rules to achieve something or discover something. Knowing and following the basic principles.
Secretly cross at the Chencang Road
A feigned maneuver designed to outwit. After the fall of the Qin dynasty Liu Bei sent out troops to repair a plank road presumably to mount an attack, but he actually moved his troops across the Wei River at Chencang and so surprised his enemy.
The Eight Immortals crossing the sea all have there own particular skills
Everyone has their own special skills to contribute.
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.
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.
Harboring evil intentions
Having evil intent; concealing malice.
Roughly equivalent to: In league with the devil.
Empty hand make house
To build up something from nothing.
One hundred arrows, one hundred bullseyes
A superb marksman; showing great skill. Yang Youji and Houyi were archers of great renown.
Roughly equivalent to: A dab hand.
Hearing a hundred times is not as good as seeing once
Delighted to meet you in person at last. Seeing at first hand gives valuable information. The story is of a Han dynasty veteran general Zhao Chongguo who went to see the situation for himself at the frontier rather than relying on secondhand reports. His wise analysis quickly solved the problem with the incursions of northern tribes.
Roughly equivalent to: Seeing is believing.
Not to falter despite many setbacks
Persistence pays off in the end.
Roughly equivalent to: Patience is a virtue.
A centipede with a hundred legs does not lose its life after one blow
An evil is not easily disposed of; old institutions take a long time to renew.
Two equivalent measures
Nothing to choose between two alternatives.
Roughly equivalent to: Six of one, and half a dozen of the other.
Give up half way through
To abandon work half done. Lacking determination to see the job through.
Roughly equivalent to: Stick to your guns.
Hanging on another's door
Someone dependent on a household without making much contribution. A hanger-on.
Roughly equivalent to: A sponger.
Using wood to put out a fire
Not choosing an appropriate solution to a problem. Making matters worse.
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.
A glass of water won't put out a car on fire
Not putting in enough effort to solve a problem.
A clumsy bird that flies first will get to the forest earlier
Starting early helps achieve success.
Roughly equivalent to: The tortoise beats the hare. The early bird catches the worm.
Beyond the reach of the whip
Too far away to be able to help or beyond one's skill or influence.
Possessing a unique style
Doing things your own way.
Having nothing to spare
In great poverty, possessing nothing other than the bare essentials.
Roughly equivalent to: The cupboard is bare.
Compelled to become a Liangshan rebel
Forced to take an undesirable action. The story is of Lin Chong who was hounded down by Chao Gai because he wanted Lin's wife. After being falsely accused of attempted murder Lin was further victimized by Chao Gai until he was left with no choice but to join the rebels. So it means left with no choice at all.
Roughly equivalent to: Hobson's choice.
Guests feel at home
Warmly welcoming guests to your home. Guests treated as part of the family.
Roughly equivalent to: Be my guest.
In conflict cheating is permitted
In warfare nothing is too dishonest.
Roughly equivalent to: All is fair in love and war.
Three feet of ice is not formed in a single day
It takes time to achieve satisfactory results.
Roughly equivalent to: Rome was not built in a day.
Ice in the sky and snow on the ground
Encountering adverse conditions.
Avoid falling into a pit to fall into a well
Avoid one obstacle only to hit another.
The thigh muscles have recovered
To get fit and become reinvigorated. The story is from the end of the Han dynasty after the battle of Guandu Zhi Zhan when Cao Cao beat Liu Bei. Liu Bei then fled to Henan and took things easy. One day he noticed that he had become flabby particularly in his thighs so he realized he had to get fit again. He did so and eventually beat Cao Cao in battle.
Roughly equivalent to: Get fighting fit.
The disease has penetrated the vitals
Beyond hope and cure. A hopeless situation.
Roughly equivalent to: Not the ghost of a chance.
Bo Le, the horse expert
A person of good judgment. Someone who can quickly appreciate skill. The idiom refers to Bo Le from the Warring States period who was an acclaimed judge of horses. It is said that he came upon an old horse trudging along. Only Bo Le could see that this was once a great horse of strength and stamina.
There is no shame in asking help from those less fortunate or senior than yourself.
Roughly equivalent to: A cat may look at a king.
Not giving up until one reaches the Yellow River
Keep going until you hit an insurmountable obstacle.
Roughly equivalent to: He who hesitates is lost.
No words spoken when leave
Leave without saying goodbye.
Shivering yet not cold
Shudder with fear and dread. There is a story of a sadistic official of the Han dynasty who arbitrarily sentenced to death. When their relatives and friends came to protest he had them executed too. Everyone was quaking with fear when they saw the official.
Roughly equivalent to: Shake like a leaf.
Itching to show off a skill
Eagerness to impress people with a skill.
Not fear a long road; fear aspiration to start
Do not be afraid of a long road to success only be afraid of a shortage of ambition.
Roughly equivalent to: Rome was not built in a day.
Not fear slowing down; fear coming to a halt
Do not be afraid of slowing down as long as you keep going.
Roughly equivalent to: A rolling stone gathers no moss.
If do not destroy will not stand
The old needs to be demolished before building the new.
Roughly equivalent to: Starting again from scratch.
Without entering a tiger's den how can you hope to capture a tiger cub?
Great rewards require a great risk.
Roughly equivalent to: Fortune favors the brave. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.
Without casting a big net how can a big fish be caught
Need to think big if to succeed.
A bad beginning leads to a bad ending
Need to plan everything from the beginning.
Roughly equivalent to: Don't put the cart before the horse.
Refuse to bow for the sake of five measures of rice
Refusing inducements to betray a principles. Incorruptible. The story is of a man who refused to work for a corrupt and arrogant official even though he lost out on a generous salary.
Not notice the smell of meat
Totally entranced and distracted. The story is from the Analects of Confucius. The great sage was walking in woodland and heard someone performing Shao music. He was so entranced by the blissful sound that he could not be distracted even by the smell of roasting meat (then a rare treat).
Roughly equivalent to: Lost touch with reality.
Overrating your own strength
Overreaching yourself, not taking account of true capabilities. Exaggerate level of skill.
Roughly equivalent to: By no stretch of the imagination.
Step by step promotion
Congratulation on promotion or a new job.
Hidden dragon, crouching tiger
There are often people around with great power and skill.
Every bush harbors an enemy
Being paranoid - believing everyone is out to get you. To be beleaguered.
Just about good enough an effort. Someone showing minimum of commitment to meet a goal. Barely satisfactory.
Roughly equivalent to: Swinging the lead.
When rich there is time to think all day, when poor there is no time to think
When rich, you have time to dream, but do not dream of riches when you are poor.
You cannot routinely walk along a river without sometimes getting your shoes wet
You can't ignore the local conditions.
Cartloads and sackfuls
Huge quantity. A very large number. Overabundant.
Ride the winds and break the waves
To have high ambitions. The story is Zong Que who lived in southern China around 450CE. On his wedding day at the age of 14 (as was the tradition then) a group of bandits attacked the village. Zong Que fought them off almost single-handed. He was asked what was his future ambition and he replied that he wanted to 'ride the wind and break the waves'. He went on to be a leading general who helped maintain the peace in the region.
Roughly equivalent to: Man with a plan.
Burning a city gate kills the fish in the moat
A drastic action may unintentionally affect other people. Show consideration for all.
Only under duress
It literally means an embittered agreement at a city wall when a city has surrendered to besieging forces. So it is a reluctant and bitter deal forced by circumstance.
Accomplished by Xiao He but also lost by Xiao He
Success and failure of your own making. The story is of Liu Bang before he became Emperor had Xiao He as Prime Minister. Xiao recommended Han Xin for a military command. However Han Xin fell from favor and then plotted a revolt. Xiao He lured him to a meeting at the place and killed him. So Xiao He both launched the career and ended the career of Han Xin,
Standing at Cheng's door in the snow
Showing great respect for someone - usually a teacher or scholar. The story is that a great scholar accidentally left two students waiting for him for hours out in the snow.
Only able to chew tender food, not the tough
Unable to withstand harsh criticism.
Fall into a pit but learn from the experience
Gain wisdom from experience of set backs.
Roughly equivalent to: Learn from your mistakes.
A fool describing his dream
Talking irrelevant nonsense. Ravings of no possible interest.
Roughly equivalent to: A load of codswallop.
A late-blooming flower is not necessarily lacking in fragrance
It's never too late to try something new.
Following the track of an overturned cart
To repeat a disastrous strategy. Not learning from previous mistakes - slavishly following previous practice. The story is of a virtuous official who risked Han emperor Huan's displeasure by pointing out that he was repeating the mistakes of the second Qin emperor.
Roughly equivalent to: Once bitten, twice shy.
Worst ever smell
To give off an unbearable stink.
Wear new shoes but follow old paths
Stick to the old ways while appearing to follow the latest trends.
Getting just reward
Do as you would be done to. Repay past behavior appropriately. In modern times this has changed meaning to be more to with inconsistency and self contradictory behavior than justice.
Roughly equivalent to: What you sow, so shall you reap.
Using an ingenious, unexpected ploy
Using a surprise or ingenious scheme to achieve success.
Roughly equivalent to: As cunning as a fox.
To risk one's life
Offer unquestioning support.
Roughly equivalent to: Through thick and thin.
A baby calf does not fear a tiger
Innocence about the dangers involved.
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.
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.
Better to teach a child a skill than give money
Learning a new skill will pay dividends in the future.
Calm and unhurried
Taking life calmly and in your stride. Untroubled.
Roughly equivalent to: Without a care in the world.
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.
On a starvation diet
Eat simple home-made food and yet be healthy.
A large branch with large leaves. Unable to draw in fine detail
Lack of attention to detail.
A gall bladder as big as a football
Someone who is immensely bold and courageous. In traditional medicine the gall bladder was considered the controller of aggression and courage, so someone with a huge gall bladder was expected to be very courageous.
Roughly equivalent to: As bold as brass.
Large vessels take longer to complete
It takes a long time and great care to make something worthwhile. An admonishment to persevere in studies or work. Often used to describe late developing talent.
Roughly equivalent to: Rome was not built in a day.
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.
Attack own party
Betray one's own side.
As dumb as a wooden chicken
Dumbstruck, unable to move or say anything out of fear.
Roughly equivalent to: Caught like a rabbit in the headlights.
A single spear and a single horse
Taking on a difficult task on your own.
Spectators get a better appreciation of the game than the players
If too closely involved may not see all the issues involved.
A mountain of knives; a sea of fires
An extremely difficult and dangerous situation.
Striking the grass alerts the snake
It is unwise to alert an enemy of your presence.
Roughly equivalent to: Let sleeping dogs lie.
Better to hit a person than their reputation. Losing 'face' is a major consideration for Chinese people
Be diplomatic and tactful when being critical.
Roughly equivalent to: To err is human; to forgive divine.
Big ability barely used
Wasting talent on trivial things. Using someone talented for a menial task.
Roughly equivalent to: All dressed up and nowhere to go.
Develop large thunderstorm
Fly into a furious rage.
Roughly equivalent to: To spit nails.
Helping everyone else. Not motivated by self-interest.
Large hands and feet
Lavish and grandiose expenditure on tasteless trifles.
Roughly equivalent to: A fool and his money are soon parted.
Uphold justice by killing one's own family
Prepared to kill one's own family to keep to the law. Back in the Spring and Autumn Period a father, Shi Que, uncovered the murder of the king of Wei was done by a treasonous group which included his own son Shi Hou. Believing he could not show him special treatment he had him executed.
A wise person may seem silent as often remains silent
A wise person holds his counsel.
Roughly equivalent to: Still waters run deep.
Putting on shoes the wrong way aroung when greeting a guest
So keen to meet a guest that shoes are put on the wrong way around. Excitement about meeting someone idolized.
Roughly equivalent to: Go weak at the knees.
Where good flourishes, evil can flourish even more
There is always opportunity for evil to take root.
Paying heed to gossip
Listening to roadside gossip or tittle-tattle.
Muddling through life without great ambitions. Contended to just live from day to day.
Roughly equivalent to: Enough is as good as a feast.
Hand and mind in harmony
Things moving smoothly and naturally. Heart and mind working together with hands to achieve a task.
Smug and self-satisfied
To be very pleased with oneself. Giving an air of sublime complacency.
Roughly equivalent to: I'm all right Jack.
After catching a fish forget the trap
Ungrateful behavior, ignoring help given to make things possible.
Roughly equivalent to: Don't bite the hand that feeds you.
Turn stone into gold
To turn something of little worth into something of great value.
Roughly equivalent to: Improve beyond recognition.
Lure a tiger down from its mountain. This is one of the age old strategms of war.
Lure an enemy out of its home territory in order to attack it.
Dripping water can bore into stone
Long perseverance will win in the end, even stone wears away. Nothing is permanent.
Roughly equivalent to: Keep on keeping on.
Be busy; bustling about.
The plot at the east window has been exposed
The game is up. Generally said of villains whose evil plans have been thwarted. The story is of Qin Hui of the Song dynasty who hatched a plot under the east window of his house to tell lies about General Yue Fei. Qin Hui and his son died shortly after Yue Fei was executed. Qin's wife Wang used a necromancer who discovered the truth and was told by Qin's spirit that the East window plot had been exposed.
Roughly equivalent to: The chickens havee come home to roost.
To rise again from the east mountain
Coming back after voluntary retirement into public life. Particularly for taking on high office after a long break away from all the action.
Roughly equivalent to: To make a comeback.
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.
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.
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.
Suiting the right medicine for an illness
Take the right measures to solve a problem to achieve the desired result.
A matter or incident that is absurd, extraordinary or strange.
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.
Many hardships can rejuvenate a nation
A calamity that may prompt a resurgence. An encouragement to continue striving in the hope that things will improve.
Roughly equivalent to: Hope springs eternal.
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.
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.
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.
Reading ten thousand books is not the same as walking a thousand miles
Learn from practical experience not from books.
Each day passes as a year
Time seems to pass very slowly.
Roughly equivalent to: Time drags on.
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.