Chinese idioms E to I
A list of Chinese proverbs ordered by pinyin spelling.
Repay kindness with hostility
Roughly equivalent to: Biting the hand that feeds it.
When children travel far away the mother worries
Mothers will always worry about their children.
Cheating and deceiving each other
Mutual distrust and deception. A relationship without any trust.
Roughly equivalent to: Dog eat dog.
New sights and sounds
A change of place, everything fresh and new.
If evil was placed like discs on a string it would be always be full.
Evil is all around. Traditionally coins had holes in them and they were strung together.
The offender is the first to complain
The perpetrator diverts attention by being the first to complain.
Roughly equivalent to: To cry 'wolf'
Working so hard as to forget to eat
Concentrating on work so much that appetite is forgotten. Implication that work is interesting rather than drudgery.
Conjuring clouds with one hand and rain with the other
Trying too hard to impress.
凡人不可貌相, 海水不可斗量 [凡人不可貌相海水不可斗量]
Neither a person can be judged by his looks nor can the sea be fathomed
Judging by appearance is dangerous.
Roughly equivalent to: Don't judge a book by its cover.
Prevent problems by early action
A stitch in time saves nine. Tackle problems when they are small and can be dealt with before they get out of hand.
Roughly equivalent to: Nipping it in the bud.
Carefully considering the words push and knock
Spending considerable time to get the words just right. Showing excessive concern on minor details. Said to be the story of an Tang dynasty official who could not choose whether 'knock' or 'push' was the appropriate word in a poem.
Roughly equivalent to: Slow but sure.
Return to youthful vigour
Returning to youthful energy. Turning back the years. Often used as a compliment to someone sprightly in old age.
Roughly equivalent to: New lease of life.
Neither a donkey nor a horse
A person or place that is neither one thing nor another. Indeterminate or strange combination.
Roughly equivalent to: Neither fish nor fowl.
A moth throws itself into a flame
Heading for self destruction.
Roughly equivalent to: Like a moth to a flame.
To fly in the sky like the legendary horse Fei Huang (flying yellow)
A meteoric rise to success and honour.
Birds and beasts
Go separate ways and urge on the horses
Choosing to go separate ways due to different plans and ambitions.
The wind causes the grass to move
A minor repercussion of a larger action. A trifling consequence.
The wind causes the grass to move
A minor repercussion of a larger action. A trifling consequence.
Horses and cows keep themselves separate
People moving in different circles, different agendas. Having nothing in common.
Roughly equivalent to: Apples and oranges.
In the same boat in a storm
Facing troubles together.
Roughly equivalent to: A trouble shared is a trouble halved.
Burn a forest to farm; drain a pond to fish
Ignoring the consequences.
Roughly equivalent to: Marry in haste, repent at leisure.
In face of evil, rather be a broken jade than an intact brick
It is better to die with honor than surrender.
To forget to sleep and eat
To be absorbed in work and study.
As rare as phoenix feathers and unicorn horns
Seeking the unobtainable.
Blessings come along alone; troubles often come together
Bad fortune is more frequent than good.
Roughly equivalent to: Ill fortune comes in threes.
A sharp axe does not fear hard wood
A talented person is not afraid of a difficult task.
Prosperous and beautiful
To have the best of good fortune.
When the nest is overturned, no egg is left unbroken
In a disaster everyone will feel the consequences. Failure will affect everyone involved.
Spilled water can not be recovered
What is done is done. The situation can not be restored to how it once was.
Roughly equivalent to: There's no use crying over spilt milk.
To carry a cane and ask to be punished
Admit a fault and offer an apology. The story is from the Zhou dynasty when Lin Xiangru of the Zhao kingdom had an adversity in Lian Po. Lian Po used every opportunity to dis his boss Lin Xiangru. Lian Po was then shown that solidarity was key to the state's survival and offered a humble apology. Lian Po carried brambles on his back for some distance to show his contrition.
Roughly equivalent to: Swallowing your pride.
Wade through scolding water and burning flame
Showing great courage and valour.
Two famous swords
These are the names of two supreme bronze swords of long ago. Gan Jiang was unable to melt the bronze until he added some hair and nail clippings from his wife Mo Ye. Only then could the swords be made and they were the sharpest swords ever made. Used to honor someone or something as superlative.
Roughly equivalent to: Cat's pyjamas.
Although not qualified for high office will not accept a lower position
Exaggerating one's skills.
High mountains and flowing water
A description of beautiful music and by analogy a deep friendship.
Roughly equivalent to: Boon companion.
Pouring water from the roof of a tall building
Being in a good position to repel attackers. Holding a commanding position.
Abandon evil and turn to good
Reject bad ways and turn to the good.
Roughly equivalent to: Turn over a new leaf.
Gratefully returning kindness
Repaying a debt of kindness. The story is from the Zhou dynasty when the state of Wu was mounting a war against the state of Zheng. A Zheng fisherman offered to try to stop the conflict. He boldly went to the enemy general Wu Zixu and reminded him that his father had saved Wu's life a long time ago. The general then recalled the incident and in repayment of the kindness called off his attack on Zheng.
Roughly equivalent to: One good turn deserves another.
Working without obeying the boss will bring only hard work and no merit
Only work on what is needed to be done.
Eating one's own flesh
A foolish, self defeating stratagem.
Roughly equivalent to: Cutting off your nose to spite your face.
Watch the fire burn from the other side of the river
Refusing to help others when it is needed.
Scratching an itch from outside of the shoe
An ineffective solution to a problem.
Each following his own policy
Acting selfishly. Following own plans and ideas with no regard for others.
A new dam is left incomplete due to the lack of one basket of earth
See things through to the end.
A cornered dog will leap over a wall
Extreme circumstances require extreme measures.
Roughly equivalent to: The end justifies the means.
A fierce dog bankrupts a liquor store. A story of a shopkeeper who lost all his customers due to his ferocious dog
Bad company discourages true friends.
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.
Lingering at last gasp
In the throes of dying. Making a final desperate action prior to dying.
Roughly equivalent to: At death's door.
Rubbing one's eyes when seeing someone
Noticing that someone has changed for the better. Show respect for improvement and progress. Changing a view of someone's abilities.
Roughly equivalent to: Seeing someone in a new light.
In a melon field and under a plum tree
Avoid circumstances that give rise to false suspicion, If someone is seen near ripe melons or under a plum tree they are open to suspicion of theft. A longer form of the saying makes it clear that you should not tie up your shoes in a melon field or out on a hat under a plum tree as these actions are.
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.
Hanging up a sheep?s head but selling dog meat
Deceiving people into believing you are selling something much less valuable than it appears to be. A con trick. Dishonest advertising.
Roughly equivalent to: Buying a pig in a poke.
Ghosts are figments of the mind
Being scared of the paranormal; irrational fear of dark and shadows.
Roughly equivalent to: Frightened of your own shadow.
Unable to move forward due to misgivings. To hesitate about getting on and doing something.
Roughly equivalent to: All of a dither.
Dismantling the bridge after crossing it
Not showing due consideration for others.
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.
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.
Applying ancient ways to the present day
Learning from history. Applying past history to the current situation.
Nothing but skin and bones
Looking both ways and changing the subject
Avoiding talking about something; taking a long digression.
To spit sand at someone's shadow, in other words to attack someone indirectly by innuendo. There is a legend of a three-legged turtle that would spit out sand at anyone who passed. Its spittle was so noxious that it would infect someone even if it only hit their shadow.
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.
All rivers run to the sea
We all shared a common destiny.
Someone who agrees with everything said. More likely to be so as to not give any offense rather than ingratiating.
A good horse will not eat the grass behind it
Pride may forbid a person going back to his home town after failure. Do not dwell on past actions, progress forward.
Good personality good deeds
Pleasant person who behaves well.
Roughly equivalent to: A good man is hard to find.
The horse that causes trouble to the herd
The bad person of the family or group.
Roughly equivalent to: Bad apple; Black sheep.
The Hepu pearls return home
Something or someone returns to its original source. Often said of someone returning to their original home district after years of wandering. The story is from the Han dynasty of Hepu, Gunagxi which was a leading center for pearl fishing until a local official over exploited the beds of pearls leading to Vietnam taking over as the leading procedure. Only when the pearl beds were left for years to recover did the pearl industry return.
Roughly equivalent to: The wheel has come full circle.
Having a happy face looking contented
The lioness from Hedong roars
A husband under the control of a domineering wife. The story is of Chen Zao of the Song dynasty who often had guests around in the evening. If his wife got to hear that there were other women with him she would knock on the wall and roar. A hen-pecked man.
Roughly equivalent to: She who must be obeyed.
A carp in a dry rut
In a desperate situation. A fish stuck in a rut in the road will soon die if not moved. In need of immediate assistance.
Roughly equivalent to: In dire straits.
Walking sidewise to block the way
Being deliberately obstructive.
A crane standing amidst a flock of chickens
Being conspicuously different (often superior)
Roughly equivalent to: Standing head and shoulders above the opposition.
The aspirations of a great swan
Having unrealistic ambitions.
Roughly equivalent to: Wish for the moon.
A noble's house is as vast as the sea
A very tough task. A nobleman in ancient China would have a courtyard house with high walls and no easy entry. It was also hard to get any way to get an invite to visit such a noble. And so represents a high physical and social barrier.
Roughly equivalent to: Beyond your wildest dreams.
Looking after troubles behind you
Worried about events back at home. Said of someone concerned about goings on at home rather than things immediately to hand.
A later-comer surpasses everyone
A new arrival outperforms everyone present. A youngster outstrips the older generation.
Roughly equivalent to: Put everyone in the shade.
Promising young talent
Said of someone showing talent at an early age.
Roughly equivalent to: He/she will go far.
Life full of experience. Dazzling world of excitement
World seething with life.
Flowering but not bearing fruit
Said of someone is all show and no substance.
Roughly equivalent to: All that glitters is not gold.
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.
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.
Drawing a biscuit to satisfy hunger
To act foolishly and ineffectively. Wasting time on fruitless projects.
Roughly equivalent to: Soft in the head.
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.
To add eyes to a painted dragon
Make the final vital addition to complete something. Add finishing touches. The story is of a great painter who painted four dragons without completing the eyes. When challenged he claimed that it was to ensure they did not come to life and fly away. When pressured he drew in the eyes of two dragons and they promptly came to life and flew away.
Roughly equivalent to: Dotting the 'i's and crossing the 't's.
Drawing a foot on a snake
Ruin by over working something. Add superfluous detail. Too meticulous.
Roughly equivalent to: Gilding the lily.
Within the talk there is more meaning
There is more in what was said than is obvious.
In adversity, true feelings are shown
Only in a crisis do you know who your friends really are.
Roughly equivalent to: A friend in need is a friend indeed.
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.
Sweat dripping like rain?shoulder to shoulder and toes touching heels
Stuck in a very large crowd of people with no space to move.
Hiding sickness for fear of treatment
Keeping mistakes and shortcomings to yourself. Refuse to listen to advice.
Roughly equivalent to: Sweep it under the carpet.
Disasters do not walk alone
Misfortunes tend to come all at once.
Roughly equivalent to: When it rains, it pours.
The wrong words can bring disaster
Be careful what you say.
Swallow a date along with its stone
To read something without fully understanding it.
Roughly equivalent to: None the wiser.
A trick of cunning to exaggerate self importance
A fox will pretend to have the power of a tiger. The story is that a fox followed a tiger in a parade. The animals panicked and the fox claimed that this was because they were frightened of the fox not the tiger. It goes back to the Warring States Period.
A tiger does not father a dog
A son is similar to his father.
Roughly equivalent to: Like father, like son.
To extract a tooth from a tiger's mouth
To be very daring and/or to take unnecessary risks.
Saved from the tiger's den
A narrow escape from a dangerous situation.
A tiger's stare. To look covetously
To eye enviously.
Tiger's head; snake's tail
Begins promisingly but ends badly.
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.