Chinese idioms E to I

A list of Chinese proverbs ordered by pinyin spelling.

[恩將仇報]
Ēn jiāng chóu baò [en jiang chou bao]
kindness will enemy repay
Repay kindness with hostility
Reject kindness
Biting the hand that feeds it
[兒行千里母擔憂]
Ér xíng qiān lǐ mǔ dān yōu [er xing qian li mu dan you]
child travel 1000 mile mother undertake worry
When children travel far away the mother worries
Mothers will always worry about their children
[爾虞我詐]
Ěr yú wǒ zhà [er yu wo zha]
you cheat me swindle
Cheating and deceiving each other
Mutual distrust and deception. A relationship without any trust.
Dog eat dog
Ěr xīn [er mu yi xin]
ear eye one new
New sights and sounds
A change of place, everything fresh and new
[噁貫滿盈]
È guàn mǎn yíng [e guan man ying]
evil string of cash everywhere full
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.
[噁人先告狀]
È rén xiān gàozhuàng [e ren xian gaozhuang]
evil person first tell complaint
The offender is the first to complain
The perpetrator diverts attention by being the first to complain
To cry 'wolf'
[發憤忘食]
Fā fèn wàng shí [fa fen wang shi]
to work diligently to forget food
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.
Fān yún fù [fan yun fu yu]
turn over cloud overturn rain
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]
Fán rén bù kě mào xiàng, hǎi shuǐ bù kě dòu liàng [fan ren bu ke mao xiang, hai shui bu ke dou liang]
every person can not looks mutual, sea water can not argue capacity
Neither a person can be judged by his looks nor can the sea be fathomed
Judging by appearance is dangerous
Don't judge a book by its cover
微杜渐 [防微杜漸]
Fáng wēi dù jiàn [fang wei du jian]
prevent decline restrict gradual
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.
Nipping it in the bud
Fǎn fù tuī qiāo [fan fu tui qiao]
contrary overturn push and knock
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.
Slow but sure
[返老還童]
Fǎn lǎo huán tóng [fan lao huan tong]
return old return child
Return to youthful vigour
Returning to youthful energy. Turning back the years. Often used as a compliment to someone sprightly in old age.
New lease of life
[非驢非馬]
Fēi lú: fēi mǎ [fei lu: fei ma]
not donkey not horse
Neither a donkey nor a horse
A person or place that is neither one thing nor another. Indeterminate or strange combination.
Neither fish nor fowl
window lattice, Forbidden City, Beijing
Ancient Lattice Windows at the Forbidden City, Beijing
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
腾达 [飛黃騰達]
Fēi huáng téng dá [fei huang teng da]
fly yellow gallop extend
To fly in the sky like the legendary horse Fei Huang (flying yellow)
A meteoric rise to success and honour
[飛禽走獸]
Fēi qín zǒu shòu [fei qin zou shou]
flying bird walking animal
Birds and beasts
Wildlife
扬镳 [分道揚鑣]
Fēn dào yáng biāo [fen dao yang biao]
divide way raise horsebit
Go separate ways and urge on the horses
Choosing to go separate ways due to different plans and ambitions.
[風吹草動]
Fēng chuī cǎo dòng [feng chui cao dong]
wind blow grass move
The wind causes the grass to move
A minor repercussion of a larger action. A trifling consequence
[風吹草動]
Fēng chuī cǎo dòng [feng chui cao dong]
wind blow grass move
The wind causes the grass to move
A minor repercussion of a larger action. A trifling consequence
[風馬牛不相及]
Fēng mǎ niú bù xiāng jí [feng ma niu bu xiang ji]
custom horse cow not each other reach
Horses and cows keep themselves separate
People moving in different circles, different agendas. Having nothing in common.
Apples and oranges
[風雨同舟]
Fēng tóng zhōu [feng yu tong zhou]
wind rain same boat
In the same boat in a storm
Facing troubles together
A trouble shared is a trouble halved
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
碎, [逢奸宁可玉碎氣正不求瓦全]
Féng jiān nìng kě yù suì, qì zhèng bù qiú wǎ quán [feng jian ning ke yu sui, qi zheng bu qiu wa quan]
come upon traitor stand approve jade, spirit straight no beg tile complete
In face of evil, rather be a broken jade than an intact brick
It is better to die with honor than surrender
废寝 [廢寑忘食]
Fèi qǐn wàng shí [fei qin wang shi]
abandon sleep forget eat
To forget to sleep and eat
To be absorbed in work and study
[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
,祸 [福無重至旤不單行]
Fú wú chóng zhì, huò bú dān xíng [fu wu chong zhi, huo bu dan xing]
good fortune not double arrive, misfortune not single walk
Blessings come along alone; troubles often come together
Bad fortune is more frequent than good
Ill fortune comes in threes
Qilin, Sacred Way, Ming tombs
"Ways of souls" tombs of the Emperors of the Ming Dynasty (1368 to 1644CE). 50km north west of Beijing, in Changping. December 2005. Image by ofol available under a Creative Commons License .
Fǔ kuài bú pà mù chái yìng [fu kuai bu pa mu chai ying]
axe sharp no fear wood hard
A sharp axe does not fear hard wood
A talented person is not afraid of a difficult task
[富麗堂皇]
Fù lì táng huáng [fu li tang huang]
good fortune beautiful hall emperor
Prosperous and beautiful
To have the best of good fortune
覆巢完卵 [覆巢無完卵]
Fù cháo wú wán luǎn [fu chao wu wan luan]
overturn nest no entire egg
When the nest is overturned, no egg is left unbroken
In a disaster everyone will feel the consequences. Failure will affect everyone involved
[覆水難收]
Fù shuǐ nán shōu [fu shui nan shou]
spilled water difficult collect
Spilled water can not be recovered
What is done is done. The situation can not be restored to how it once was
There's no use crying over spilt milk
负荆[負荊請罪]
Fù jīng qǐng zuì [fu jing qing zui]
carry thorns ask pain
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
Swallowing your pride
赴汤蹈 [赴湯蹈火]
Fù tāng dǎo huǒ [fu tang dao huo]
wade hot water tread fire
Wade through scolding water and burning flame
Showing great courage and valour
[干將莫邪]
Gān jiāng mò yé [gan jiang mo ye]
Gan Jiang and Mo Ye
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.
Cat's pyjamas
Gāo bù chéng dī bù jiù [gao bu cheng di bu jiu]
high no accomplish low no come near
Although not qualified for high office will not accept a lower position
Exaggerating one's skills
Gāo shān liú shuǐ [gao shan liu shui]
high mountain flow water
High mountains and flowing water
A description of beautiful music and by analogy a deep friendship.
Boon companion
Gāo wū jiàn líng [gao wu jian ling]
high house make water tank
Pouring water from the roof of a tall building
Being in a good position to repel attackers. Holding a commanding position
改邪 [改邪歸正]
Gǎi xié guī zhèng [gai xie gui zheng]
change evil return correct
Abandon evil and turn to good
Reject bad ways and turn to the good
Turn over a new leaf
感恩图 [感恩圖報]
Gǎn ēn tú bào [gan en tu bao]
feeling kindness plan recompense
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.
One good turn deserves another
[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
Ming dynasty, architecture, Chuandixia
Ming dynasty village at Chuandixia near Beijing
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
[隔岸觀火]
Gé àn guān huǒ [ge an guan huo]
separate bank observe fire
Watch the fire burn from the other side of the river
Refusing to help others when it is needed
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
[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.
[功虧一簣]
Gōng kuī kuì [gong kui yi kui]
completion lost one basket of earth
A new dam is left incomplete due to the lack of one basket of earth
See things through to the end
急跳墙 [狗急跳墻]
Gǒu jí tiaò qiáng [gou ji tiao qiang]
dog anxious leap wall
A cornered dog will leap over a wall
Extreme circumstances require extreme measures
The end justifies the means
Gǒu měng jiǔ suān [gou meng jiu suan]
dog fierce wine acid
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
续貂 [狗尾續貂]
Gǒu wěi xù diāo [gou wei xu diao]
dog tail to replace sable
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.
苟延残喘 [苟延殘喘]
Gǒu yán cán chuǎn [gou yan can chuan]
temporarily prolong survive gasp
Lingering at last gasp
In the throes of dying. Making a final desperate action prior to dying.
At death's door
Guā xiāng kàn [gua mu xiang kan]
scrape eye appearance look at
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.
Seeing someone in a new light
Guā tián xià [gua tian li xia]
melon field plum below
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
窥豹 [管中窺豹]
Guǎn zhōng kuī bào [guan zhong kui bao]
tube middle peep leopard
View a leopard through a tube
A narrow-minded view of something. Not seeing the full picture.
Cant see the wood for the trees
[掛羊頭賣狗肉]
Guà yáng tóu mài gǒu ròu [gua yang tou mai gou rou]
hang up sheep head sell dog meat
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.
Buying a pig in a poke
Beijing, temple, gateway
Yonghegong lama temple, Beijing
Guǐ yóu xīn shēng [gui you xin sheng]
ghost caused by mind life
Ghosts are figments of the mind
Being scared of the paranormal; irrational fear of dark and shadows.
Frightened of your own shadow
Guǒ zú bù qián [guo zu bu qian]
bind foot not ahead
Dithering about
Unable to move forward due to misgivings. To hesitate about getting on and doing something.
All of a dither
拆桥 [過河拆橋]
Guò hé chāi qiáo [guo he chai qiao]
go river destroy bridge
Dismantling the bridge after crossing it
Not showing due consideration for others
[孤掌難鳴]
Gū zhǎng nán míng [gu zhang nan ming]
solitary palm difficult sound
You can not clap with just one hand
It is difficult to achieve anything on your own
It takes two to Tango
孤注[孤注一擲]
Gū zhù zhì [gu zhu yi zhi]
single stake one toss
Stake all on a single throw
Taking desperate measures to try to save a situation. Gambling everything on a change of fortune.
Last throw of the dice
[古為今用]
wéi jīn yòng [gu wei jin yong]
ancient pride modern apply
Applying ancient ways to the present day
Learning from history. Applying past history to the current situation
骨瘦
Gǔ shòu rú chái [gu shou ru chai]
bone thin as lath
Nothing but skin and bones
Emaciated
[顧左右而言他]
Gù zuǒ yòu ér yán tā [gu zuo you er yan ta]
look at left and right sides but then talk him
Looking both ways and changing the subject
Avoiding talking about something; taking a long digression
含沙
Hán shā shè yǐng [han sha she ying]
keep sand shoot shadow
Making insinuations
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.
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
[海納百川]
Hǎi nà bǎi chuān [hai na bai chuan]
sea admit hundred rivers
All rivers run to the sea
We all shared a common destiny
Hǎo hǎo xiān shēng [hao hao xian sheng]
good good mister
Yes-man
Someone who agrees with everything said. More likely to be so as to not give any offense rather than ingratiating
[好馬不吃回頭草]
Hǎo mǎ bù chī huí tóu cǎo [hao ma bu chi hui tou cao]
good horse no eat return head grass
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
Qufu, temple, Confucius, Shandong
Lingxing Gate of Qufu Confucian Temple, Qufu, Shandong. January 2009.
Image by Sean Shih available under a Creative Commons license
Hǎo rén hǎo shì [hao ren hao shi]
good person; good deeds
Good personality good deeds
Pleasant person who behaves well
A good man is hard to find
[害群之馬]
Hài qún zhī mǎ [hai qun zhi ma]
injure crowd this horse
The horse that causes trouble to the herd
The bad person of the family or group
Bad apple; Black sheep
浦珠 [合浦珠還]
Hé pǔ zhū huán [he pu zhu huan]
Hepu pearl return
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.
The wheel has come full circle
[和顏悅色]
Hé yán yuè sè [he yan yue se]
harmony face contended colour
Having a happy face looking contented
Amiable appearance
[河東獅吼]
Hé dōng shī hǒu [he dong shi hou]
He Dong lion roar
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.
She who must be obeyed
涸辙[涸轍之鮒]
Hé zhé zhī fù [he zhe zhi fu]
dry rut silver carp
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.
In dire straits
[橫行霸道]
Héng xíng bà dào [heng xing ba dao]
across walk bully road
Walking sidewise to block the way
Being deliberately obstructive
[鶴立雞群]
Hè lì jī qún [he li ji qun]
crane stand chicken crowd
A crane standing amidst a flock of chickens
Being conspicuously different (often superior)
Standing head and shoulders above the opposition.
鸿鹄 [鴻鵠之志]
Hóng hú zhī zhì [hong hu zhi zhi]
great swan 's aspiration
The aspirations of a great swan
Having unrealistic ambitions.
Wish for the moon
[侯門似海]
Hóu mén sì hǎi [hou men si hai]
nobleman house appear sea
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.
Beyond your wildest dreams
Hòu gù zhī yōu [hou gu zhi you]
back attend worries
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.
[後來居上]
Hòu lái jū shàng [hou lai ju shang]
behind arrive reside above
A later-comer surpasses everyone
A new arrival outperforms everyone present. A youngster outstrips the older generation
Put everyone in the shade
[後起之秀]
Hòu qǐ zhī xiù [hou qi zhi xiu]
after raise him refined
Promising young talent
Said of someone showing talent at an early age.
He/she will go far
food, meal
A typical Chinese family meal. Photo by ZiCheng Xu available under a Creative Commons license .
Huā huā shì jiè [hua hua shi jie]
flower flower lifespan limit
Life full of experience. Dazzling world of excitement
World seething with life
[華而不實]
Huá ér bù shí [hua er bu shi]
flower but not fruit
Flowering but not bearing fruit
Said of someone is all show and no substance
All that glitters is not gold
怀 [懷安喪志]
Huái ān sàng zhì [huai an sang zhi]
heart content lose ambition
A contented life saps the will
Living a life of idleness and contentment can lead to idleness and laziness.
A Lotus eater
[黃粱美夢]
Huáng liáng měi mèng [huang liang mei meng]
golden sorghum beautiful dream
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.
Cloud cuckoo land
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
[畫虎類犬]
Huà hǔ lèi quǎn [hua hu lei quan]
draw tiger like dog
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.
The pride of the peacock
[畫龍點睛]
Huà lóng diǎn jīng [hua long dian jing]
draw dragon dot eye
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.
Dotting the 'i's and crossing the 't's
[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
[話里有話]
Huà lǐ yǒu huà [hua li you hua]
speech inside has speech
Within the talk there is more meaning
There is more in what was said than is obvious
[患難見真情]
Huàn nàn jiàn zhēn qíng [huan nan jian zhen qing]
suffer difficult see true affection
In adversity, true feelings are shown
Only in a crisis do you know who your friends really are
A friend in need is a friend indeed
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
,比肩继踵 [揮汗成雨,比肩繼踵]
Huī hàn chéng bǐ jiān jì zhǒng [hui han cheng yu bi jian ji zhong]
scatter sweat become rain, contrast shoulder succeed heel
Sweat dripping like rain?shoulder to shoulder and toes touching heels
Stuck in a very large crowd of people with no space to move.
讳疾忌 [諱疾忌醫]
Huì jí jì yī [hui ji ji yi]
avoid mentioning sickness fear medical
Hiding sickness for fear of treatment
Keeping mistakes and shortcomings to yourself. Refuse to listen to advice.
Sweep it under the carpet
Tang dynasty, Xian, Sacred Way, tomb, people
Sacred Way to tombs of Tang Emperor Gaozong and Empress Wu Zetian, Xi'an
[旤不單行]
Huò bù dān xíng [huo bu dan xing]
disaster not alone walk
Disasters do not walk alone
Misfortunes tend to come all at once
When it rains, it pours
[旤從口出]
Huò cóng kǒu chū [huo cong kou chu]
disaster from mouth emerge
The wrong words can bring disaster
Be careful what you say
囫囵吞枣 [囫圇吞棗]
Hú lún tūn zǎo [hu lun tun zao]
whole all swallow date
Swallow a date along with its stone
To read something without fully understanding it
None the wiser
狐假
Hǔ jiǎ hǔ wēi [hu jia hu wei]
fox fake tiger power
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.
[虎父無犬子]
Hǔ fù wú quǎn zǐ [hu fu wu quan zi]
tiger father not dog child
A tiger does not father a dog
A son is similar to his father
Like father, like son
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
[虎口餘生]
kǒu yú shēng [hu kou yu sheng]
tiger den me save
Saved from the tiger?s den
A narrow escape from a dangerous situation.
视眈眈 [虎眎眈眈]
Hǔ shì dān dān [hu shi dan dan]
tiger look at stare stare
A tiger's stare. To look covetously
To eye enviously
[虎頭蛇尾]
Hǔ tóu shé wěi [hu tou she wei]
tiger head snake tail
Tiger's head; snake's tail
Begins promisingly but ends badly


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 of the characters have been simplified the phrase 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.