Chinese idioms E to I

[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
Do not 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
[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
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
[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
Buddhism , temple , roof, Sichuan
Historic drum tower and prayer hall with distinctive flying eave roofs at Wenshu Buddhist temple, Chengdu
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
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
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 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
[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
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.
Hebei, temple, pagoda
Bailin temple in Shijiazhuang, Hebei
Image by Fanghong available under a Creative Commons license
[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 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
[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
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
[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
Sacred Way
The 2,018 feet [615 meters] long Stone Elephant Road is the first section of the Spirit Way (Shendao) of the Ming Xiaoling Mausoleum. It is lined with several kinds of stone animals - lions, xiezhi, camels, elephants, qilin (Chinese unicorns), and horses. 27th Jan 2011. Image by User:Vmenkov 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
[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
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
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
Yangzi Bridge, Yangzi River, river
Runyang North Bridge over the Chang Jiang (Yangtze River) in Jiangsu province, southern China. Photo by Andy Zang , available under a Creative Commons license .
[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. If the phrase uses traditional characters these are shown in brackets and gray text. As proverbs are so old you will often see them written in the old form. 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 included at the end.

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.

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