Chinese idioms J to L
family shame not allowed outside scatter
Family shame should not be spread
Keep family problems within the family
house house door door
The whole community
house empty four walls
Home with just four bare walls
An empty house with just bare walls. To be very poor. There is a story from the Han dynasty of two rivals for the hand of a young lady. One was rich and the other was very poor, but due to the skill of the poor man on the qin (type of lute) the lady chose the poor man to the astonishment of the rich man
As poor as church mice
home as household know
Known in every household
A person or fact known to everybody. Something or somebody well known
A household name
twice listen then understand, stubbornly trust one then muddled
Listen to several people and you will be enlightened; if only a few then you will be muddled
Take advice from all quarters not just a few people. Wide Emperors of China read the reports (memorials) from many senior officials before making policy decisions.
ginger is old of peppery
Aged ginger is more potent
Experience gives wisdom
take desire get it must first give it
Give up in order to take back
A strategy to maintain possession. By giving up something in the hope that it will be rewarded. The story is of a dispute with a greedy neighboring kingdom. Rather than oppose a kingdom volunteered to give up land. When the greed y neighbor continued to take advantage all the neighbors united against it and all the lands were returned.
Jiang official talent exhaust
Master Jiang has exhausted his talent
Losing your creative spark. Jiang Yan was an official in the Southern Liang dynasty [502-557] achieved early repute as a poet and writer but in later years struggled to write anything of value. He dreamed that he owed his talent to the pen of Guo Pu who then reclaimed it.
Running out of steam
exchange friend many paved road, tree enemy many stop wall
Making a friend is an open road; making an enemy builds a wall
It is better to make friends than enemies
One good turn deserves another
beaten head burnt brow
Head bruised and brow burned
In terrible trouble
Beaten black and blue
glue paint mutually refuge
As close as glue and paint
A loyal and strong friendship.
glue peg strike zither
Gluing the tuning pegs of a zither
Inflexible and stubborn. Gluing the tuning pegs of a musical instrument so it can not be tuned and brought into harmony.
As stubborn as a mule
haughty weapon certainly defeated
An arrogant army is certain to be defeated
Over-confidence will lead to defeat
Pride cometh before a fall
false public aid self
Swindle public to help yourself
Use public office for personal gain
Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely
crafty hare three burrows
A crafty rabbit has three burrows
To succeed you must must have alternative options, in particular several ways of escape from danger
There's more than one way to skin a cat
marry disaster foremost person
A person in misfortune blames someone else
Spread blame onto others
嫁鸡随鸡, 嫁狗随狗 [嫁雞隨雞嫁狗隨狗]
marry chicken follow chicken, marry dog follow dog
Marry a chicken and live with its ways, marry a dog and live with its ways
Changing approach and actions according to who you are with
When in Rome do as the Romans do
arrow exist string on, not get no deliver
Once the arrow is on the bow string, it must be shot
Things have reached a point when its necessary for something to be done. No choice
Lights, camera, action
see monster not monster
Calm at the sight of the unknown
Face the unexpected and disturbing with calmness and fortitude
Keep a cool head
Sunset at the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda, Xi'an
see justice brave act
See the just cause and act on it
To see what is right and act with courage
sigh arrive food
Rejecting charity food handed out with contempt
Food given to the starving with such a contemptuous swagger that the starved reject it and would rather starve.
victory foot first climb
The winning foot is the first to climb
To succeed need to start off first
The early bird gets the worm
exhaust pond to fish
Drain the pond to harvest the fish
Choose short-term gain for long-term sorrow. Not planning for the long term. Short-termism. Similar to burning down a forest to capture wild animals - unsustainable.
Kill the goose that lays the golden eggs
tie grass link ring
Tying grass and delivering rings
Generously repaying a debt of gratitude. The story is of Yang Bao who nursed a sick bird back to health. After he had released the siskin into the wild he dreamed of the bird carrying grass tied in rings in its beak which transformed into a boy with precious jade rings . The boy gave Yang Bao enduring good fortune in gratitude.
holiday pity submit to alter
Hold back on grief and accept the mishap
Often said as a token of condolence on a death
joint outside produce branch
Leaves emerge from where they should not
New problems pop up unexpectedly
remove clothes cut food
Sharing garments and food
Sharing clothes and food with someone in need. To treat with great kindness and consideration.
nine ox two tiger 's strength
The strength of nine bulls and two tigers
nine ox one hair
Nine cows are missing just one hair
An insignificant amount. A trivial matter
A drop in the ocean
wine meat friends
Friends only for the food and drink
Fair weather friends
old illness duplicate issue
An old ailment returns
It is difficult to shake off a deeply rooted habit
The leopard does not change his spots
hunger not choose eat
When hungry don't care what you eat
The starving aren't fussy over their food - take whatever is available
Beggars can't be choosers
chicken fly egg broken
The hen has flown and the eggs destroyed. All is lost.
chicken cry dog steal
Able to crow like a cockerel and steal like a dog
A person with a range of useful tricks. The story is of someone back in the Warring States period who helped a prince out of difficulty by imitating a dog to distract prison guards and to crow like a cockerel to trick them into thinking it was already morning
Every trick in the book
chicken dog not stand
Even the chicken and dog are disturbed. General commotion
All in turmoil and excitement
chicken dog ascend heaven
Even chickens and dogs go to heaven
Riding high on someone else's success. When someone gets a plum job all his friends and family will also prosper. Alternatively can mean once a problem has been cracked anyone can solve it.
modern wrong ancient compare
The present cannot be compared with the past
The past is not always a good predictor of the future. Things change
this day task, this day complete
Today's task, today's job to complete
Finish the current job before starting something new
Don't put off until tomorrow what can be done today
Gobi Desert stretches into Inner Mongolia. August 2008
Image by Fir0002 ➚ available under a Creative Commons license ➚
now palace have wine, now palace drunk
When have some wine, all will get drunk
Take advantage of good fortune while it is around
metal city boiling moat
A city of metal with a moat of boiling water
An impregnable city with highly effective defenses. Someone/something not worth trying to attack.
metal stone become open
Even metal and stone can be pierced
Any difficulty can be overcome given time and commitment. The story is of the famous archer Xiong Quzi of the Zhou dynasty. At dusk he mistook a stone for a tiger and shot an arrow at it. In the morning he found his arrow had penetrated deep into the stone. This led to the idiom that with great skill and determination the apparently impossible can be achieved.
The difficult we do immediately; the impossible takes a little longer
gold jade outside withered cotton wadding middle
Precious on the outside but shabby on the inside
Don't be fooled by outward appearances
Beauty is only skin deep
frightened bow's bird
A bird startled even by the twang of a bow string
Someone who is easily frightened especially if triggered by a previous bad experience. The story is of a great archer who claimed he could shoot a goose out of the sky without releasing an arrow. He then twanged the bow and a goose did fall to the ground. The goose showed signs of a previous arrow injury and had died of fright.
Jing Wei fill ocean
Jingwei tries to fill up the ocean
Even the mythical bird Jing Wei will be unable to fill the oceans with pebbles. Facing a Herculean task. Determined against impossible odds. The story is of Jing Wei who was the daughter of Emperor Yan. A great typhoon came and killed her and she was then transformed into a bird. In revenge for her early death she determined to fill up the ocean by filling it with pebbles one by one.
A forlorn hope
jealousy evil as if enemy
Treating evil as an enemy
Determined to confront evil. Not letting evil people or things continue.
Fight the good fight
storm know strength grass
A storm tests the strength of a blade of grass
Being put to the test in harsh circumstances. To show resolution under extreme stress. Remaining loyal to a cause when the going gets tough.
If you cant stand the heat get out of the kitchen
gather armpit accomplish fur coat
A fur coat can be made from poor scraps
Make do with what you have
Beggars can't be choosers
cauldron bottom swim fish
A fish at the bottom of the pot
In desperate straits. Life threatening situation - the last fish swimming at the bottom of a barrel.
Stare into the abyss
brocade purse wonderful plan
Excellent plans hidden in a brocade bag
To have wise plans in reserve. The story is that the brilliant strategist Zhuge Liang sent plans for a military campaign concealed in a brocade bag.
tapestry up add flower
Add another flower to a tapestry
Taking too much trouble with detail to try to achieve perfection. Fiddling when already complete
Gilding the lily
well bottom's frog
A blinkered approach to life. Living in a fantasy world.
A frog in a well. The story is of a frog that only knows of the water in the well and knew nothing of the sea, and can only see a small portion of the sky.
Little knowledge is a dangerous thing
already past not to blame
It is pointless to blame past events
What is done is done. It is pointless to live a life of regret for things that can't be changed.
Forgive and forget
silent as cold cicada
As silent as a cicada in winter
Cicadas do not 'sing' in cold weather. To keep silent for fear of attracting unwanted attention or incriminating yourself.
near river pavilion platform early gets moon
A waterfront pavilion sees the moonlight first
An allusion to the wisdom of having friends in high circles that often results in benefits.
Climbing the greasy poll
near vermilion that red, near ink that black
He who stays near vermilion is stained red; he who stays near ink is stained black
Taking on the color of the company kept. Adapt to surroundings
A person is known by the company he keeps
mirror flower water moon
Flowers in a mirror and the moon in water
Beautiful but unattainable dreams. Unrealistic ambitions
sweep dust again come
Sweeping off the dust and trying again
Making a comeback after a setback - determined to have another go. Like getting back on a horse after being thrown off.
Dust yourself off and start all over again
Li River near Guilin. September 2012.
Image by Mgmoscatello ➚ available under a Creative Commons license ➚
Sweet orange change into orange
Sweet orange turns into orange
People change according to their environment. According to a story orange trees gave different types of fruit depending on whether they were planted north or south of a river.
lift table level with eyebrow
Lifting the tray up to the eyebrows
Showing respect and affection for someone. It is a traditional show of respect to lift a tray high when presenting food to a respected guest. Lasting love and consideration
act foot easy serious
One step decides the outcome
Taking the decisive step; making the crucial decision. A situation where people are hesitant about moving forward and it needs someone to make the first move and the rest follow.
start book exist benefit
Reading is always beneficial
There is always something new to be learned from books. An admonishment to keep on studying and learning.
Feed one's mind
begin entrance see mountain
As soon as the door is opened see the mountain
To come straight to the point. Avoid procrastination
Brevity is the soul of wit
open door to greet thief
Opening the door and welcoming in the thief
To welcome a thief or bandit into your home. Bringing disaster upon yourself by your own foolish actions.
start heaven repel earth
To separate heaven from earth
The beginning of a great task. In one creation myth Pangu set about his momentous work by first separating heaven (yang) from earth (yin). An epic undertaking
To boldly go
look wind steer rudder
Steer the boat wherever the winds lead
Not sticking to the big plan. A fickle mind
severe government fierce tiger
Tyranny is more terrible than tigers
The story is that Confucius met a woman near mount Taishan who was weeping bitterly. When asked, she said she had lost father-in-law, husband and son to marauding tigers. When Confucius asked why then she did not move to a safer village she replied that she was sheltering from a despotic government and would rather risk tigers than oppression. Evil government is the worst of evils.
notch boat seek sword
Marking the boat to locate a sunken sword
A venture made pointless by changing circumstances. The story is of a man who accidentally dropped a sword in the lake while being ferried across it. He reasoned that if he made a notch in the side of the boat that would let him find the sword again,
Wild goose chase
cavity has no thing
Empty and devoid of worthwhile content. Usually applied to poor writing that is devoid of meaning.
empty before terminate behind
Neither seen in the future nor in the past
Something that is genuinely new
empty cave arrive wind surely nothing not follow
If wind comes from an empty cave it did not come from nowhere
There are always clues that something is about to happen
No smoke without fire
sky middle storied pavilion
A pavilion in the air
A fanciful and impossible scheme. An impractical idea with a streak of vanity.
A flight of fancy
mouth trustworthy stomach sword
Honeyed mouth but harboring dagger
Machiavellian. Using kind words to conceal malice
Smile of the crocodile
mouth honey belly sword
Mouth of honey, heart of daggers
Disguising ill intent with honeyed words. Deceitful and dangerous
mouth OK feeling wrong
Say yes when mean no
To say the opposite of what you really think
Kua Fu chase after sun
Kua Fu chasing the sun
Pride leading to attempting the impossible. Over confidence in skills. Over-arching ambition. The story is of a giant called Kua Fu who was immensely strong and swift. He attempted to chase the sun but in so doing became so hot he died from thirst that could not be quenched. A similar tale to Icarus flying too close to the sun.
Pride comes before a fall
crotch below it disgrace
Forced to crawl under someone's crotch
An act of great humiliation. It was considered unseemly to have to crawl between someone's legs
A slap in the face
Zhenyuan village in Guizhou is home to many Miao minority people
waste day protracted
Wasting a great deal of time
Spending a protracted length of time on a task. A waste of time.
A wild goose chase
bitter exhuast sweet arrive
Bitterness over, happiness arrives. At the end of suffering comes relief
After troubles comes happiness
The darkest hour is just before the dawn
bitter mouth good medicine
Good medicine tastes bad
It takes hard work and discomfort to achieve something worthwhile
surrounded beast still struggle
A cornered beast continues to struggle
Desperate measures to keep going. To fight like a cornered animal.
A drowning man will clutch at a straw
arrive day region long
Long time ahead
There is adequate time to achieve your desires
All things come to those who wait
wolf distressed not endure
In a sorry plight
Facing total defeat. Left high and dry. The story is of Ma Chao in the Three Kingdoms Period who was out maneuvered by Cao Cao and faced total defeat.
In dire straits
wolf feeling dog lungs
Wolves are aggressive, dog bark. Ungrateful; cruel and unscrupulous
Ungrateful and unscrupulous
old oyster grow pearl
An old oyster yields pearls
Remaining fit and healthy into old age, specifically can mean fathering children in advanced years.
There's many a good tune played on an old fiddle
old able to increase strength
Old but still vigorous
Remaining vigorous, skillful and healthy in old age.
old crafty great cunning
To be very crafty and cunning
To be tricky, cunning, crafty. Well versed in the ways of the world
All's fair in love and war
old thoroughbred hidden stable, aspiration exist 1000 miles
The old horse in the stable still yearns to gallop 1,000 miles
Ambitions never fade. An old person still has high hopes
Old soldiers never die, they just fade away
old horse know way
An old horse knows the way
Knowledge born from long experience. The story is of a Duke of Qi of the Spring and Autumn period who became lost on the way home from a campaign because winter had set in. The Duke proposed that the old horses should be allowed to lead their way home which they did successfully.
Been around the block a few times
old spirit across autumn
Old and decrepi but experienced
No longer youthful
candle illuminate bright other people, but destroy extinguish itself
A candle illuminates others at the cost of burning itself up
Helping others at the cost of not looking after yourself
Love thy neighbor as thyself
excessive yu pipe supply fate
Passing oneself off as a proficient Yu pipe player
Pretending to be well qualified for a job. The story is that the king of Qi loved to hear an ensemble of yu players. A lazy sponger Nanguo wanted the plum job as a yu player. He faked playing the yu in the large ensemble. It came to an end with the next king of Qi who preferred soloists rather than an ensemble and so, expecting exposure, quickly fled away.
Pulling a fast one
thunder sound big, rain drop small
Thunder is loud but little rain falls
Overly portentous. Reality does not match expectations
Empty vessels make the most noise
happy not consider Shu
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
happy no longer weary
Pleasure takes away the fatigue
Said of a task that is enjoyable and so does not seem to be tiring. Can also be applied to a pleasurable task that you never get tired of doing.
joy extreme produce sorrow
After pleasure comes sorrow
Wallowing in pleasure will lead to regrets afterwards. Restrain yourself or you'll regret it
Autumn in Jilin
beam of roof upon gentleman
The gentleman on the roof beam
Euphemism for a thief. As traditional Chinese roof tiles were not tacked down it was very easy to access a house via the roof.
Caught with your hand in the cookie jar
measure body cut clothes
Choosing clothes to fit
Choose appropriate for circumstances. To live within one's means.
both damage entirely injure
Both sides will suffer
Heading towards a Pyrric victory - neither side wins. A conflict neither side can win.
Mutually assured destruction
two legs walk journey
Need two legs to be able to walk
When alternative methods are needed not just one
remain get green mountain exist, no fear have no firewood
So long as the green mountains are preserved, there will be no shortage of firewood
Do not despair, there is plenty of time and opportunity
Everything comes to him who waits
leave village behind well
Leave one's own village
A stranger away from home
approach thirsty dig well
Digging a well only when starting to feel thirsty
Begin taking action when it is far too late.
Failing to plan is planning to fail
sharp desire fogs heart
Strong ambition veils true feeling
To be obsessed with the desire for success at the expense of happiness
strength not from feeling
Strong ambition but no motivation
Lacking in motivation to achieve aims
If a job is worth doing it is worth doing well
sharpen weapons feed horse
Sharpening the weapons and feeding the horses
Making preparations for imminent battle. Committed to meet an enemy head-on
Locked and loaded
establish awl's place
A place to stick an awl
A very small piece of property. Often said of someone who has fallen on hard times and has only a very small place to live or just to describe a very small space.
No space to swing a cat
dragon fly phoenix dance
A dragon's flight and a phoenix's dance - very powerful and invigorating.
Flamboyant. Lively and vigorous
dragon war tiger battle
Bitter fight between a dragon and tiger. An evenly matched big fight
Struggle between two equal leaders
leak hole hundred get out
Leaking through one hundred holes
Full of mistakes and errors
chaos seven eight dregs
To be in a terrible mess. Dirty and filthy
radish cabbage, each have place fond
Some prefer radish while others like cabbage
Everyone has their own preferences
Each to his own
Luoyang paper expensive
To make paper expensive in Luoyang
The story is of a book that initially failed to find any interest, when he came to the then capital of Luoyang several respected scholars found it exceptional. The book then became so popular that printers exhausted the supply of paper to print copies of it. It therefore is used to describe a book that is destined to be a sensation.
Become all the rage
fall well throw stone
After someone falls into a well throw in a stone
To add needlessly to someone's misfortunes
Hit a man when he is down
fall leaf return root
Fallen leaves return to the root
Returning to place of birth
There's no place like home
Qian King Temple on the West Lake in Hangzhou, Zhejiang. October 2008.
Image by kanegen ➚ available under a Creative Commons license ➚
donkey lips no match horse mouth
Donkey's lips do not fit a horse's mouth
Something that is out of place and inappropriate
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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