Chinese idioms J to L

A list of Chinese proverbs ordered by pinyin spelling.

Jiā chǒu bù kě wài yáng
Family shame should not be spread
Keep family problems within the family.
Jiā jiā hù hù
Every family
The whole community.
Jiā tú
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.
Roughly equivalent to: As poor as church mice.
Jiā yù hù xiǎo
Known in every household
A person or fact known to everybody. Something or somebody well known.
Roughly equivalent to: A household name.
Jiān tīng zé míng piān xìn zé àn
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. Wise Emperors of China read the reports (memorials) from many senior officials before making policy decisions.
Jiāng shì lǎo de là
Aged ginger is more potent
Experience gives wisdom.
, [將欲取之,必先與之]
Jiāng yù qǔ zhī bì xiān yǔ zhī
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.
郎才尽 [江郎才盡]
Jiāng láng cái jìn
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.
Roughly equivalent to: Running out of steam.
,堵墙 [交個朋友多條路樹個敵人多堵墻]
Jiāo gè péng you duō tiáo lù, shù gè dí rén duō dǔ qiáng
Making a friend is an open road; making an enemy builds a wall
It is better to make friends than enemies.
Roughly equivalent to: One good turn deserves another.
烂额 [焦頭爛頟]
Jiāo tóu làn é
Head bruised and brow burned
In terrible trouble.
Roughly equivalent to: Beaten black and blue.
Jiāo qī xiāng tóu
As close as glue and paint
A loyal and strong friendship.
柱鼓瑟 [膠柱鼓瑟]
Jiāo zhù gǔ sè
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.
Roughly equivalent to: As stubborn as a mule.
Jiāo bīng bì bài
An arrogant army is certain to be defeated
Over-confidence will lead to defeat.
Roughly equivalent to: Pride comes before a fall.
giant panda, wildlife
An adult Giant Panda eating bamboo
Jiǎ gōng jì sī
Swindle public to help yourself
Use public office for personal gain.
Roughly equivalent to: Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.
Jiǎo tù sān kū
A crafty rabbit has three burrows
To succeed you must must have alternative options, in particular several ways of escape from danger.
Roughly equivalent to: There's more than one way to skin a cat.
嫁祸 [嫁旤于人]
Jià huò yú rén
A person in misfortune blames someone else
Spread blame onto others.
, 嫁 [嫁雞隨雞嫁狗隨狗]
Jià jī suí jī, jià gǒu suí gǒu
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.
Roughly equivalent to: When in Rome do as the Romans do.
, [箭在弦上不得不發]
Jiàn zài xián shàng, bù dé bù fā
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.
Roughly equivalent to: Lights, camera, action.
Jiàn guài bù guài
Calm at the sight of the unknown
Face the unexpected and disturbing with calmness and fortitude.
Roughly equivalent to: Keep a cool head.
Jiàn yì yǒng wéi
See the just cause and act on it
To see what is right and act with courage.
Jiē lái zhī shí
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.
Jié zú xiān dēng
The winning foot is the first to climb
To succeed need to start off first.
Roughly equivalent to: The early bird catches the worm.
Jié zé ér yú
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.
Roughly equivalent to: Kill the goose that lays the golden eggs.
衔环 [結草銜環]
Jié cǎo xián huán
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.
Jié āi shùn biàn
Hold back on grief and accept the mishap
Often said as a token of condolence on a death.
Jié wài shēng zhī
Leaves emerge from where they should not
New problems pop up unexpectedly.
street , Xiamen, crowd, shopping
Xiamen street scene
Jiě yī tuī shí
Sharing garments and food
Sharing clothes and food with someone in need. To treat with great kindness and consideration.
Jiǔ niú èr hǔ zhī lì
The strength of nine bulls and two tigers
Tremendously strong.
Jiǔ niú maó
Nine cows are missing just one hair
An insignificant amount. A trivial matter.
Roughly equivalent to: A drop in the ocean.
Jiǔ ròu péng yǒu
Friends only for the food and drink
Cupboard love.
Roughly equivalent to: Fair weather friends.
病复 [舊病復發]
Jiù bìng fù fā
An old ailment returns
It is difficult to shake off a deeply rooted habit.
Roughly equivalent to: The leopard does not change his spots.
Jī bù zé shí
When hungry don't care what you eat
The starving aren't fussy over their food - take whatever is available.
Roughly equivalent to: Beggars can't be choosers.
Jī fēi dàn dǎ
The hen has flown and the eggs destroyed. All is lost.
Complete disaster.
Jī míng gǒu dào
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.
Roughly equivalent to: Every trick in the book.
Jī quǎn bù ning
Even the chicken and dog are disturbed. General commotion
All in turmoil and excitement.
Jī quǎn shēng tiān
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.
Jīn fēi xī bǐ
The present cannot be compared with the past
The past is not always a good predictor of the future. Things change.
Jīn shì, jīn
Today's task, today's job to complete
Finish the current job before starting something new.
Roughly equivalent to: Don't put off until tomorrow what can be done today.
Jīn zhāo yǒu jiǔ jīn zhāo zuì
When have some wine, all will get drunk
Take advantage of good fortune while it is around.
Guizhou, village, bridge
Zhenyuan village in Guizhou is home to many Miao minority people
汤池 [金城湯池]
Jīn chéng tāng chí
A city of metal with a moat of boiling water
An impregnable city with highly effective defenses. Someone/something not worth trying to attack.
Jīn shí wéi kāi
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.
Roughly equivalent to: The difficult we do immediately; the impossible takes a little longer.
,败絮 [金玉其外,敗絮其中]
Jīn yù qí wài ? bài xù qí zhōng
Precious on the outside but shabby on the inside
Don't be fooled by outward appearances.
Roughly equivalent to: Beauty is only skin deep.
Jīng gōng zhī niǎo
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.
卫填 [精衛填海]
Jīng wèi tián hǎi
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.
Roughly equivalent to: A forlorn hope.
Jí è rú chóu
Treating evil as an enemy
Determined to confront evil. Not letting evil people or things continue.
Roughly equivalent to: Fight the good fight.
Jí fēng zhī jìng cǎo
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.
Roughly equivalent to: If you cant stand the heat get out of the kitchen.
Jí yè chéng qiú
A fur coat can be made from poor scraps
Make do with what you have.
Roughly equivalent to: Beggars can't be choosers.
釜底游 [釜底游魚]
Jǐn dǐ yóu
A fish at the bottom of the pot
In desperate straits. Life threatening situation - the last fish swimming at the bottom of a barrel.
Roughly equivalent to: Stare into the abyss.
锦囊妙计 [錦囊妙計]
Jǐn náng miào jì
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.
Jǐn shàng tiān huā
Add another flower to a tapestry
Taking too much trouble with detail to try to achieve perfection. Fiddling when already complete.
Roughly equivalent to: Gilding the lily.
Jǐng dǐ zhī wā
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.
Roughly equivalent to: Little knowledge is a dangerous thing.
Jì wǎng bù jiù
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.
Roughly equivalent to: Forgive and forget.
Dali, lake, Yunnan
Erhai, Dali Lake, Yunnan. November 2009
Image by Brücke-Osteuropa available under a Creative Commons license
Jìn ruò hán chán
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.
Roughly equivalent to: Keeping mum.
Jìn shuǐ lóu tái xiān dé yuè
A waterfront pavilion sees the moonlight first
An allusion to the wisdom of having friends in high circles that often results in benefits.
Roughly equivalent to: Climbing the greasy poll.
, [近朱者赤近墨者黑]
Jìn zhū zhě chì, jìn mò zhě hēi
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.
Roughly equivalent to: A person is known by the company he keeps.
Jìng huā shuǐ yuè
Flowers in a mirror and the moon in water
Beautiful but unattainable dreams. Unrealistic ambitions.
Juǎn tǔ chóng lái
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.
Roughly equivalent to: Dust yourself off and start all over again.
Jú huà wèi zhǐ
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.
举案齐眉 [舉案齊眉]
Jǔ àn qí méi
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.
Jǔ zú qīng zhòng
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.
Kāi juàn yǒu yì
Reading is always beneficial
There is always something new to be learned from books. An admonishment to keep on studying and learning.
Roughly equivalent to: Feed one's mind.
Kāi mén jiàn shān
As soon as the door is opened see the mountain
To come straight to the point. Avoid procrastination.
Roughly equivalent to: Brevity is the soul of wit.
揖盗 [開門揖盜]
Kāi mén yī dào
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.
Kāi tiān pì dì
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.
Roughly equivalent to: To boldly go.
使舵 [看風使舵]
Kàn fēng shǐ duò
Steer the boat wherever the winds lead
Not sticking to the big plan. A fickle mind.
Yangzi Gorge, Yangzi River, river
Tributary of the Yangtze River Photo by Oskarp, available under a Creative Commons license .
苛政猛 [苛政猛於虎]
Kē zhèng měng yú hǔ
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.
Kè zhōu qiú jiàn
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,
Roughly equivalent to: Wild goose chase.
Kōng dòng wú wù
Empty and devoid of worthwhile content. Usually applied to poor writing that is devoid of meaning.
Roughly equivalent to: Empty words.
Kōng qián jué hòu
Neither seen in the future nor in the past
Something that is genuinely new.
Kōng xuè lái féng wèi bì wú yīn
If wind comes from an empty cave it did not come from nowhere
There are always clues that something is about to happen.
Roughly equivalent to: No smoke without fire.
Kōng zhōng lóu gé
A pavilion in the air
A fanciful and impossible scheme. An impractical idea with a streak of vanity.
Roughly equivalent to: A flight of fancy.
寄腹剑 [口寄腹劍]
Kǒu jì fù jiàn
Honeyed mouth but harboring dagger
Machiavellian. Using kind words to conceal malice.
Roughly equivalent to: Smile of the crocodile.
蜜腹剑 [口蜜腹劍]
Kǒu mì fù jiàn
Mouth of honey, heart of daggers
Disguising ill intent with honeyed words. Deceitful and dangerous.
Say yes when mean no
To say the opposite of what you really think.
Kuā Fù zhuī
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.
Roughly equivalent to: Pride comes before a fall.
Kuà xià zhī rǔ
Forced to crawl under someone's crotch
An act of great humiliation. It was considered unseemly to have to crawl between someone's legs.
Roughly equivalent to: A slap in the face.
Kuàng chí jiǔ
Wasting a great deal of time
Spending a protracted length of time on a task. A waste of time.
Roughly equivalent to: A wild goose chase.
Kǔ jìn gān lái
Bitterness over, happiness arrives. At the end of suffering comes relief
After troubles comes happiness.
Roughly equivalent to: The darkest hour is just before the dawn.
rice, paddy fields
Terraced rice fields in Yunnan, China. The reflected sky is glinting on the fields. Photo by Jialiang Gao available under a Creative Commons license .
kǒu liáng yaò
Good medicine tastes bad
It takes hard work and discomfort to achieve something worthwhile.
困兽犹 [困獸猶鬥]
Kùn shòu yóu dòu
A cornered beast continues to struggle
Desperate measures to keep going. To fight like a cornered animal.
Roughly equivalent to: A drowning man will clutch at a straw.
Lái fāng cháng
Long time ahead
There is adequate time to achieve your desires.
Roughly equivalent to: All things come to those who wait.
Láng bèi bù kān
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.
Roughly equivalent to: In dire straits.
Láng xīn gǒu fèi
Wolves are aggressive, dog bark. Ungrateful; cruel and unscrupulous
Ungrateful and unscrupulous.
Lǎo bàng shēng zhū
An old oyster yields pearls
Remaining fit and healthy into old age, specifically can mean fathering children in advanced years.
Roughly equivalent to: There's many a good tune played on an old fiddle.
Lǎo dāng yì zhuàng
Old but still vigorous
Remaining vigorous, skillful and healthy in old age.
Lǎo jiān jù huá
To be very crafty and cunning
To be tricky, cunning, crafty. Well versed in the ways of the world.
Roughly equivalent to: All's fair in love and war.
骥伏枥, [老驥伏櫪志在千里]
Lǎo jì fú lì, zhì zài qiān lǐ
The old horse in the stable still yearns to gallop 1,000 miles
Ambitions never fade. An old person still has high hopes.
Roughly equivalent to: Old soldiers never die, they just fade away.
识途 [老馬識途]
Lǎo mǎ shí tú
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.
Roughly equivalent to: Been around the block a few times.
Lǎo qì héng qiū
Old and decrepi but experienced
No longer youthful.
蜡烛,却毁 [蠟燭照亮別人㕁毀滅了自己]
Là zhú zhào liàng bié rén, què huǐ miè le zì jǐ
A candle illuminates others at the cost of burning itself up
Helping others at the cost of not looking after yourself.
Roughly equivalent to: Love thy neighbor as thyself.
滥竽充数 [濫竽充數]
Làn yú chōng shù
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.
Roughly equivalent to: Pulling a fast one.
Tianjin City. March 2008.
Image by ASDFGH available under a Creative Commons license
, [雷聲大雨點小]
Thunder is loud but little rain falls
Overly portentous. Reality does not match expectations.
Roughly equivalent to: Empty vessels make the most noise.
Lè bù sī Shǔ
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.
Lè cǐ bù pí
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.
Lè jí shēng bēi
After pleasure comes sorrow
Wallowing in pleasure will lead to regrets afterwards. Restrain yourself or you'll regret it.
Liáng shàng jūn zǐ
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.
Roughly equivalent to: Caught with your hand in the cookie jar.
量体裁 [量體裁衣]
Liáng tǐ cái yī
Choosing clothes to fit
Choose appropriate for circumstances. To live within one's means.
败俱伤 [兩敗俱傷]
Liǎng bài jù shāng
Both sides will suffer
Heading towards a Pyrric victory - neither side wins. A conflict neither side can win.
Roughly equivalent to: Mutually assured destruction.
Liǎng tiáo tuǐ zǒu lù
Need two legs to be able to walk
When alternative methods are needed not just one.
Liú dé qīng shān zài, bù pà méi chái shāo
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.
Roughly equivalent to: Everything comes to him who waits.
背井 [离鄉背井]
Lí xiāng bèi jǐng
Leave one's own village
A stranger away from home.
临渴掘井 [臨渴掘井]
Lín kě jué jǐng
Digging a well only when starting to feel thirsty
Begin taking action when it is far too late.
Roughly equivalent to: Failing to plan is planning to fail.
Lì yù xūn xīn
Strong ambition veils true feeling
To be obsessed with the desire for success at the expense of happiness.
Lì bù cóng xīn
Strong ambition but no motivation
Lacking in motivation to achieve aims.
Roughly equivalent to: If a job is worth doing it is worth doing well.
grand canal, wuxi
Ancient Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal in Wuxi area. . Image by available under a Creative Commons License
Lì bīng mò mǎ
Sharpening the weapons and feeding the horses
Making preparations for imminent battle. Committed to meet an enemy head-on.
Roughly equivalent to: Locked and loaded.
Lì zhuī zhī dì
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.
Roughly equivalent to: No space to swing a cat.
Lóng fēi fèng wǔ
A dragon's flight and a phoenix's dance - very powerful and invigorating.
Flamboyant. Lively and vigorous.
Lóng zhēng hǔ dòu
Bitter fight between a dragon and tiger. An evenly matched big fight
Struggle between two equal leaders.
Lòu dòng bǎi chū
Leaking through one hundred holes
Full of mistakes and errors.
Luàn qī zāo
Chaotic mess
To be in a terrible mess. Dirty and filthy.
, [蘿卜白菜各有所愛]
Luó bo bái cài, gè yǒu suǒ ài
Some prefer radish while others like cabbage
Everyone has their own preferences.
Roughly equivalent to: Each to his own.
Luò yáng zhǐ guì
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.
Roughly equivalent to: Become all the rage.
Luò jǐng xià shí
After someone falls into a well throw in a stone
To add needlessly to someone's misfortunes.
Roughly equivalent to: Hit a man when he is down.
Luò yè guī gèn
Fallen leaves return to the root
Returning to place of birth.
Roughly equivalent to: There's no place like home.
Lǖ chún bù duì mǎ zuǐ
Donkey's lips do not fit a horse's mouth
Something that is out of place and inappropriate.

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 some of the characters have been simplified the traditional form is shown in brackets and gray text. The characters are followed by the proverb (normally a chéng yǔ) 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.

For background on the types and history of proverbs please see our guide.

See also