Chinese idioms M to Q

麻雀,脏俱 [麻雀雖小五臟俱全]
Má què suī xiǎo, zàng jù quán [ma que sui xiao, wu zang ju quan]
rough sparrow although small, five innards all complete
Small as it is, the sparrow has all the vital organs
A person is a person regardless of size. Complete in every detail
芒刺
Máng cì zài bèi [mang ci zai bei]
tip thorn exist back
A thorn in one?s flesh
Someone or something is causing continuous irritation.
骨悚然
Máo gǔ sǒng rán [mao gu song ran]
hair bone fearful promise
Hair standing on end
Petrified with fright
[毛遂自薦]
Máo Suì zì jiàn [Mao Sui zi jian]
Mao Sui self recommend
Mao Sui recommends himself
Volunteering your services for a difficult task. The story is of a servant named Mao Sui to negotiate with the king of Chu over a Qin attack on the kingdom of Zhao (Warring States era). Not enough people volunteered to go on the mission so Mao Sui volunteered against the wishes of his lord. When reluctantly allowed to go Mao Sui proved an able negotiator.
蚂蚁啃骨 [螞蟻啃骨頭]
Mǎ yǐ kěn gǔ tou [ma yi ken gu tou]
ant gnaw bone
Like ants gnawing at a bone
Dogged perseverance to achieve a long term end
[馬到成功]
Mǎ daò chéng gōng [ma dao cheng gong]
horse arrive accomplish merit
Horse win easy victory
Gain immediate victory
[馬馬虎虎]
Mǎ mǎ hǔ hǔ [ma ma hu hu]
horse horse tiger tiger
So so; average; careless
Some people say it comes from an old story in which a horse and a tiger get into a fight. Neither animal could defeat the other. In time, mentioning the two animals together came to mean a fight with no definite winner - and ma ma hu hu came to mean 'so so.'. There is also a story that, a long time ago, an artist drew an animal. He asked other people what the animal he drew was. Some said it looked like a horse while others said it was a tiger. They said, 'ma ma hu hu' because the drawing was just 'so-so'.
[滿城風雨]
Mǎn chéng fēng [man cheng feng yu]
full town wind rain
Everywhere is lashed by wind and rain
The whole community is awash with scandal or a sensational story.
On everyone's lips
, [沒做虧心事不怕鬼叫門]
Méi zuò kuī xīn shì, bù pà guǐ jiào mén [mei zuo kui xin shi, bu pa gui jiao men]
haven't made damage heart affair, no fear devil call gate
Clear conscience does not fear a knock at midnight
If you have done nothing wrong, there is no worry over retribution
As you make your bed, so you must lie upon it
[門可羅雀]
Mén kě luó què [men ke luo que]
gate can net bird
The gate can catch birds
There are so few visitors that the door could be used to catch birds. Having very few visitors
[門庭若市]
Mén tíng ruò shì [men ting ruo shi]
door hall like market
Front yard is like a market
The house is thronged with visitors. The place is all astir
Hive of industry
[滅此朝食]
Miè cǐ zhāo shí [mie ci zhao shi]
wipe out this morning eat
Wipe out the enemy before breakfast
Grasp current opportunity; anxious to do battle. Tackle the important problem first.
First catch your hare
Míng chá qiū háo [ming cha qiu hao]
clear observe autumn hair
Able to see an animal?s autumn fur
A perceptive and sharp-sighted person who is able to grasp all the detail. In autumn some animals grow new, fine fur to keep themselves warm in winter.
On the ball
躲,暗 [明槍易躲暗箭難防]
Míng qiāng yì duǒ, àn jiàn nán fáng [ming qiang yi duo, an jian nan fang]
bright spear easy hide, dark arrow difficult defend
It is easy to dodge a spear from in front; but hard to avoid an arrow from behind
It is difficult to guard against furtive attacks
[明知故問]
Míng zhī gù wèn [ming zhi gu wen]
bright know incident ask
Already knowing the answer
To ask a question when already knowing the answer
[鳴鑼開道]
Míng luó kāi dao [ming luo kai dao]
beat gong start road
Beating the gong to clear the way for dignitaries
To publicize an event
模棱 [模棱兩可]
Mó léng liǎng kě [mo leng liang ke]
pattern edge both permit
To equivocate
Position is unclear or uncertain. Failing to make up your mind.
Sitting on the fence
磨杵[磨杵成針]
Mó chǔ chéng zhēn [mo chu cheng zhen]
grind pestle accomplish needle
Grinding an iron pestle down to a needle
Patiently setting about a great, lengthy task step by step. Anything can be achieved with a firm resolve,
Little strokes fell great oaks
[莫測高深]
Mò cè gāo shēn [mo ce gao shen]
cannot measure high deep
Too high or deep to measure
Enigmatic, unfathomable. Too profound to be readily understood
Still waters run deep
Hainan, tropical plants, coast
Tropical garden on Hainan island
Mù yǐ chéng zhōu [mu yi cheng zhou]
tree cease make boat
The tree has been made into a boat
Too late to change anything
What's done is done
沐猴
Mù hóu ér guàn [mu hou er guan]
tree monkey but wear hat
A hat-wearing macaque
A worthless person hiding behind imposing looks. Trying to impress too hard
All that glitters is not gold
dèng kǒu dāi [mu deng kou dai]
eye stare mouth blank
Staring eyes and mouth open
Dumb struck
糊涂 [難得糊涂]
Nan dé hú tu [nan de hu tu]
difficult achieve bewildered
Too hard to understand
Where ignorance is bliss, it is folly to be wise
[南柯一夢]
Nán kē mèng [nan ke yi meng]
Nan Ke one dream
A dream of Nanke
An absurdly ambitious plan divorced from reality. A dream of grandeur and splendor.
A pipe dream
Nán nǔ píng děng [nan nu ping deng]
man woman equal wait
Equality between the sexes
Treating men and women the same
What's sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander
[能者多勞]
Néng zhě duō láo [neng zhe duo lao]
capable those who many work
The talented are kept busy
Busy people are busy because they are capable
If you want something done ask a busy man
Niàn niàn bù wàng [nian nian bu wang]
study study not neglect
Do not neglect your studies. Ponder on problems
Study hard. Keep thinking about a problem
Where there's a will there's a way
鼎烹 [牛鼎烹雞]
Niú dǐng pēng jī [niu ding peng ji]
ox cauldron boil chicken
Cooking a chicken in a pot designed for an ox
An in appropriate tool or scale of preparation for a job. Also refers to when a person of great skill is given a menial job
,谎 [泥人怕雨謊言怕理]
rén yǔ, huǎng yán pà lǐ [ni ren pa yu, huang yan pa li]
clay figure fear rain, lie speech fear logic
A mud figure fears rain; a lie fears truth
Over time lies will eventually be laid bare
Truth will out
Nǐ sǐ wǒ huó [ni si wo huo]
you die I live
Fight to the death
To fight to the bitter end
逆境
Nì jìng chū rén cái [ni jing chu ren cai]
disobey border go out person ability
Rebellion creates capability
Hardship and adversity foster talent
If life deals you lemons, make lemonade
[逆來順受]
Nì lái shùn shòu [ni lai shun shou]
disobey arrive obey receive
Do not block but welcome arrival
Deal with things as they happen; do not put them off
碎, [宁為玉碎不為瓦全]
Nìng wéi yù suì, bù wéi wǎ quán [ning wei yu sui, bu wei wa quan]
stand pride jade broken, no pride tile complete
Don't be a proud piece of broken jade, be a complete tile
Stand up against enemies do not give in. Keep your integrity and stand firm
Fall on your sword
, [宁做雞頭不噹鳳尾]
Nìng zuò jītóu, bù dāng fèng wěi [ning zuo jitou, bu dang feng wei]
serene make chicken head, no equal phoenix tail
Rather be a chicken's head than a phoenix's tail
Better to be leader of a humble organization than the stooge of a grand one
A big fish in a small pond
藕断 [藕斷絲連]
Oǔ duàn sī lián [ou duan si lian]
lotus root break silken thread links
Although the lotus root may be cut, its fibered threads are still connected
Friendship survives adversity
抛砖引 [拋塼引玉]
Pāo zhuān yǐn yù [pao zhuan yin yu]
throw brick draw jade
Cast out a brick to invite jade
Stimulate others to contribute to conversation by making a silly or superficial remark that sparks off debate.
[賠了夫人又折兵]
Péi le fū rén yòu zhé bīng [pei le fu ren you zhe bing]
Lose lady also lose soldiers
Losing the lady and the soldiers
Hatching an evil plot that backfires spectacularly. The story is that Sun Quan in the Three Kingdoms period wanted to take territory from the Shu kingdom. He offered his sister's hand in marriage but secretly plotted to attack Liu Bei's troops at the ceremony. Master strategist Zhuge Liang saw through the trap and Liu Bei managed to marry Sun's sister as well as defeat Sun's troops.
鹏程
Péng chéng wàn [peng cheng wan li]
Peng journey ten thousand li
Peng Niao flies ten thousand miles
Emergence of great talent. The Peng Niao is a mythical bird of huge size and power that could fly huge distance with little effort. Said of someone of immense potential.
Great Hall of the People, Beijing, Tiananmen Square, NPC
Great Hall of the People, Beijing where the National People’s Congress (NPC) of China convenes. January 18, 2003 Photo by Allen Timothy Chang, available under a Creative Commons license .
焉附 [皮之不存毛將焉附]
Pí zhī bù cún maó jiāng yān fù [pi zhi bu cun mao jiang yan fu]
skin no exist hair support how add
If the skin is missing hair can not grow
Everything needs its proper environment for nurture
No man is an island
否极泰 [否極泰來]
Pǐ jí tài lái [pi ji tai lai]
evil extreme good arrive
At the extreme point of misfortune, good will surely arrive
Things at the worst will mend
The darkest hour is just before the dawn
牝牡骊 [牝牡驪黃]
Pìn mǔ lí huáng [pin mu li huang]
female male black horse yellow
Choose a black mare instead of a yellow stallion
Don't judge by outward appearance. The horse's ability is more important than the external appearance. The story is that a Duke of Qin wanted a good horse. He was told a yellow stallion had been selected. On seeing it was in fact a black mare the duke was annoyed but the horse expert stood his ground saying it was the character and ability that was the important thing.
Don't judge a book by its cover
破釜沉
Pò fǔ chén zhōu [po fu chen zhou]
broken pot sink boat
Smash the pots and sink the boats
A story at the fall of the Qin dynasty 207BCE tells of the general Xiang Yu who refused to accept possibility of retreat at the battle of Julu by burning the boats and smashing the cooking pots. So it means no going back whatever happens. Cutting off all possibility of retreat
Burning your boats
[普天同慶]
tiān tóng qìng [pu tian tong qing]
universal heaven together celebrate
Everyone in celebration
The whole nation is rejoicing at some happy event
[千金買笑]
Qiān jīn mǎi xiào [qian jin mai xiao]
thousand gold buy smile
A smile costing a thousand ounces of gold
A target that is very hard to attain. Spending lavishly to attract an alluring woman, A variant of the proverb uses ''horses bones' instead of a smile but the meaning is the same - needless extravagance.
, [千軍易得一將難求]
Qiān jūn yì dé, yī jiang nán qiú [qian jun yi de, yi jiang nan qiu]
thousand troops easy get , one general difficult beg
It is easy to find a thousand soldiers, but hard to find a good general
It is hard to find an outstanding leader
送鹅 [千里送鵝毛]
Qiān lǐ sòng é máo [qian li song e mao]
thousand Chinese mile deliver swan feather
A swan feather from a thousand miles away
Showing appreciation on receiving a gift that shows the sender has taken time and trouble to choose it. Traveling a very long way to deliver what seems to be a trifle. The tale is from the Tang dynasty, when Mian Bogai sent a gift of a special swan to the Emperor. However the feather was all that was left from a swan when he arrived. So this is a rejoinder when someone receives a gift that is seemingly of low value.
Don't look a gift horse in the mouth
堤,溃 [千里之堤潰于蟻穴]
Qiān lǐ zhī dī, kuì yú yǐ xué [qian li zhi di, kui yu yi xue]
thousand mile's dyke, river goto ant hole
An ant may destroy an entire dam
Take full attention to detail to avoid catastrophe
Spoil the ship for a ha'pworth of tar
Qiān lǐ zhī xíng shǐ yú zú xià [qian li zhi xing shi yu zu xia]
thousand mile's walk begin goto foot down
A long march starts from a single step
Perseverance will lead to eventual success
Mighty oaks from little acorns grow
Qiān shān wàn shuǐ [qian shan wan shui]
thousand mountain ten thousand rivers
Many mountains and many rivers
A long and arduous journey
[前車之鋻]
Qián chē zhī jiàn [qian che zhi jian]
preceding vehicle's reflect
Watch the route of the preceding carriage. A carriage that overturned ahead can be a lesson for those to follow.
Take account of what has gone before
Look before you leap
Qián pà láng hòu pà hǔ [qian pa lang hou pa hu]
before fear wolf behind fear tiger
To fear wolves ahead and tigers behind
To be obsessed by fears of attack from all sides
黔驴 [黔馿技窮]
Qián lǖ jì qiong [qian lu ji qiong]
black donkey skill poor
The Guizhou donkey has no more tricks
Even a clever donkey can not solve the problem. The story is that Guizhou province had no donkeys. A man brought a donkey there and having no further use for it set it free. The tiger then spotted the donkey and was scared of the new monster, but seeing it do very little but kick it killed and ate it. So it means being in desperate circumstances with no real options left
Be at one's wit's end
[強龍難壓地頭蛇]
Qiáng lóng nán yā dì tóu shé [qiang long nan ya di tou she]
strong dragon difficult press soil head snake
Even a dragon finds it difficult to conquer a snake in its lair
Knowledge of local area and people gives them a distinct advantage even against a strong enemy
[強扭的瓜不甜]
Qiáng niǔ de guā bù tián [qiang niu de gua bu tian]
energetic seize melon not sweet
A melon taken off its vine is not sweet
Coercion never ends up satisfactorily. Leave things to develop naturally
[巧婦難為無米之炊]
Qiǎo fù nán wéi wú mǐ zhī chuī [qiao fu nan wei wu mi zhi chui]
skilful woman difficult pride nothing rice's cook
Even the cleverest cook cannot prepare rice without rice
You need to assemble the right materials for a job
豪夺 [巧取豪奪]
Qiǎo qǔ háo duó [qiao qu hao duo]
opportunely take grand seize
Grab by trick or by force
Cheat others of their valuables by trickery or force.
Rip off
Qī lí zǐ sàn [qi li zi san]
wife leave child break-up
Wife left; children scattered
A broken family
Laozi, philosopher
Statue of Lao Tzu (Laozi) in Quanzhou, Fujian. Image by Tom@HK available under a Creative Commons license .
Qī yǐ qí lì [qi yi qi li]
cheat according to its ability
Knowing the approptiate way to cheat
To skilfully deceive. Invent a lie that fools the audience. Playing a clever trick.
Having an ace up the sleeve
[傾城傾國]
Qīng chéng qīng guó [qing cheng qing guo]
collapse city overturn country
Triumph over city and country
Overwhelm the entire area. Usually applied to a woman of outstanding beauty.
The face that launched a thousand ships
[青出于藍而勝于藍]
Qīng chū yú lán ér shèng yú lán [qing chu yu lan er sheng yu lan]
indigo blue comes out foremost blue but excel foremost blue
Indigo is obtained from the indigo plant, but such color is bluer than the plant itself
Wise schooling has produced excellence beyond the teacher. The follower has surpassed the master.
[騎虎難下]
Qí hǔ nán xià [qi hu nan xia]
ride tiger difficult down
When on a tiger's back, it is hard to dismount
When taking risks you have to live with the consequences, it is difficult to back out
He who sups with the Devil should have a long spoon
骑驴[騎馿找馿]
Qí lǖ zhǎo lǖ [qi lu zhao lu]
ride donkey look for donkey
Looking for a donkey while sitting on its back
Ignoring the obvious. Absent mindedness
Not looking beyond your nose
[齊人擢金]
rén zhuó jīn [qi ren zhuo jin]
Qi man grab gold
The gold grabber from Qi
Blinded by lust for gain. Greed. Avarice. Blinded by ambition. The story if of a man from the kingdom of Qi who seeing gold just grabbed it and ran off, oblivious of the consequences.
Blind ambition
西
Qíng ren yǎn lǐ chū xī shī [qing ren yan li chu xi shi]
lover eye inside produce Xi Shi
The lover's eye sees the legendary beauty of Xi Shi in his plain mistress
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder
Love is blind
Qǐ sǐ huí shēng [qi si hui sheng]
raise death return life
Can bring the dead back to life
Amazing recovery from illness. Said of a doctor who has brought someone back from a terminal condition.
[請君入甕]
Qǐng jūn rù wèng [qing jun ru weng]
invite lord enter vat
Please step into the vat
To fall victim to a punishment that you yourself devised. The story is from the reign of Empress Wuzetian when two cruel ministers vied to create the vilest tortures. Zhou Ying suggested a large vat should be heated and the victim placed in it. His fellow minister threatened to apply the torture on Zhou Ying himself. He then confessed to all his crimes.
To give someone a taste of their own medicine
,鲁 [慶父不死,魯難未已]
Qìng fù bù sǐ Lǔ nàn wèi yǐ [qing fu bu si Lu nan wei yi]
Qing Fu not extremely Lu problem have not stopped
The troubles of the state of Lu will continue until Qing Fu is removed
Take action to remove someone/something obstructing progress, In the Spring and Autumn period of Chinese history Qing Fu rose to power in the state of Lu and ruled as a complete despot killing any opponents. Peace did not come until he had been removed from power.
Grasp the nettle
[罄竹難書]
Qìng zhú nán shū [qing zhu nan shu]
to exhaust bamboo distress book
So many crimes that there is not enough bamboo to record them all
So evil that there is not enough paper to record all the misdemeanors. Records used to be made on bamboo strips before paper was invented.
[犬牙交錯]
Quǎn yá jiāo cuò [quan ya jiao cuo]
dog tooth deliver interlock
Locked together like dog's teeth
Closely locked together like the two sets of teeth, Said of two opponents who are closely matched in skill who are locked in complex conflict.
补短 [取長補短]
Qǔ cháng bǔ duǎn [qu chang bu duan]
take long mend short
Learn from other's good points to offset your own shortcomings
Take notice of other people's admirable qualities

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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