Chinese idioms R to S
A list of Chinese proverbs ordered by pinyin spelling.
染于苍则 染于黄则黄 [染於蒼則蒼,染於黃則黃]
Dyeing dark blue makes dark blue, dyeing yellow makes yellow
People behave differently according to circumstance. Taking on local conventions and customs.
Roughly equivalent to: When in Rome do as the Romans do.
A person cannot be judged by appearance just as the sea cannot be measured with a bucket
First appearances can be deceptive.
Roughly equivalent to: Judging a book by its cover.
Evil people are dreaded by other people not by heaven; good people may be cheated by people but not by heaven
Even though evil works may go unpunished on earth, good works do not go unnoticed in heaven. Reward for good may not be immediately received.
Every person has things that he can do and those that he cannot do
Everyone has their own particular set of skills.
Roughly equivalent to: It takes all sorts to make a world.
Both man and lute have perished
Deep mourning for a close friend. Seeing something that reminds you of someone who has died. The story is of two brothers, when one of them died after a serious illness the other was two heart-broken to play the lute anymore as it reminded him too much of his brother.
Everybody in danger
All in danger and in fearful panic.
Roughly equivalent to: Clear and present danger.
Huge crowds of people.
A person moves up while water always trickles down
There is always room for improvement.
Roughly equivalent to: Practice makes perfect.
It is as impossible to find a perfect person as it is to discover pure gold
Having to settle for something less than perfection.
A person's greed is like a snake that seeks to swallow an elephant
Greed is insatiable.
A person's heart is not discernible from looking just at the body
People are inscrutable. Do not judge by appearance.
Roughly equivalent to: Don't judge a book by its cover.
Keeping a good reputation is as essential as bark is to a tree
Reputation ('face') must be maintained at all costs.
Enduring humiliations in line of duty
Willing to put up with disgrace and humiliation so that work can be done. Often applied to someone given a very difficult but important task.
Roughly equivalent to: Taking the flak.
As active as ants on a hot pan
In a state of feverish activity and excitement.
The day is ending and the road narrows
The end game is upon us.
Roughly equivalent to: On last legs.
Day and night continuously
Working without a break. Exhausted.
Hitting a dog with a meat bun
To use a self defeating method to solve a problem.
Too weak to stand a gust of wind
Fragile, unable to withstand further setbacks.
Raging like a fire
Daunting and vigorous. An intimidating prospect.
Roughly equivalent to: Vim and vigour.
Scattering like birds and beasts
To flee in all directions. Trying to escape from catastrophe - often used to describe fleeing from danger.
Roughly equivalent to: Run for the hills.
Like a fish returned to water
Glad to be back in familiar surroundings. Applied to people returning home after a long absence or someone who has at last found their proper place in life.
Roughly equivalent to: In one's element.
Like sitting on a carpet of needles
To feel tense and uneasy.
A student worth teaching
A promising youngster who is open to learning. The story is of Zhang Liang who had failed in an attempt to assassinate the first Qin Emperor and went into hiding. He came across a mysterious old man who set him a series of tests to judge his keenness to learn from him. After passing all the test the old man gave him a book on military strategy and Zhang became a leading military strategist.
Still suckling and in nappies. Still an infant. Young and inexperienced
Infantile and immature.
Still smelling of mother's milk
Young and inexperienced.
Inscribe wood to a depth of three measures
To write with such confidence that the wood is etched away to a good depth. So this means to write with a profound and forceful hand. The story is of the great calligrapher who produced some calligraphy so confidently written that the characters were etched by 3/10th of an inch.
When entering a village, follow its customs
Take account of local people and opinions.
Roughly equivalent to: When in Rome do as the Romans do.
Three humble shoemakers brainstorming make a great statesman like Zhuge Liang ➚
Joint effort can help solve big problems.
Roughly equivalent to: Two heads are better than one.
Calling three times at the thatched cottage
Committed to get best possible advice. The story is of Liu Bei in the Three Kingdoms Period who wanted the help of the master strategist Zhuge Liang. Zhuge Liang refused to answer the door on Liu's first two visits. When Liu made a third visit Zhuge was sufficiently convinced that Liu was genuinely desperate for his help.
Issuing three orders and five injunctions
Giving order after order. Someone who is officious and over-bearing. The use of three and five is often used to give idea of endless repetition.
Roughly equivalent to: Cracking the whip.
It only takes three people to confirm a sighting of a tiger.
A rumour can build up to a mighty story when only a handful confirm it. Basing a story on rumor and gossip rather than hard facts.
Of the thirty-six stratagems, running away is the best.
Sometimes it is best to avoid conflict altogether. Flight can be the best option. 'The Thirty-Six Stratagems' was written by the great military thinker Sun Zi ➚
Roughly equivalent to: Devil take the hindmost.
When the old man from the frontier lost his horse; how could he have known that it would not be fortuitous?
The story ➚ is that a man lost his horse but actually it went over the Great Wall and brought back several horses with it. A setback may turn out to be a blessing in disguise.
Roughly equivalent to: Every cloud has a silver lining.
Fleeing from a wild dog
Fleeing in fear and panic due to unexpected visitor or situation.
Things look strange to the unfamiliar
Unsettled by a new environment.
Kill a chicken before a monkey. The monkey can then take the message as a warning
To punish somebody as a lesson and warning to others.
Using an ox-cleaver to kill a chicken
Taking unnecessary effort to tackle a small problem. Using an inappropriately large tool for the job.
Roughly equivalent to: Using a sledgehammer to crack a nut.
Killing your wife to become a general
Ruthless action to further one's ambition. The story is of Wu Qi who served the state of Lu. His wife originally came from the enemy state of Qi; seeing this as an obstacle to his ambition to become a general, he killed his wife. He got the promotion so it is about ruthless but effective action.
Roughly equivalent to: Sell your grandmother.
Killing without blinking an eye
Kill one to warn a hundred
To warn many people by punishing a few. Making example punishments.
A mountain cannot turn, but a road can
It is not necessary to continue in the same direction, there are other alternatives to avoid an obstacle.
Roughly equivalent to: There's more than one way to skin a cat.
Beautiful mountain scenery
Run out of food and water
Thirsty and starving; destitute.
The wind sweeping through the tower heralds a rising storm in the mountain
A premonition of something significant about to happen.
Roughly equivalent to: Forewarned is forearmed.
Create wind and fire
Create a lot of trouble.
To raise and lower the hand
A conspiracy is at work. A deft gesture signaling important information. The story is that back in the Spring and Autumn period two soldiers both claimed to have captured a prince and demanded their reward. When Bo Zhouli arbitrated he used a hand gesture to signal who he wished to receive the money.
Present and observing
An eye witness to an event.
To maintain health by strenuous walk
Following the advice given oneself.
Roughly equivalent to: Practise what you preach.
A life of love is happy; a life for love is foolish
Love is not the most important thing.
The rice has already been cooked
What has been done can not be undone.
Roughly equivalent to: What's done is done.
Swallowing it all
To unthinkingly take on board someone's opinion. Uncritical application. Copying someone else's actions. The story is of Zhang Huaiqing of the Tang dynasty who plagiarized other poet's work by mechanically adding a few characters here and there. The resultant poems were gibberish.
Roughly equivalent to: Monkey see: monkey do.
God's work and spirit's axe
So skilled that workmanship presumed to be the work of a god not a human. Fantastic, superb artistry.
Pursuing trivia while neglecting essentials
Concentrating on the little details rather than the important stuff.
Roughly equivalent to: Putting the cart before the horse.
Failure is the mother of success
Learning from mistakes.
Roughly equivalent to: Cut your coat to suit your cloth.
Lose an axe and suspect a neighbour
Groundless suspicions. Jumping to conclusions.
It takes ten years for a tree to grow but it takes a hundred years for talents to be nurtured
Studying may be slow and arduous but will be worth it.
Completely whole and beautiful
Seek truth from facts
Base judgment on the true facts of the situation and not rumor or custom.
Roughly equivalent to: Know for a fact.
An old horse who knows the way
Age brings experience and wisdom.
Getting fat by eating one's words
Someone is forever retracting what was previously said. Someone with poor judgment and a big mouth. The story is of a minister Meng Wubo of the kingdom of Lu who often pontificated only to contradict himself. A snide commentator suggested that Meng was growing fat because he ate so many of his own words.
Roughly equivalent to: Shoot your mouth off.
To shoot arrows from the mouth
To flatly deny the truth.
There is no love without a reason there is no hate without a cause
There is a reason behind all strong emotions.
The land of peach blossoms
A mythical land of peace and harmony. The story is of a hidden land that a fisherman found while trying to escape turmoil and war in the Qin dynasty. Try as he might he never found the land again.
Roughly equivalent to: Land of milk and honey.
Work very hard for half the result
Work with care rather than speed.
Roughly equivalent to: Less haste more speed.
A real victory is better than a great debate
Better to act than just talk about it.
Roughly equivalent to: Actions speak louder than words.
Like splitting bamboo
Continuing a successful series. Once you get the knack of splitting bamboo it's best to keep on going. The story is of a general who was advised to rest his army for the winter after a series of successes. The general disagreed, his army had high morale and went on to complete the victory.
Roughly equivalent to: Don't stop while you are winning.
The love of a cow licking her calf
An example of parental love and devotion. A biased assessment due to family ties - caring for one's own relatives.
Roughly equivalent to: The fruit does not fall far from the tree.
To keep mouth shut, like a bottle
To avoid giving the game away; to not breathe a word.
Roughly equivalent to: See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.
Watching a tree waiting for rabbits
Do not just count on luck, need action to reach your goals.
Roughly equivalent to: Nothing ventured nothing gained.
Always have a book in hand
A diligent student engrossed in study.
Roughly equivalent to: Book worm.
授人以鱼只解一时之急,授人以渔 则解一生之需 [授人以魚只解一旹之急授人以漁則解一生之需]
Give a fish and be fed for only a day. Teach how to fish and be free from hunger forever
It is important to learn a skill that will last for life.
The body of a starved camel is bigger than the body of a living horse.
Respect ancient wisdom rather than the new.
Painting with two brushes at the same time
To be able to do two things at once. The story is of a painter who was so skilled he could paint two pictures at the same time with a brush in either hand.
Roughly equivalent to: A dab hand.
Dripping water eventually wears away stone
If you persevere, you will eventually achieve your goal.
Roughly equivalent to: Mighty oaks from little acorns grow.
Water rises only to overflow
At the point of a crisis. Things are about to turn around.
Roughly equivalent to: The tide is on the turn.
Not only does water float a boat, it can sink it too
Events and people can have both positive and negative influences.
In deep water and fierce fire
In very deep trouble. A desperate situation with nowhere to turn.
Roughly equivalent to: In dire straits.
Speak of Cao Cao and he arrives
'Cao Cao ➚ of the Three Kingdoms is the embodiment of evil. Someone who you are talking about happens to appear unexpectedly.
Roughly equivalent to: Speak of the devil and he is sure to appear.
Say and then make
Do what one says.
Roughly equivalent to: Actions speak louder than words.
Shu attacks and Mo defends
Two opponents of equal skill. Back in the Spring and Autumn period the story goes that Gongshu Ban, a carpenter who had developed a new device to aid the attack of cities, was persuaded by the pacifist philosopher MoZi not to deploy it. Mozi was able to defend against any attack by Gongshu Ban giving stalemate.
Roughly equivalent to: Fighting to a standstill.
Learning a skill from long experience
With long practice one can learn any skill. Sometimes used disparagingly of a skill anyone can learn given enough time.
Roughly equivalent to: Practice makes perfect.
Recounting history but forgeting ancestors
Lose connection with ancestors - lose one's roots. Ignorance of own origins or country.
A mouse's vision is only one inch long
Looking ahead for only a short time. Only planning for the immediate future.
Store away in the attic
Dismiss someone or something for the moment as currently unimportant. Designate something as low priority.
Roughly equivalent to: Put on the back-burner.
When the tree falls, the monkeys scatter
When a leader loses power, his followers are disorganized and also lose power. Often said to warn someone that they hold their position only so long as their patron is in power.
A tree may grow high, but its leaves always fall on its roots
People living far away will eventually comes back home.
Roughly equivalent to: Absence makes the heart grow fonder.
The trees prefer calm, but the wind does not stop
In spite of a wish for peace, trouble is brewing. Things develop regardless of how you might wish. Powerless to influence outcome.
Sikong is used to it
Sikong was the job title of a minister of works in China. In the Tang dynasty the poet Liu Yuxi was invited by a minister to a feast accompanied by entertainers. This was a common occurrence for the minister but greatly impressed the poet. An everyday occurrence; nothing out of the ordinary.
Roughly equivalent to: As common as muck.
Ashes burn again
Resuming work after a long break. Taking up a previously held position of authority. Another flush of youthful energy in later life.
Treating a dead horse as if it is still alive
Persevering when it is already too late. A lost cause.
Roughly equivalent to: Flogging a dead horse.
On all four sides hear Chu kingdom songs.
Ambushed from all sides. Hopeless situation. In the battle of Gaixia ➚ troops surrounding the enemy sang songs of home, breaking their spirit. From the classic Shi Ji from 2,200 years ago. After the end of the Qin dynasty the Han general used this tactic against of the Chu kingdom. The Chu songs persuaded the surrounded Chu forces that the Han must have overrun much of the Chu kingdom already.
Kindness like Song Duke Xianggong
Showing mercy and consideration to opponents. The story is from the Spring and Autumn period when Duke Xianggong of the kingdom of Song confronted an army from the kingdom of Chu. His officers pleaded with the duke to attack while they were still crossing the river, the duke refused considering this an unfair tactic.
No obstacle in any direction
To be able to conquer anyone on all fronts. Invincible against all opponents. An irresistible force.
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 (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.