Chinese idioms T to X
covet heaven 's achievement
Appropriate the achievements of others
Cheating others of their just reward. The story is of an official who was swindled out of his just reward for good service. Eventually the ruler worked out what had happened and he was given an even greater reward.
covet tiny lose large
Coveting small gains and incurring great losses
Paying attention to the unimportant details not the big picture. Concentration on trivia.
Penny wise, pound foolish
hide brightness nourish darkness
Conceal your strength
Bide your time before showing your strength
Hiding your light under a bushel
flick hat mutually celebrate
Knocking the dust off your hat and congratulating each other
Presumptively celebrate promotion/appointment to a job ahead of time. Arrogantly assume a job is already in the bag. The story is of two officials Wang Ji and Gong Yu of the Han dynasty, Both were dismissed but on Emperor Yuan's enthronement Wang Ji was re-appointed, on hearing the news Gong Yu flicked the dust off his official hat assuming he would follow his friend into office
chat what look easy
Talking makes look easy
Not as easy as it seemed
Easier said than done
chat tiger look transform
Turning pale at the mere mention of a tiger
To be so timid that even mentioning danger causes fear.
Afraid of your own shadow
praying mantis arm obstruct vehicle
Mantis obstructing a chariot
Overrate abilities and attempt the impossible. A mantis is a fearsome insect that does not back down even if faced with a much larger predator. So it means someone full of pride making an idle threat.
praying mantis catch cicada
The mantis stalks the cicada
Seeking one target unaware of the bigger picture, in this case the mantis was being stalked by a bird. An appeal to heed advice against taking an easy target that would result in greater jeopardy.
High Duke fish bait fish wish above to hook
Willing fish jumping to Duke Jiang?s hookless line
Trying t o ensnare a gullible person. The ancient story from the Zhou dynasty is of Lord Jiang who used to just hang an unbaited and unhooked line in the air not the water. When asked what he was doing said he was not trying to catch fish but a king who he would serve. After many years of pointless fishing he was appointed to be Prime Minister.
Green around the gills
heaven south land north
As distant as the heavens
Places or opinions that are very far apart
world does not have no break up of banquet
No banquet in the world goes on forever
Good fortune can not last for ever
All good things must come to an end
world black crow one kind black
Crows everywhere are all black
Bad people are all the same. You find bad people everywhere
heaven below no pair
Unequalled under heaven
Something or someone with superlative skills.
heaven clothes not seam
Heavenly robe without seams
A perfect result, clothes so well made that the seams cannot be seen. Used to describe an excellent piece of work - especially an essay or speech.
Ticks all the boxes
heaven make someone close
Heaven made intimacy
Marriage made in heaven
carry fat select thin
To separate out the fat and pick only the lean meat
A very picky person. Over zealous attention to detail
iron pestle produce needle
Grind an iron rod down to a needle
Perseverance can achieve anything
listen his speech observe his travel
Listen to what a person says and then watch what is done
Judge people by their actions, not by their words
Actions speak louder than words
steal girder change post
Steal beams replaced with wooden poles
To carry out a crafty deception
Boats on the ancient Grand Canal, China
same ill mutual pity
People with similar illness empathize with each other
People suffering the same misfortune sympathize with each other
Birds of a feather flock together
same bed different dream
Dream different dreams on the same bed
Not everyone thinks the same
It takes all sorts to make the world
head head correct way
Thinking carefully about the way to proceed
Logically and rigorously argued
There's many a slip 'twixt cup and lip
cast whip break flow
Throwing in whips to stop the river
An immense number of people. If all the people carried whips that were thrown into the river Yangzi then they would be so numerous as to block its flow. Overwhelming odds.
cast pen join army
Throwing down the pen and joining the army
A scholar choosing to join the army. To choose a more active life mid career.
push self to reach person
Imagine being in someone's position
To understand a situation from someone else's perspective.
Get the bigger picture
elect heart put stomach
Having full confidence
Put give someone your full support - body and soul. To trust someone implicitly.
withdraw to escape three 'she'
Withdrawing three leagues
To retreat ahead of superior force, a tactical withdrawal. A 'she' is an ancient term for three day's march or 30 li. To sensibly avoid conflict.
take off sharp point and yet emerge
A sharp stick protrudes
A talented person can't help but be noticed
map exhausted dagger appear
When the map is unrolled the dagger is revealed
A secret plan is revealed, a conspiracy unmasked. The story is of an assassination attempt on the King of Qin back in the Warring States Period. Pretending to cede territory Prince Dan concealed a dagger in a scrolled up map.
The secret is out
slaughter dragon skill
Skilled in killing dragons
Possessing a useless skill. Pointless training to achieve something of no value. Wasting time and effort.
no avail toil no result
Pointless effort that will achieve nothing.
A fool's errand
rabbit dog cook
Trusted helpers are dispensable once their job is done
Watch your back. Once the mission is accomplished you may be sacked
Outliving your usefulness
hare die fox sorrow
A fox mourns the death of a rabbit
Feigning concern to conceal true feeling
To weep crocodile tears
rabbit no eat burrow side grass
Rabbits do not eat the grass around their burrows
Thieves do not steal from neighbors
complete jade bi return Zhao
Returning the jade bi to Zhao
A jade bi is a large round piece with a hole in the middle. The story is of an ancient Imperial 'crown jewel' the 'He shi bi' that was stolen by the king of Qin. The ruler of the state of Zhao then managed to get it back. It has come to mean returning something (in good condition) to its rightful owner.
play thing lose ambition
Obsessional play ruins the will
Spending too much time on trivia. Excessive attention to detail. Losing the big picture.
Little things please little minds
lose halberd gain spear
Losing a halberd but gaining a spear
Losing something but gaining something of similar value. A halberd is rather similar to a spear - having a different blade on the end of a pole. No overall impact - both losses and gains.
Swings and roundabounts
lose sheep mend pen
Mend the pen after the sheep are lost
Can mean taking action too late or else taking action to protect against a future repeat of misfortune
Mending the stable door after the horse has bolted
Bronze tortoise used in Feng Shui
king attend to left right and talk other
The king looked left and right and then talked of other things
Evading making an uncomfortable reply by changing the topic of conversation. The story is of Mencius who asked three questions of the king of Qi, when the last question touched on the king's mismanagement of the kingdom, the king looked left and right to other guests to dodge making a response
Avoiding the hot potato
net open one side
To leave one side of the net open
To give someone a chance of escape
To let someone off the hook
outside strong middle dry
Outwardly strong but inwardly weak
Looking strong and powerful but actually weak. Flattering appearance that does not represent true worth.
Don't judge a book by its covers
All things entirely prepared only lack east wind
Everything is ready, except for the east wind
Lacking one small, but crucial item. It refers to the battle of Red Cliff in the Three Kingdoms period when Cao Cao's great army threatened to overcome his adversaries on the Yangzi River. The clever strategy advocated by Zhuge Liang was to send fire boats into Cao Cao's navy. Everything was prepared but for ages the wind was in the wrong direction. At last it changed to the east and Cao Cao was defeated.
For the want of a nail .,. the kingdom was lost
absurd self respect great
Having an inflated opinion of oneself
Full of inflated pride. There are many examples throughout history of people thinking rather too highly of themselves.
Pride cometh before a fall
forget favor lose justice
Forget a previous favor
Ungratefully forget to acknowledge a favor.
gaze plum stop thirst
Gaze at a plum to quench thirst
Offering hope by thinking of something currently out of reach
towards ocean excitement sigh
Consider one?s competance before the ocean
To feel inadequate to perform a great task. Feel misgivings before a big endeavor. The story is of the river god of the Huanghe caused a great flood that made the river a mile wide but when it met the sea it was overcome with relative inadequacy.
danger as repeated egg
As precarious as a pile of eggs
In a dangerous state - about to collapse. Just about to fall and break apart.
The brink of disaster
revise ancient but know new
Study the past and yet know the present
Studying the past helps to understand the present
be good fortune not benevolent
Have riches but not be generous
Be rich but heartless
encircle Wei to save Zhao
Besiege Wei to rescue Zhao
To aid a friend by attacking a mutual enemy. During the Warring States periodthe state of Wei was attacking the state of Zhao. Handan, the capital of Zhao was besieged, The state of Qi wished to help its ally Zhao, rather than intervene to try to lift the siege of Handan, the Qi general launched an attack on the Wei's capital Daliang, forcing the Wei troops to lift the siege.
tie clever tie resemble
Weave skillfully life like images
Produce an image remarkably true to life; highly skilled
hear news lose courage
Panic on hearing news
Panic stricken; terrified by news
reputation chicken rise dance
Begin at cock?s crow
Keen to begin a task even at daybreak. Diligent in action, losing no time.
The early bird catches the worm
taste as if chicken rib
As tasteless as chicken ribs
A humdrum, boring activity and by extension a person lacking character. Insipid, bland.
not able avoid convention
Bound up by conventions
Unable to do what you want because social conventions forbid it. Doing something just because it is expected.
Creature of habit
not yet rain silk repair
Before the rains repair the cloth
Plan ahead, be prepared
An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure
fear head fear tail
Fearing both the head and the tail
Nervous and afraid. Fearful at both the start and end of some event.
Afraid of your own shadow
I catch sight of I forget, I hear I remember, I do explained
When I see, I forget; when I hear, I remember but when I do, I understand.
You learn only by trying it, not by just observing or talking about it
Practise what you preach
I work I usual
To continue in habitual ways
Stuck following old ways
lie fuel taste gall
Lying on straw and tasting gall
Patiently suffering while plotting revenge or recovery. Sleeping rough and eating poor food while preparing for a comeback.
Harboring a grudge
house leak slanting happen upon continuous night rain
When the roof is leaking, there will be continuous nights of rain
Misfortunes tend to come all at once
When it rains, it pours
Wu ox pants moon
The ox from Wu pants at the sight of the moon
Unnecessarily fearful of something. The story is of an ox from Wu that thought the moon was the sun and panted through the assumed heat it expected to experience.
Afraid of your own shadow
no wind no rise wave
No wind, no waves
There must have been signs that it was going to happen
No smoke without fire
nothing matter no climb three treasure hall
No-one comes to pray at the Temple of Three Treasures unless in trouble
Often it is obvious when somebody is after something
no source water, no root tree
A river without a source, a tree without roots
Something without a proper foundation. Not properly planned
50 pace smile 100 pace
Fifty steps laugh at a hundred steps
Being complacent about the future. Believing a job is all but done when only half done.
Pride cometh before a fall
thing extreme certainly turn around
Extreme conditions will surely calm down
Things will turn around in the opposite direction when they reach the highest point
The tide is on the turn
thing with similarity congregate
Like attracts like
People tends to form groups with like-minded individuals.
Birds of a feather flock together
shrimp soldier crab general
Shrimp soldiers led by a crab general. An ineffective army
A laughably ineffective solution to a problem
early show control people
Strike first to gain the upper hand
The first side to attack/move often has the advantage. An admonishment to act now and not dither about.
The early bird catches the worm
first set about act strong
Striking first to demonstrate strength
To gain the upper hand by striking first
Strike while the iron is hot
early behead afterwards report
Execute first?report later
Taking the initiative; acting without orders. The story is of a newly appointed magistrate who was seeking a murderer. When she was found, the magistrate had her executed on the spot in spite of she being a servant to the Emperor's sister. An execution requires the Emperor's sanction and so the magistrate was in deep trouble,. In this case the magistrate managed to escape with his life.
Off you own bat
fragrant vanish jade broken
Fragrance is dissipated; jade is broken
Spoken of on the death of a beautiful young woman
Whom the Gods love die young
defect not conceal jewel
A speck on a jade stone can't obscure its brilliance
One small fault won't spoil the impression of an overall exceptional person
want enter wrong wrong
Indulge in fantasy
Let imagination run wild
Head in the clouds
small hole no mend big hole eat bitter
A small hole not mended in time will soon become a larger hole more difficult to mend
Do not put off taking action to put things right
A stitch in time saves nine
Terraced rice fields in Yunnan, China. The reflected sky is glinting on the fields. Photo by Jialiang Gao ➚ available under a Creative Commons license ➚.
small topic large work
To talk a lot about very little
Procrastination and exaggeration
Make a mountain out of a molehill
summer insect doubt ice
The summer insect doubts the existence of ice
An ignorant person doesn't understand the wider truth
Xiang Zhuang dance sword desire at Duke of Pei
Xiang Zhuang performs the sword dance but his intention was to kill Liu Bang
An elaborate evil deception. The Duke of Pei was one of the titles of the first Han Emperor (r. 202-195BCE) Liu Bang. Xiang Zuang was a sword-fighter who intended to murder Liu Bang. In order to get close to Liu he performed a sword dance in front of him. fortunately for Liu the plot was unmasked by Fan Kuai and Liu escaped unharmed. Refers to a hidden malicious agenda.
smile inside conceal knife
A dagger concealed in a smile
Malice concealed by apparent friendliness. There is a story of Li Yifu who was a great flatterer of the early Tang dynasty. He was always smiles but sought to blackmail and deceive. Eventually Emperor Gaozong discovered his duplicity and he was banished.
Don't judge a book by its cover
smile a smile, 10 year less
Just one smile makes you ten years younger
Happiness is the best cosmetic
evil people crooked way
Evil people in crooked ways
Dishonesty and deceit
mind have finished bamboo
Keeping the appearance of bamboo in mind
To be able to paint bamboo (or anything else), you have to have a mental image of how it looks. An admonishment to plan ahead carefully and acquire the skill to carry it out.
Forewarned is forearmed
cease sorrow mutually involve
Share both joys and sorrows
People with close ties and shared interests, Mutual dependency.
beautiful appearance can eat
A lovely sight to feast the eyes on
A beautiful woman
A feast for the eyes
sleeve hand side observe
To look on with folded arms
To look on without offering any help or showing concern
Major internal problems
Internal disorder causing crisis. Internal division preventing proper action.
feeling sweet fine wish
Delighted and helpful
Delighted to be able to help
heart flower in full bloom
The flower of the heart in full bloom
Full flowering of joy
mind heart not conjecture
Harbouring evil designs
Concealing malicious plans. Harbor evil designs.
heart broad spirit joy, matter matter obey profit
Heart joyful, work profitable
Feeling happy and relaxed
heart like dead ash
Heart reduced to ashes
spark's fire can burn plain
One spark can burn a whole grassland
Need for great care and meticulous planning
habit grow nature
Become habitual, normal
Habit becomes engrained
walk corpse walk flesh
A walking zombie
An unworthy person. Someone bereft of value - just a walking body with no active mind.
Yonghegong lama temple, Beijing
change residence forget wife
Move house but overlook wife
Foolish and forgetful. Move to a new house and take everything - except your partner.
Soft in the head
lucky calamity laugh misfortune
Delighting in the misfortune of others
The story is of a king who delighted in the plight of the neighboring kingdom that was suffering from famine and would not help them even though he had received help when his people were suffering. So it means sadistic glee.
precipice rein in horse
Rein in the horse at the cliff edge
Realize danger at the last moment
trim foot fit shoe
Reshape feet to fit new shoes
Take the wrong decision. Apply an inappropriate solution
study but no think rule deceive, think but no study rule dangerous
Learning without thinking means wasted work; thinking without learning is dangerous
Studying hard is important and gives rewards
study well three year, study bad three days
It takes three years to learn well; it takes only three days to degrade
Falling into bad ways is far easier than keeping to the good
The road to hell is paved with good intentions
learn nothing stop border
There is no limit to learning
Knowledge is infinite
snow neighbourhood deliver charcoal
Send charcoal in a snow storm
To offer assistance when it is needed
A friend in need is a friend indeed
snow up add frost
Add frost to snow
To add to misfortunes unnecessarily
Add insult to injury
follow order gradually enter
Make gradual progress one step at a time
To make steady step by step progress towards an end
A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step
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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