Chinese idioms Y to Z
A list of Chinese proverbs ordered by pinyin spelling.
Calamity has spread to the fish in the pond
Suffering collateral damage. Draining a fish pond to search for some treasure would kill off all the fish as a consequence. An action that creates unintended victims.
Roughly equivalent to: Cannon fodder.
Strict teachers produce successful students
Strict discipline is needed to teach effectively.
Roughly equivalent to: Spare the rod and spoil the child.
Speak but not mean it
To go back on one's word.
To embellish the facts
Overstate the facts or exaggerate skills. Someone who is a bit of a windbag.
Words still ringing in one's ears
Still fresh in the mind. Keeping hold of a recent command or argument. Staying true to purpose.
Wool comes from a sheep
Unrealistic expectations. You get what you pay for.
A goat in a tiger's skin
Someone not living up to outward appearance. Looking fierce but actually timid.
Roughly equivalent to: All that glisters is not gold.
When a mute person eats dumplings, he knows how many he has eaten, even though he cannot speak
When someone understands the situation without needing to say anything.
Covering your ears while stealing the bell
Failing to think things through. Taking a rash action without applying logic. A foolish plan.
Roughly equivalent to: Stupid is as stupid does.
Eyes look up but the hands go down
To have high ambitions but possess limited skills.
Tears do not put out the fire
Decisive action is needed in a crisis not regrets.
A nail in the eye
Real adversity. The story is of Zhao Zaili of the Later Jin dynasty [936-946] who was a cruel and unjust governor. When it was rumored that he would be moved to another region the people rejoiced about their nail in their eyes being removed.. However the jubilation was premature, as when Zhao heard about it he determined to stay on and what is more charge the people of Songzhou a new 'nail removal tax'.
Roughly equivalent to: A thorn in the flesh.
Depend on someone, even for breathe
To be totally dependent on others, as if unable to breathe without their help. Showing great weakness.
Roughly equivalent to: Wet fish.
Helping a tiger invites misfortune
Being too softhearted with an enemy who is bound at some time later to bite the hand that fed it.
Roughly equivalent to: Rearing a nest of vipers.
Stretching young plants to make them grow
Be patient and let nature run its course.
Roughly equivalent to: Patience is a virtue.
Comfortable living is like drinking poisoned wine
Lulled into laziness and indifference by comfortable living.
Roughly equivalent to: Sofa spud.
Want the horse to prosper, but not want the horse to eat grass
To prosper you must make compromises, you can not have it all your own way.
Roughly equivalent to: You can't have your cake and eat it.
Duke Ye's love of dragons
Pretending to be fond of something which is actually greatly feared. The story is of Duke Ye who decorated whole his house and clothes with dragon motifs. However when a real dragon flew over and landed near his house he trembled in fear. Said of someone hiding their true feelings.
Roughly equivalent to: Putting on a brave face.
The longer the night, the more dreams there will be
When in hard times it is foolish to merely dream of better things.
Roughly equivalent to: If wishes were horses, beggars would ride.
Ye Lang thinks highly of himself
Pompous and conceited. The story is of the king of Ye Lang a tiny country in south-western China who in Han dynasty times considered himself the equal of the Emperor of China.
Roughly equivalent to: As proud as a peacock.
A crushing defeat
Defeat so total bodies will litter the ground. Beaten and in a hopeless situation. Suggest the enemy is in such a rage that no mercy will be shown.
To dismiss with one stroke of the pen
Taking tough, decisive action to solve a problem. The story is of a statesman who sacked a whole host of incompetent officials working for him with one stroke of the brush.
Approach heaven with a single stride
An attempt to achieve a goal all in one go without hard work.
Roughly equivalent to: Rome was not built in a day.
Every step leaves a footprint
Work steadily one step at a time in order to make solid progress.
Roughly equivalent to: Rome was not built in a day.
Money spent can be earned again, but time lost is lost for good
An inch of time is an inch of gold, but an inch of time cannot be purchased by an inch of gold.
By crossing the dragon gate, prestige rises ten-fold
Diligent study brings great rewards. The Dragon Gate is a dangerous gorge on the Yellow River. Success in the Imperial examinations was likened to a carp ascending the gorge. Passing the examinations greatly added to prestige.
Single hair holding a heavy weight
At a critical point. A single hair holds back a heavy weight. A very dangerous situation.
Roughly equivalent to: Sticky situation.
一分耕耘, 一分收获 [一分耕耘一分收獲]
Half growing the crop; half harvesting it.
Hard work is needed to achieve a good result. Can't expect a harvest without cultivating the crop.
Roughly equivalent to: Hard work never did anyone any harm.
With only a penny you can't buy much
You cant buy something for nothing.
Roughly equivalent to: You get what you pay for.
One monk shoulders water by himself; two can still share the labor between them. When it comes to three, they all go thirsty.
Sometimes work is best done alone, a group may procrastinate without achieving anything.
Roughly equivalent to: Too many cooks spoil the broth.
Gathering courage from a single drum beat
A sudden burst of energy. Easily stimulated into action.
Honored from a single glance
Honored by a visit of someone distinguished who is showing an interest. A passport to getting on in social circles. The story is that a expert of horse was persuaded to give a mere glance at a horse that was for sale and by so doing its price rose enormously in value.
The underfur of a fox
The underfur of a fox is so soft that is highly valued. Something of great value to someone.
Shooting two hawks with one arrow
Completing two (or more) tasks at the same time. A fortunate coincidence.
Roughly equivalent to: Killing two birds with one stone.
Upon first seeing fall madly in love
To fall in love at first sight.
Achieving two goals at once
A lucky stroke. There is a story of a two hunters. They saw two tigers feasting on a dead ox. One of them was keen to attack both of them but his friend advised against it. He thought that the tigers were bound to fight each other and whichever won would be weakened and much easier to attack. Following this advice two tigers were killed with one attack.
Roughly equivalent to: Killing two birds with one stone.
The dragon has nine sons, each different from the others
Brothers and sisters may not resemble each other.
One chirp surprises everyone
To rise to stardom overnight. Discovering an unknown talent. The story is of an Emperor who kept a bird that did not fly or sing and people wondered why he kept it. One day the Emperor rose to meritorious action surprising everyone.
One day in the sun and then ten days of freezing
The story is that second sage of Confucianism, Mencius (Menzi) said this of the king of Qi. He considered him a person who only showed enthusiasm for Mencius' ideas for a short time while he was around to encourage him to ruling well. So it has come to describe the many people who have short bursts of enthusiasm - no staying power.
Roughly equivalent to: Blowing hot and cold.
All parts of the body are not working together
Incoherent action, not making any sense.
Both poor and stupid
A disparaging term for backwardness.
Raccoons of the same mound
People of the same bad character. Referring to people of similar ill repute who tend to behave the same way.
Roughly equivalent to: Birds of a feather flock together.
One dog snarls at a shadow; a hundred howl at each other's barking
Blindly follow a trend without even knowing its origin.
One day seems like three years
To miss somebody very much.
Roughly equivalent to: Absence makes the heart grow fonder.
Two tigers cannot share one mountain
Two equally talented or able employees do not work well together.
Full of courage
Fearless, intrepid. A heroic disposition.
Roughly equivalent to: As bold as brass.
Everybody treat same kindness
Treat all people the same.
To take care of every thread in a cloth
To be meticulous. To pay atttention to every detail.
Roughly equivalent to: If a job is worth doing it is worth doing well.
A private wish
Acting on a personal wish not shared by others.
Roughly equivalent to: Wishful thinking.
One smile can erase a myriad worries
Keep cheerful against all the odds.
Roughly equivalent to: Keep your chin up.
A speech made cannot be taken back even by a team of horses
Be careful what you say, it can not be unsaid.
Covering your eyes with a leaf
Not seeing the full picture and so making a flawed analysis of the situation. A blinkered approach often through prejudice.
Roughly equivalent to: Can't see the wood for the trees.
Ten visits in one night
Showing great care and concern. The story comes from the Han dynasty when an official checked the state of a sick relative ten times during the night.
Separated by a narrow ditch
Close neighbors. Located physically (or emotionally) close together with very little to separate.
Roughly equivalent to: Cheek by jowl.
Obstinately clinging to one's course
Acting dogmatically in pursuit of own objectives without regard to others. Dogged determination. Sometimes this approach is honorable and sometimes leads to ruin but it is the single-mindedness that is being admired.
Roughly equivalent to: Steely-eyed.
One morning and one evening
A short space of time. Something transient that will soon pass.
Roughly equivalent to: Over in a flash.
Justice can overpower a hundred evils
Justice is the main defense against evil.
One bee cannot produce honey; one grain of rice cannot produce a meal
It needs joint effort to achieve anything worthwhile.
Roughly equivalent to: Many hands make light work.
One word is worth a thousand gold coins
A literary work of great quality and perfection that can not be improved and more generally applied to very helpful words of advice. The story is of a great writer who offered a reward to anyone who could suggest adding or removing a single character from a work he was very pleased with - the reward went unclaimed.
Roughly equivalent to: Worth its weight in gold.
A teacher of one word
Needing only a slight change to become perfect. Praise for work that is nearly perfect but requires an expert to complete. The story is of a poem that was greatly improved by a great poet changing just one character.
Roughly equivalent to: A finishing touch.
Helping things along
To encourage something along to its natural fulfillment.
If is foolish to refuse to eat just because of the chance of choking
Life does not come without risks. Risk of failure is not an argument for not trying.
A hero having no opportunity to display his talents
A situation where someone's undoubted talents can not be utilized.
Try to smash a stone with an egg
Overrating strength and being defeated. Defeat guaranteed.
Roughly equivalent to: Kicking a brick wall.
Building a drain onto neighbor's land
Diverting flood water onto neighbor's land - moving a problem onto others rather than try to solve it. Acting selfishly.
Roughly equivalent to: Look out for number one.
Pricking your thigh with an awl
Study hard with great determination. An awl is a sharp pointed tool for making holes in wood. The story is from the Three Character classic which tells how Su Qin of the Han dynasty pricked himself in the thigh to keep himself awake and alert for study. Used as a parent or teacher's encouragement for children to study diligently.
Roughly equivalent to: Hit the books.
To quench one's thirst with poisoned wine. The blood of the dove was considered poisonous
To take reckless action regardless of the consequences.
Roughly equivalent to: Don't cut off your nose to spite your face.
When drinking water remember the origin
Do not forget the source of your good fortune (particularly your parents)
Roughly equivalent to: Count your blessings.
Ying's letter interpreted by Yan
The message has been misunderstood. The story is that someone living in Ying in the Chu kingdom dictated a letter to a friend, the Prime Minister of Yan kingdom. Inadvertently the secretary wrote down 'Raise the lantern' thinking it was part of the letter. The recipient interpreted this to mean he should appoint praiseworthy people to the government. So in this case the misunderstanding gave rise to benefit.
Roughly equivalent to: Get hold of the wrong end of the stick.
To follow in someone's footsteps
To imitate slavishly. The story is of a devoted pupil of Confucius, Yan Hui, who aped everything Confucius did including his walk. Pointless copying.
Roughly equivalent to: A copycat.
Different tunes played with the same skill
Different methods giving the same result. Different but equally satisfactory.
As easy as turning over your hand
Simple. Very easy.
Preparedness averts misfortune
Be prepared against all eventualities to avoid misfortune. Have fallback plans.
Roughly equivalent to: Be Prepared!
Anything not possible
Anything may be possible.
Seen by everyone. There for all to see
Obvious to everybody.
Roughly equivalent to: Plain for all to see.
If you have money you can make the devil push a grind stone
Money can buy you anything.
Powerful backing dispels fear
Secure in the knowledge that influential people will back you up.
To fail to see the great Taishan mountain
To be too arrogant or ignorant to acknowledge true talent.
If a person has ambition, anything can be accomplished
It requires ambition to succeed in life. The story comes from the Han dynasty when Emperor Guangwu praised Geng Yan for steadfastly completed his task of mopping up opponents in Shandong.
Roughly equivalent to: Where there's a will, there's a way.
To catch fish in a tree
To look at a tree hoping it will somehow catch fish. Waste time doing something pointless and bound to fail. The tale goes back 2,300 years to the life of Mengciuswho advised the King of Qi against pointless further conquests.
Roughly equivalent to: To carry water in a sieve.
Distant water will not extinguish the nearby fire
There is no point in waiting for far off help. Get to it and solve the problem now.
Roughly equivalent to: Make it snappy.
Setting out the three articles of law
Imposing simple and clear laws. At the end of the bitter Civil War that brought the Qin dynasty to an end in 206BCE, the leader Liu Bang chose to dispose of all the laws of the Qin, replacing them with three simple laws: do not kill; do not harm and do not steal. Liu Bang went on to found the Han dynasty that ruled for 400 years.
月到中秋分外明, 每逢佳节倍思亲 [月到中秋分外明每逢佳節倍思親]
The moon is brightest at the Mid-Autumn Festival, and the feeling of homesickness will be strongest during the festival
Longing to see family from far away.
Roughly equivalent to: There's no place like home.
The old man under the moon
The deity of matchmakers for marriage . said of someone who is trying to get a couple together. The tradition was that husband and wife had an invisible red thread tying them together from birth.
Laying down the sacrificial vessels and take over the kitchen
To move beyond current work and meddle in other's duties. To take things into your own hands. A back seat driver.
Roughly equivalent to: Poke your nose in someone else's business.
The music lingers around the roof beams
Music so beautiful it seems to reverberate around the roof. A pleasant musical performance and by analogy memory of a joyous occasion.
Roughly equivalent to: Transport of delight.
Surplus courage for sale
Enthusiastic to carry on after success. Full of energy.
Roughly equivalent to: Full of beans.
The foolish old man who moved mountains
Anything can be achieved with persistence. The old story ➚ is that an old man wanted to move a mountain that blocked his path. Despite widespread cynicism he and his descendents gradually wore down the mountain. Mao Zedong used this proverb to persuade people that the seemingly impossible was achievable. One version of the story has the gods taking pity on the old man and removing the mountain with mighty powers.
Roughly equivalent to: Go the extra mile.
Cloud and mists disperse
All becomes clear again. Troubles are over.
Asking a fox for its skin
Make an unrealistic request of someone who is bound to refuse. A pointless request requiring someone to act against their normal character.
Roughly equivalent to: The leopard does not change his spots.
Not yet grown adult plumage. A fledgling bird - young and inexperienced
Still too young and immature.
The rain has gone, the sky brightens
Things are improving. Hope for the future.
There is always a crime that somebody can be accused of
No-one is spotless and so everyone can be rightly accused of a crime. Nobody's perfect.
A desire for speed but unable to reach destination
More interest in working fast than working effectively. Too much interest in the short term rather than the overall strategy.
Roughly equivalent to: More haste less speed.
Jade requires fashioning to turn into a gem
Training and discipline are needed to build character.
The sandpiper and clam fight each other
The sandpiper (or snipe) is too busy fighting a clam to notice the wily fishermen who snares them both. Taking advantage of situation when other people are too distracted with their own business.
Roughly equivalent to: As cunning as a fox.
Formulate plans in a tent
Careful planning for the future - not just a victim of events. An analogy to commanders devising their plans in a tent on the eve of battle.
Roughly equivalent to: Man with a plan.
Swing the axe to create a gust of wind
A very skilled person. The story is that Jiang Shi was so skilled that he knock a spot of paint off the end of someone's nose. he could only hear the ax move like a gust of wind.
A wife of chaff-eating days
A loyal wife. Chaff is only eaten when no other food is available and so it means someone who is prepared to share in depredations - sharing the bad times as well as the good.
Roughly equivalent to: Through thick and thin.
Becoming Feng Fu again
Returning to old ways and habits. Feng Fu was a renowned tiger hunter from the state of Jin in the Zhou dynasty. After a successful career he vowed never to hurt another living thing. However when he chanced upon a local hunt for a vicious tiger he could not resist temptation to go back to old ways and killed the tiger single handed.
Roughly equivalent to: A leopard cannot change its spots.
Zeng Shen committed murder
A false rumor. The story is that the mother of Zeng Shen was weaving cloth. Someone came in to tell her that her son had been found guilty of murder. She did not believe it saying he would not do such a thing. Another person came with the same report and she still would not believe it. Only when the third person gave the same story did she reacted and stopped her work. The story was in fact of another man called 'Zeng Shen' and not her son.
Roughly equivalent to: The word on the street.
A thief cries 'Stop thief!'
Diverting attention to cover misdoing.
Roughly equivalent to: Crying 'wolf'
Parading through the busy streets
Boastful behavior; to be puffed up with pride . Walking the streets seeking the adulation of the crowds.
Roughly equivalent to: Pride comes before a fall.
Say three in the morning, four in the evening
Indecisive saying one thing and then changing mind later and saying another. The story is of a monkey trainer who reduced their chestnut rations from 3 in the morning and 4 in the evenings. The monkeys were most unhappy but when the trainer changed it to 4 in the morning and 3 in the evenings they were delighted. And so the phrase can also mean being foolishly deceived.
Roughly equivalent to: Hemming and hahing.
Dig up the weeds by the roots
To eradicate completely; to ensure thorough and long term victory. Eliminate all possibility of future trouble.
Roughly equivalent to: Slash and burn.
Striving to be first and fearing to be last
Striving for position. Over competitive.
Roughly equivalent to: Devil take the hindmost.
The man from Zheng buys shoes
Stubbornly sticking to a silly plan; inflexible and stupid. The story is of a man from Zheng who measured his own feet in readiness to buying new shoes. When he reached the shop in a distant town he found he had forgotten the paper on which the measurement was recorded. So he walked all the way home to fetch it rather than just try on shoes in the shop.
Roughly equivalent to: Stupid is as stupid does.
Zheng men argue over their age
A futile quarrel over a trifling matter. The story is of two men from the state of Zheng arguing endlessly and furiously as to who was born first.
Roughly equivalent to: Apropos of nothing.
To know the how but not the why
Having a limited understanding of something. Only seeing half the problem.
Making a deer out to be a horse
Lying to mislead others; a deliberate misrepresentation often to please someone important. The famous story goes back to the time of the second Qin Emperor (c. 209BCE) who was an infant and the effective ruler was the despotic Zhao Gao. He presented a stag to the Emperor proclaiming it to be a fine horse. The Imperial ministers were so fearful that when asked whether a stag was a stag or a horse many said a horse. Zhao Gao had all those who told the truth and said 'stag' executed as he wanted ministers who would so anything he said.
Roughly equivalent to: What a tangled web we weave.
Pointing to the mulberry tree when the locust tree is to blame
Deliberately deflecting criticism to someone or something else - often to protect friends or family.
Paper can not wrap up a fire
The truth can not be concealed.
Roughly equivalent to: Truth will out.
Fighting war on paper
An armchair general. Making plans without knowledge of the actualité
Roughly equivalent to: A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.
Putting on airs and graces
An arrogant person who may well face a comeuppance due to complacency and self-conceit.
Roughly equivalent to: Pride comes before a fall.
Do not let your aspirations weaken; do not waste time
Keep hold of your hopes and dreams, waste no time in achieving them.
Roughly equivalent to: Don't change horses midstream.
Having high ambition
Willing to travel far and wide to achieve aims. Aspiring to achieve great things in life.
Roughly equivalent to: Driving ambition.
Even the wise can be occasionally wrong
One small mistake does not discredit a wise person.
Failing to understand even to death
Stubbornly holding to views. Obstinate and set in ways.
Roughly equivalent to: As stubborn as a mule.
The magistrate burns down the town
Bewailing pompous and incompetent officials. The story is that an official who did not want his name 'Deng' to be used in any official proclamation. The problem arose when the Lantern or 'Deng' festival was to be announced. Instead of 'Deng' he used the character for Fire instead and so announced the coming of Fire throughout the town - causing widespread alarm.
Roughly equivalent to: Couldn't organize a piss-up in a brewey.
Difficult to make a meal to suit everyone
You can't please everyone all the time. Everyone has different tastes.
Roughly equivalent to: One man's meat is another man's poison.
Avoid incurring the wrath of the crowd
It's a bad idea to stir up the anger of a large crowd.
Deserted by followers
Finding yourself isolated having lost support.
Only when all contribute their firewood can they build up a big fire
People need to pull together to achieve something significant.
Roughly equivalent to: Many hands make light work.
Plant melons and you will harvest melons; plant beans and you will harvest beans
Live with the consequences of your actions.
Roughly equivalent to: Reap what you sow.
Imperious and domineering
Someone who likes bossing people around. Arrogant and tyrannical.
Roughly equivalent to: Bossy boots.
Study hard to achieve ambitions
An admonishment to encourage full concentration in order to study effectively and so achieve ambitions.
Pulling the lapels only to expose the elbows
In poverty - wearing an old coat so threadbare that pulling it up exposes the elbows through holes. Unable to make ends meet. Up Queer street.
Roughly equivalent to: As poor as a church mouse.
As countless as the hairs on the head
Countless. A very large number.
Burning bean-stalks to cook beans
To stir up family quarrels. The stalks supported the beans when they were growing so it seems disloyal for them to be used to cook the beans. To foment disorder which will harm the whole community including yourself.
Aiding King Jie in his cruelty
An admonishment not to turn to the dark side. King Jie was the last ruler of the Xia dynasty and a byword for cruelty and depravity.
Roughly equivalent to: Supping with the Devil.
A father is responsible for his son's conduct
Parents are responsible for their children's education.
Between the lines
Uncovering the hidden meaning or character.
Roughly equivalent to: Reading between the lines.
Think oneself tall and great
Full of conceit and ego.
Ashamed at own inferiority
Ashamed of oneself.
Drunk with oneself. Narcissistic
Conceited and arrogant.
Hit your shield with your own spear
To speak in contradictions. The story ➚ is about the man who said he had a spear that could pierce anything in the world, but also a shield that was impenetrable to any spear. Both claims could not be true.
To be carefree, peaceful and relaxed.
Knowing your own strengths and weaknesses is an essential first step in life. being able to judge yourself objectively as others see you is a path to harmony and true friendship.
Roughly equivalent to: Know thyself.
Become a government official to get rich
Attain riches by working a government career.
Looking at the flowers while riding a horse
To take a cursory look at something. Smug.
Both alternatives are difficult
In a dilemma.
Roughly equivalent to: Be in a pickle.
Making laws that harm yourself
To fall foul of rules of your own making.
Borrowing light through a hole in the wall
Using a hole in the wall to get light to be able to read with. Striving hard to study diligently. The story is of a boy from a poor family who could not afford to buy candles to study books with. Instead he bored a hole through to his neighbor's room that was well illuminated so he could then read.
Not to be tempted even when a beautiful woman sits on one's lap
To describe a man who refuses to be tempted by lustful thoughts.
To sit at the bottom of a well and view the sky
A blinkered or limited view of the world.
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.