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'.
To be totally dependent on others, as if unable to breathe without their help. Showing great weakness.
Roughly equivalent to: Wet fish.
Yǎng hǔ yí huàn
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.
Yà miáo zhù zhǎng
Stretching young plants to make them grow
Be patient and let nature run its course.
Roughly equivalent to: Patience is a virtue.
Yàn ān zhèn dú
Comfortable living is like drinking poisoned wine
Lulled into laziness and indifference by comfortable living.
Roughly equivalent to: Sofa spud.
Yě yaò mǎ ér haǒ, yě yaò mǎ ér bù chī caǒ
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.
Yè gōng hào lóng
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.
Yè cháng mèng duō
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.
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.
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 horse expert was persuaded to give a mere glance at a horse that was for sale and by so doing its price rose enormously in value.
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.
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.
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 rule well. So it has come to describe the many people who have short bursts of enthusiasm - no staying power.
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.
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.
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.
Yīn shì lì dǎo
Helping things along
To encourage something along to its natural fulfillment.
Yīn yè fèi shí
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.
Yīng xióng wú yòng wǔ zhī dì
A hero having no opportunity to display his talents
A situation where someone's undoubted talents can not be utilized.
Yǐ luǎn tóu shí
Try to smash a stone with an egg
Overrating strength and being defeated. Defeat guaranteed.
Roughly equivalent to: Kicking a brick wall.
Yǐ zhèng wèi hè
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.
Yǐn zhuī cì gǔ
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.
Yǐn jiū zhǐ kě
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.
Yǐn shuǐ sī yuán
When drinking water remember the origin
Do not forget the source of your good fortune (particularly your parents)
Roughly equivalent to: Count your blessings.
Yǐng shū yān shuō
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.
Yì bù yì qū
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.
Yì qǔ tóng gōng
Different tunes played with the same skill
Different methods giving the same result. Different but equally satisfactory.
Yì rú fǎn zhǎng
As easy as turning over your hand
Simple. Very easy.
Yǒu bèi wú huàn
Preparedness averts misfortune
Be prepared against all eventualities to avoid misfortune. Have fallback plans.
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 Mencius who advised the King of Qi against pointless further conquests.
Roughly equivalent to: To carry water in a sieve.
Yuǎn shuǐ jiǔ bù liaǒ huǒ
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.
Yuē fǎ sān zhāng
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.
Anything can be achieved with persistence. The famous 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 their magical powers.
Roughly equivalent to: Go the extra mile.
Yún xiāo wù sàn
Cloud and mists disperse
All becomes clear again. Troubles are over.
Yǔ hú móu pí
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.
Yǔ maó wèi fēng
Not yet grown adult plumage. A fledgling bird - young and inexperienced
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.
Yù sù zé bù dá
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.
Yù bù zhuó bù chén qì
Jade requires fashioning to turn into a gem
Training and discipline are needed to build character.
Yù bàng xiāng zhēng yú wēng dé lì
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.
Yùn chóu wéi wò
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.
Yùn jīn chéng fēng
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.
Zāo kāng zhī qī
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.
Zài zuò féng fù
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.
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.
Zéi hǎn zhuō zéi
A thief cries 'Stop thief!'
Diverting attention to cover misdoing.
Roughly equivalent to: Crying 'wolf'
Zhāo yáo guò shì
Parading through the busy streets
Boastful behavior; to be puffed up with pride. Walking the streets seeking the adulation of the crowds.
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.
Zhǎn cǎo chú gēn
Dig up the weeds by the roots
To eradicate completely; to ensure thorough and long term victory. Eliminate all possibility of future trouble.
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.
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.
Zhī qí rán, bù zhī qí suǒ yǐ rán
To know the how but not the why
Having a limited understanding of something. Only seeing half the problem.
Zhǐ lù wéi mǎ
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.
Zhǐ sāng mà huái
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.
One small mistake does not discredit a wise person.
Zhì sǐ bù wù
Failing to understand even to death
Stubbornly holding to views. Obstinate and set in ways.
Roughly equivalent to: As stubborn as a mule.
Zhōu guān fàng huǒ
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 brewery.
An admonishment to encourage full concentration in order to study effectively and so achieve ambitions.
Zhuō jīn jiàn zhǒu
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.
Zhuó fà nán shǔ
As countless as the hairs on the head
Countless. A very large number.
Zhǔ dòu rán qí
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.
Zhù jié wéi nu:è
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.
Zǐ bù jiào fù zhī guò
A father is responsible for his son's conduct
Parents are responsible for their children's education.
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.
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.
Zǒu guān fā cái
Become a government official in order to become rich
Attain riches by work in government.
Zǒu mǎ kàn huā
Looking at the flowers while riding a horse
To take a cursory look at something. Smug.
Zuǒ yòu wéi nán
Both alternatives are difficult
In a dilemma.
Roughly equivalent to: Be in a pickle.
Zuò fǎ zì bì
Making laws that harm yourself
To fall foul of rules of your own making.
Zuò bì tōu guāng
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 give light to study books. Instead he bored a hole through to his neighbor's room that was well illuminated so he could then read.
Zuò huái bù luàn
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.
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 成语 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.
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