Chinese idioms Y to Z

A list of Chinese proverbs ordered by pinyin spelling.

[殃及池魚]
Yāng jí chí
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.
严师[嚴師出高徒]
Yán shī chū gāo tú
Strict teachers produce successful students
Strict discipline is needed to teach effectively.
Roughly equivalent to: Spare the rod and spoil the child.
[言而無信]
Yán ér wú xìn
Speak but not mean it
To go back on one's word.
[言過其實]
Yán guò qí shí
To embellish the facts
Overstate the facts or exaggerate skills. Someone who is a bit of a windbag.
[言猶在耳]
Yán yóu zài ěr
Words still ringing in one's ears
Still fresh in the mind. Keeping hold of a recent command or argument. Staying true to purpose.
Yáng maó chū zài yáng shēn shàng
Wool comes from a sheep
Unrealistic expectations. You get what you pay for.
[羊質虎皮]
Yáng zhì hǔ pí
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.
,[啞巴吃餃子心里有數]
Yǎ ba chī jiǎo zi, xīn lǐ yǒu shù
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.
盗铃 [掩耳盜鈴]
Yǎn ěr daò líng
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.
Yǎn gāo shǒu dī
Eyes look up but the hands go down
To have high ambitions but possess limited skills.
眼泪救 [眼淚救不了火]
Yǎn lèi jiù bù liǎo huǒ
Tears do not put out the fire
Decisive action is needed in a crisis not regrets.
[眼中之釘]
Yǎn zhōng zhī dīng
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.
鼻息
Yǎng rén bí xī
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.
Xian, muslim, shops, PKChina-07
Street scene in Muslim quarter of Xi'an. September 2019. Image by September 2019.
遗患 [養虎遺患]
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.
揠苗助 [揠苗助長]
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.
酖毒
Yàn ān zhèn dú
Comfortable living is like drinking poisoned wine
Lulled into laziness and indifference by comfortable living.
Roughly equivalent to: Sofa spud.
, [也要馬兒好也要馬兒不吃草]
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.
[葉公好龍]
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.
[夜長夢多]
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.
Yè láng zì
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.
败涂 [一敗塗地]
bài tú dì
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.
勾销 [一筆勾銷]
bǐ gōu xiāo
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.
bù dēng tiān
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.
脚印 [一步一個腳印兒]
gè jiǎo yìnr
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.
, [一寸光陰一寸金寸金難買寸光陰]
cùn guāng yīn cùn jīn, cùn jīn nán mǎi cùn guāng yīn
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.
,
dēng lóng mén shēn jià shí bèi
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.
shanghai, skyscraper,
Modern Shanghai. Copyright Richard Wingfield, October 2017.
[一髮千鈞]
fà qiān jūn
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.
耕耘, 收获 [一分耕耘一分收獲]
fēn gēng yún, yī fēn shōu huò
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.
,[一分錢一分貨]
fēn qián, fēn huò
With only a penny you can't buy much
You cant buy something for nothing.
Roughly equivalent to: You get what you pay for.
,, [一個和尚挑水喝兩個和尚抬水喝三個和尚沒水喝]
gè hé shang tiāo shuǐ hē, liǎng gè hé shang tái shuǐ hē, sān ge hé shang méi shuǐ hē
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.
[一鼓作氣]
gǔ zuò qì
Gathering courage from a single drum beat
A sudden burst of energy. Easily stimulated into action.
[一顧之榮]
gù zhī róng
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.
hú zhī yè
The underfur of a fox
The underfur of a fox is so soft that is highly valued. Something of great value to someone.
[一箭雙鵰]
jiàn shuāng diāo
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.
[一見鍾情]
jiàn zhōng qíng
Upon first seeing fall madly in love
To fall in love at first sight.
[一舉兩得]
jǔ liǎng dé
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.
, [一龍生九種種種不同]
lóng shēng jiǔ zhǒng, zhǒng zhǒng bù tóng
The dragon has nine sons, each different from the others
Brothers and sisters may not resemble each other.
[一鳴驚人]
míng jīng rén
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.
shí hán
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.
Yungang, buddhism, Shanxi
Cave 11, Yungang Grottoes, near Datong, Shanxi. October 2005.
Image by Felix Andrews available under a Creative Commons license
[一竅不通]
qiào bù tōng
All parts of the body are not working together
Incoherent action, not making any sense.
[一窮二白]
qióng èr bái
Both poor and stupid
A disparaging term for backwardness.
qiū zhī hé
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.
, [一犬吠影白犬吠聲]
quǎn fèi yǐng, bǎi quǎn fèi shēng
One dog snarls at a shadow; a hundred howl at each other's barking
Blindly follow a trend without even knowing its origin.
sān qiū
One day seems like three years
To miss somebody very much.
Roughly equivalent to: Absence makes the heart grow fonder.
shān bù róng èr
Two tigers cannot share one mountain
Two equally talented or able employees do not work well together.
[一身是膽]
shēn shì dǎn
Full of courage
Fearless, intrepid. A heroic disposition.
Roughly equivalent to: As bold as brass.
[一眎同仁]
shì tóng rén
Everybody treat same kindness
Treat all people the same.
[一絲不苟]
sī bù gǒu
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.
[一廂情願]
xiāng qíng yuàn
A private wish
Acting on a personal wish not shared by others.
Roughly equivalent to: Wishful thinking.
xiào jiě qiān chóu
One smile can erase a myriad worries
Keep cheerful against all the odds.
Roughly equivalent to: Keep your chin up.
[一言既出駟馬難追]
yán jì chū sì mǎ nán zhuī
A speech made cannot be taken back even by a team of horses
Be careful what you say, it can not be unsaid.
叶障 [一葉障目]
yè zhàng
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.
Ningxia, mosque, muslim
Mosque for Hui people, Ningxia
[一夜十徃]
shí wǎng
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.
[一衣帶水]
yī dài shuǐ
Separated by a narrow ditch
Close neighbors. Located physically (or emotionally) close together with very little to separate.
Roughly equivalent to: Cheek by jowl.
yì gū xíng
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.
zhāo
One morning and one evening
A short space of time. Something transient that will soon pass.
Roughly equivalent to: Over in a flash.
[一正壓百邪]
zhèng yā bǎi xié
Justice can overpower a hundred evils
Justice is the main defense against evil.
蜂酿[一只蜂釀不成蜜一顆米熬不成粥]
zhī fēng niáng bù chéng mì kē mǐ áo bù chéng zhōu
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.
zì qiān jīn
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.
[一字之師]
zì zhī shī
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.
因势[因勢利導]
Yīn shì lì dǎo
Helping things along
To encourage something along to its natural fulfillment.
因噎废 [因噎廢食]
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.
[英雄無用武之地]
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.
卵击 [以卵擊石]
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.
[以鄭爲壑]
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.
Tang dynasty, roof, Beijing, architecture
Traditional Tang Dynasty style roof figures at the Forbidden City, Beijing. Figures include a man riding a hen.
引锥刺股 [引錐刺股]
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.
[㱃鳩止渴]
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.
[㱃水思源]
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.
[郢書燕說]
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.
[亦步亦趨]
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.
[異曲同工]
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.
[有備無患]
Yǒu bèi wú huàn
Preparedness averts misfortune
Be prepared against all eventualities to avoid misfortune. Have fallback plans.
Roughly equivalent to: Be Prepared!
Yǒu hé bù kě
Anything not possible
Anything may be possible.
Yǒu gòng dǔ
Seen by everyone. There for all to see
Obvious to everybody.
Roughly equivalent to: Plain for all to see.
使[有錢能使鬼推磨]
Yǒu qián néng shǐ guǐ tuī mò
If you have money you can make the devil push a grind stone
Money can buy you anything.
[有恃無恐]
Yǒu shì wú kǒng
Powerful backing dispels fear
Secure in the knowledge that influential people will back you up.
识泰 [有眼不識泰山]
Yǒu yǎn bù shí tài shān
To fail to see the great Taishan mountain
To be too arrogant or ignorant to acknowledge true talent.
Tibet, deer
Golden deer and dharma wheel at the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa, Tibet
, [有志者事竟成]
Yǒu zhì zhe, shì jìng chéng
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.
[緣木求魚]
Yuán mù qiú
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.
[遠水救不了近火]
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.
[約法三章]
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.
, [月到中秋分外明每逢佳節倍思親]
Yuè dào zhōng qiū fèn wài míng, měi féng jiā jié bèi sī qīn
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.
越俎
Yuè zǔ dài páo
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.
绕梁 [餘音繞樑]
Yú yīn rào liáng
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.
余勇[餘勇可賈]
Yú yǒng kě gǔ
Surplus courage for sale
Enthusiastic to carry on after success. Full of energy.
Roughly equivalent to: Full of beans.
Yú gōng yí shān
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.
消雾 [云消霧散]
Yún xiāo wù sàn
Cloud and mists disperse
All becomes clear again. Troubles are over.
狐谋 [與狐謀皮]
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
Still too young and immature.
Turpan, silk road, fort
Ruins of Gaochang City near Turpan. Photo available under a Creative Commons license .
[雨過天晴]
guò tiān qíng
The rain has gone, the sky brightens
Things are improving. Hope for the future.
罪,[欲加之罪,何患無辭]
Yù jiā zhī zuì hé huàn wú cí
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.
[欲速則不達]
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.
鹬蚌争, [鷸蚌相爭,漁翁得利]
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.
筹帷幄 [運籌帷幄]
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.
[運斤成風]
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.
糟糠
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.
[再作馮婦]
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.
[曾參殺人]
Zēng Shēn shā rén
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.
贼喊捉贼 [賊喊捉賊]
Zéi hǎn zhuō zéi
A thief cries 'Stop thief!'
Diverting attention to cover misdoing.
Roughly equivalent to: Crying 'wolf'
招愮 [招愮過市]
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.
Roughly equivalent to: Pride comes before a fall.
Zhāo sān mù
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.
Tiananmen Square, crowd
2004 PRC National Day at Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China. What a crowd! Image by pfctdayelise available under a Creative Commons License
除根 [斬草除根]
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.
Roughly equivalent to: Slash and burn.
[爭先恐後]
Zhēng xiān kǒng hòu
Striving to be first and fearing to be last
Striving for position. Over competitive.
Roughly equivalent to: Devil take the hindmost.
[鄭人買履]
Zhèng rén mǎi lǔ:
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.
[鄭人爭年]
Zhèng rén zhēng nián
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.
然,
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.
指鹿 [指鹿爲馬]
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.
指桑骂槐 [指桑罵槐]
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.
[帋包不住火]
Zhǐ bāo bù zhù huǒ
Paper can not wrap up a fire
The truth can not be concealed.
Roughly equivalent to: Truth will out.
[帋上談兵]
Zhǐ shàng tán bīng
Fighting war on paper
An armchair general. Making plans without knowledge of the actualité
Roughly equivalent to: A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.
[趾高氣揚]
Zhǐ gāo qì yáng
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.
[志不可慢旹不可失]
Zhì bù kě màn shí bù kě shī
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.
Zhì zài fāng
Having high ambition
Willing to travel far and wide to achieve aims. Aspiring to achieve great things in life.
Roughly equivalent to: Driving ambition.
[智者千慮必有一失]
Zhì zhě qiān lǜ bì yǒu shī
Even the wise can be occasionally wrong
One small mistake does not discredit a wise person.
feng shui, turtle, tortoise, calligraphy
Bronze tortoise used in Feng Shui
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 brewey.
[眾口難調]
Zhòng kǒu nán tiáo
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.
[眾怒難犯]
Zhòng nù nán fàn
Avoid incurring the wrath of the crowd
It's a bad idea to stir up the anger of a large crowd.
[眾叛親離]
Zhòng pàn qīn lí
Deserted by followers
Finding yourself isolated having lost support.
[眾人拾柴火焰高]
Zhòng rén shí chái huǒyàn gāo
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.
[種瓜得瓜種豆得豆]
Zhòng guā dé guā zhòng dòu dé dòu
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.
专横跋扈 [專橫跋扈]
Zhuān hèng bá hù
Imperious and domineering
Someone who likes bossing people around. Arrogant and tyrannical.
Roughly equivalent to: Bossy boots.
[專心致志]
Zhuān xīn zhì zhì
Study hard to achieve ambitions
An admonishment to encourage full concentration in order to study effectively and so achieve ambitions.
捉襟[捉襟見肘]
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.
[擢髮難數]
Zhuó fà nán shǔ
As countless as the hairs on the head
Countless. A very large number.
燃萁
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.
助桀[助桀爲虐]
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.
Tiananmen Square, Beijing
Image by McKay Savage from London, UK available under a Creative Commons license January 2005
[子不教父之過]
Zǐ bù jiào fù zhī guò
A father is responsible for his son's conduct
Parents are responsible for their children's education.
[字里行間]
Zì lǐ háng jiān
Between the lines
Uncovering the hidden meaning or character.
Roughly equivalent to: Reading between the lines.
Zì gāo zì
Think oneself tall and great
Full of conceit and ego.
Zì kuì fú rú
Ashamed at own inferiority
Ashamed of oneself.
陶醉
Zì wǒ táo zuì
Drunk with oneself. Narcissistic
Conceited and arrogant.
Zì xiāng máo dùn
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.
Zì yóu zì zài
Unrestricted freedom
To be carefree, peaceful and relaxed.
Zì zhī zhī míng
Knowing oneself
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.
[走官發財]
Zǒu guān fā cái
Become a government official to get rich
Attain riches by working a government career.
[走馬看花]
Zǒu mǎ kàn huā
Looking at the flowers while riding a horse
To take a cursory look at something. Smug.
[左右為難]
Zuǒ yòu wéi nán
Both alternatives are difficult
In a dilemma.
Roughly equivalent to: Be in a pickle.
[作法自斃]
Zuò fǎ zì bì
Making laws that harm yourself
To fall foul of rules of your own making.
凿璧偷 [鑿璧偸光]
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 study books with. Instead he bored a hole through to his neighbor's room that was well illuminated so he could then read.
giant panda
A young Giant Panda cub just four months old
怀 [坐懷不亂]
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.
井观 [坐井觀天]
Zuò jǐng guān tiān
To sit at the bottom of a well and view the sky
A blinkered or limited view of the world.


China motif
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.

See also