Chinese idioms about misfortune and ill luck

Proverbs to give you the strength to face misfortune with good grace.

shàng Liáng Shān [bi shang Liang Shan]
compel get into Liang mountain
Compelled to become a Liangshan rebel
Forced to take an undesirable action. The story is of Lin Chong who was hounded down by Chao Gai because he wanted Lin's wife. After being falsely accused of attempted murder Lin was further victimized by Chao Gai until he was left with no choice but to join the rebels. So it means left with no choice at all.
Hobson's choice
[名落孫山]
Míng luò sūn shān [ming luo sun shan]
place behind Sun Shan
Placed below Sun Shan
A euphemism for failing an examination. The story is that Sun Shan and an fellow townsman went to take the Imperial examinations. Sun Shan passed but was bottom of the list. When he went home he was asked by the father of his fellow townsman how his son had done in the exams. He replied that Sun Shan was bottom of the list and your son was below Sun Shan.
釜底游 [釜底游魚]
Jǐn dǐ yóu [jin di you yu]
cauldron bottom swim fish
A fish at the bottom of the pot
In desperate straits. Life threatening situation - the last fish swimming at the bottom of a barrel.
Stare into the abyss
芒刺
Máng cì zài bèi [mang ci zai bei]
tip thorn exist back
A thorn in one?s flesh
Someone or something is causing continuous irritation.
miàn chǔ gē [si mian chu ge]
four side Chu song
On all four sides hear Chu kingdom songs.
Ambushed from all sides. Hopeless situation. In the battle of Gaixia troops surrounding the enemy sang songs of home, breaking their spirit. From the classic Shi Ji from 2,200 years ago. After the end of the Qin dynasty the Han general used this tactic against of the Chu kingdom. The Chu songs persuaded the surrounded Chu forces that the Han must have overrun much of the Chu kingdom already
琴俱
Rén qín jù wáng [ren qin ju wang]
man lute entirely lost
Both man and lute have perished
Deep mourning for a close friend. Seeing something that reminds you of someone who has died. The story is of two brothers, when one of them died after a serious illness the other was two heart-broken to play the lute anymore as it reminded him too much of his brother.
[水滿則溢]
Shuǐ mǎn zé yì [shui man ze yi]
water full level overflow
Water rises only to overflow
At the point of a crisis. Things are about to turn around
The tide is on the turn
尺,魔[道高一尺魔高一丈]
Dào gāo chǐ, mó gāo zhàng [dao gao yi chi, mo gao yi zhang]
virtue tall one foot, devil tall ten foot
Where good flourishes, evil can flourish even more
There is always opportunity for evil to take root
Jiā tú [jia tu si bi]
house empty four walls
Home with just four bare walls
An empty house with just bare walls. To be very poor. There is a story from the Han dynasty of two rivals for the hand of a young lady. One was rich and the other was very poor, but due to the skill of the poor man on the qin (type of lute) the lady chose the poor man to the astonishment of the rich man
As poor as church mice
暮途 [日暮途窮]
mù tú qióng [ri mu tu qiong]
sunset road exhausted
The day is ending and the road narrows
The end game is upon us.
On last legs
[水深火熱]
Shuǐ shēn huǒ rè [shui shen huo re]
water deep fire hot
In deep water and fierce fire
In very deep trouble. A desperate situation with nowhere to turn.
In dire straits
蹈覆辙 [重蹈覆轍]
Chóng dǎo fù zhé [chong dao fu zhe]
repeat tread overturn rut
Following the track of an overturned cart
To repeat a disastrous strategy. Not learning from previous mistakes - slavishly following previous practice. The story is of a virtuous official who risked Han emperor Huan's displeasure by pointing out that he was repeating the mistakes of the second Qin emperor.
Once bitten, twice shy
Tù sǐ gǒu pēng [tu si gou peng]
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
Dragon Boat, festival
Dragonboat Racing Festival Macau 2005. Image by lidxplus available under a Creative Commons license
[噁貫滿盈]
È guàn mǎn yíng [e guan man ying]
evil string of cash everywhere full
If evil was placed like discs on a string it would be always be full.
Evil is all around. Traditionally coins had holes in them and they were strung together.
[失敗是成功之母]
Shī bài shì chéng gōng zhī mǔ [shi bai shi cheng gong zhi mu]
failure is achieve merit's mother
Failure is the mother of success
Learning from mistakes
Cut your coat to suit your cloth
[飢不擇食]
Jī bù zé shí [ji bu ze shi]
hunger not choose eat
When hungry don't care what you eat
The starving aren't fussy over their food - take whatever is available
Beggars can't be choosers
[旤不單行]
Huò bù dān xíng [huo bu dan xing]
disaster not alone walk
Disasters do not walk alone
Misfortunes tend to come all at once
When it rains, it pours
[雞飛蛋打]
Jī fēi dàn dǎ [ji fei dan da]
chicken fly egg broken
The hen has flown and the eggs destroyed. All is lost.
Complete disaster
[夜長夢多]
Yè cháng mèng duō [ye chang meng duo]
night long dream many
The longer the night, the more dreams there will be
When in hard times it is foolish to merely dream of better things
If wishes were horses, beggars would ride
,祸 [福無重至旤不單行]
Fú wú chóng zhì, huò bú dān xíng [fu wu chong zhi, huo bu dan xing]
good fortune not double arrive, misfortune not single walk
Blessings come along alone; troubles often come together
Bad fortune is more frequent than good
Ill fortune comes in threes
塞翁, [塞翁失馬安知非福]
Sài wēng shī mǎ, ān zhī fēi fú [sai weng shi ma, an zhi fei fu]
frontier old man lose horse, peace know wrong blessing
When the old man from the frontier lost his horse; how could he have known that it would not be fortuitous?
The story is that a man lost his horse but actually it went over the Great Wall and brought back several horses with it. A setback may turn out to be a blessing in disguise.
Every cloud has a silver lining
Jì wǎng bù jiù [ji wang bu jiu]
already past not to blame
It is pointless to blame past events
What is done is done. It is pointless to live a life of regret for things that can't be changed.
Forgive and forget
烂额 [焦頭爛頟]
Jiāo tóu làn é [jiao tou lan e]
beaten head burnt brow
Head bruised and brow burned
In terrible trouble
Beaten black and blue
Qī lí zǐ sàn [qi li zi san]
wife leave child break-up
Wife left; children scattered
A broken family
加霜
Xuě shàng jiā shuāng [xue shang jia shuang]
snow up add frost
Add frost to snow
To add to misfortunes unnecessarily
Add insult to injury
膏肓
Bìng rù gāo huāng [bing ru gao huang]
disease enter moisten vitals
The disease has penetrated the vitals
Beyond hope and cure. A hopeless situation.
Not the ghost of a chance
monument, Beijing, Tiananmen Square
Monument on West side of Tiananmen Square between Mao Mausoleum and Monument to the Heroes of the People. September 2013. Image by RThiele available under a Creative Commons license .
扬镳 [分道揚鑣]
Fēn dào yáng biāo [fen dao yang biao]
divide way raise horsebit
Go separate ways and urge on the horses
Choosing to go separate ways due to different plans and ambitions.
[物極必反]
Wù jí bì fǎn [wu ji bi fan]
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
[患難見真情]
Huàn nàn jiàn zhēn qíng [huan nan jian zhen qing]
suffer difficult see true affection
In adversity, true feelings are shown
Only in a crisis do you know who your friends really are
A friend in need is a friend indeed
涸辙[涸轍之鮒]
Hé zhé zhī fù [he zhe zhi fu]
dry rut silver carp
A carp in a dry rut
In a desperate situation. A fish stuck in a rut in the road will soon die if not moved. In need of immediate assistance.
In dire straits
Liáng shàng jūn zǐ [liang shang jun zi]
beam of roof upon gentleman
The gentleman on the roof beam
Euphemism for a thief. As traditional Chinese roof tiles were not tacked down it was very easy to access a house via the roof.
Caught with your hand in the cookie jar
堑,[吃一塹長一智]
Chī qiàn, cháng zhì [chi yi qian, chang yi zhi]
eat one chasm long one wise
Fall into a pit but learn from the experience
Gain wisdom from experience of set backs
Learn from your mistakes
黔驴 [黔馿技窮]
Qián lǖ jì qiong [qian lu ji qiong]
black donkey skill poor
The Guizhou donkey has no more tricks
Even a clever donkey can not solve the problem. The story is that Guizhou province had no donkeys. A man brought a donkey there and having no further use for it set it free. The tiger then spotted the donkey and was scared of the new monster, but seeing it do very little but kick it killed and ate it. So it means being in desperate circumstances with no real options left
Be at one's wit's end
[鳥盡弓藏]
Niǎo jìn gōng cáng [niao jin gong cang]
bird exhausted bow store
When the birds have all been killed, the bow is stored away
Having completed a job and then being out of employment. To get rid of someone once they have served their purpose. To have served your purpose.
[疾風知勁草]
Jí fēng zhī jìng cǎo [ji feng zhi jing cao]
storm know strength grass
A storm tests the strength of a blade of grass
Being put to the test in harsh circumstances. To show resolution under extreme stress. Remaining loyal to a cause when the going gets tough.
If you cant stand the heat get out of the kitchen
[眼中之釘]
Yǎn zhōng zhī dīng [yan zhong zhi ding]
eye center 's nail
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'.
A thorn in the flesh
[鞭長莫及]
Biān cháng mò jí [bian chang mo ji]
whip length not reach
Beyond the reach of the whip
Too far away to be able to help or beyond one's skill or influence.
漏偏 [屋漏偏逢連夜雨]
Wū lòu piān féng lián yè [wu lou pian feng lian ye yu]
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
[牛衣對泣]
Niú yī duì qì [niu yi dui qi]
ox clothes pair sob
A couple sobbing in ox's capes
A couple who are destitute and miserable. They have no money for clothes so use a straw cape made for oxen. Usually used as an admonishment to get a grip and battle with difficulties rather than giving in to self pity.
banquet, Song dynasty
An Elegant Party (detail), an outdoor painting of a small Chinese banquet hosted by the emperor for scholar-officials from the Song Dynasty (960-1279). Although painted in the Song period, it is most likely a reproduction of an earlier Tang Dynasty (618-907) work of art. The painting is attributed to Emperor Huizong of Song (r. 1100?1125 AD). Image by PericlesofAthens available under a Creative Commons license .
集腋
Jí yè chéng qiú [ji ye cheng qiu]
gather armpit accomplish fur coat
A fur coat can be made from poor scraps
Make do with what you have
Beggars can't be choosers
狼狈[狼狽不堪]
Láng bèi bù kān [lang bei bu kan]
wolf distressed not endure
In a sorry plight
Facing total defeat. Left high and dry. The story is of Ma Chao in the Three Kingdoms Period who was out maneuvered by Cao Cao and faced total defeat.
In dire straits
[幸災樂禍]
Xìng zāi lè huò [xing zai le huo]
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.
Schadenfreude
Xīn fù zhī huàn [xin fu zhi huan]
heart-stomach trouble
Major internal problems
Internal disorder causing crisis. Internal division preventing proper action.
[節外生枝]
Jié wài shēng zhī [jie wai sheng zhi]
joint outside produce branch
Leaves emerge from where they should not
New problems pop up unexpectedly
苟延残喘 [苟延殘喘]
Gǒu yán cán chuǎn [gou yan can chuan]
temporarily prolong survive gasp
Lingering at last gasp
In the throes of dying. Making a final desperate action prior to dying.
At death's door
否极泰 [否極泰來]
Pǐ jí tài lái [pi ji tai lai]
evil extreme good arrive
At the extreme point of misfortune, good will surely arrive
Things at the worst will mend
The darkest hour is just before the dawn
Zì kuì fú rú [zi kui fu ru]
self ashamed not like
Ashamed at own inferiority
Ashamed of oneself
[同病相憐]
Tóng bìng xiāng lián [tong bing xiang lian]
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
[粗茶淡飯]
Cū chá dàn fàn [cu cha dan fan]
coarse tea bland food
On a starvation diet
Eat simple home-made food and yet be healthy
[亂七八糟]
Luàn qī zāo [luan qi ba zao]
chaos seven eight dregs
Chaotic mess
To be in a terrible mess. Dirty and filthy
[山窮水儘]
Shān qióng shuǐ jìn [shan qiong shui jin]
mountain poor water exhaust
Run out of food and water
Thirsty and starving; destitute
捉襟[捉襟見肘]
Zhuō jīn jiàn zhǒu [zhuo jin jian zhou]
clutch lapel see elbow
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.
As poor as a church mouse
Great Wall, tower
Great Wall in China, near Beijing
骨瘦
Gǔ shòu rú chái [gu shou ru chai]
bone thin as lath
Nothing but skin and bones
Emaciated
Chéng xià zhī méng [cheng xia zhi meng]
city walls down oath
Only under duress
It literally means an embittered agreement at a city wall when a city has surrendered to besieging forces. So it is a reluctant and bitter deal forced by circumstance.
况愈 [每況愈下]
Měi kuàng yù xià [mei kuang yu xia]
each situation more decline
Steadily deteriorate
Getting gradually worse each time. Life in a decline.
A turn for the worse
[包藏禍心]
Bāo cáng huò xīn [bao cang huo xin]
cover conceal misfortune mind
Harboring evil intentions
Having evil intent; concealing malice.
In league with the devil
[痴人說夢]
Chī rén shuō mèng [chi ren shuo meng]
stupid man speak dream
A fool describing his dream
Talking irrelevant nonsense. Ravings of no possible interest.
A load of codswallop
[徒勞無功]
Tú láo wú gōng [tu lao wu gong]
no avail toil no result
Futile effort
Pointless effort that will achieve nothing.
A fool's errand
逆境
Nì jìng chū rén cái [ni jing chu ren cai]
disobey border go out person ability
Rebellion creates capability
Hardship and adversity foster talent
If life deals you lemons, make lemonade
Kuà xià zhī rǔ [kua xia zhi ru]
crotch below it disgrace
Forced to crawl under someone's crotch
An act of great humiliation. It was considered unseemly to have to crawl between someone's legs
A slap in the face
[其貌不揚]
Qí mào bù yáng [qi mao bu yang]
its appearance not raised
Undistinguished in appearance
Unappealing appearance.
Plain Jane
[喪家之狗]
Sàng jiā zhī gǒu [sang jia zhi gou]
to flee home own dog
Fleeing from a wild dog
Fleeing in fear and panic due to unexpected visitor or situation
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 of the characters have been simplified the phrase 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.