Chinese idioms about misfortune and ill luck

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 (normally a 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.

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

Dào gāo chǐ, mó gāo zhàng
Where good flourishes, evil can flourish even more
There is always opportunity for evil to take root.
È guàn mǎn yíng
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.
,祸 [福無重至旤不單行]
Fú wú chóng zhì, huò bú dān xíng
Blessings come along alone; troubles often come together
Bad fortune is more frequent than good.
Roughly equivalent to: Ill fortune comes in threes.
Huò bù dān xíng
Disasters do not walk alone
Misfortunes tend to come all at once.
Roughly equivalent to: When it rains, it pours.
Jī bù zé shí
When hungry don't care what you eat
The starving aren't fussy over their food - take whatever is available.
Roughly equivalent to: Beggars can't be choosers.
Jī fēi dàn dǎ
The hen has flown and the eggs destroyed. All is lost.
Complete disaster.
Jiā tú
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.
Roughly equivalent to: As poor as church mice.
塞翁, [塞翁失馬安知非福]
Sài wēng shī mǎ, ān zhī fēi fú
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.
Roughly equivalent to: Every cloud has a silver lining.
Shī bài shì chéng gōng zhī mǔ
Failure is the mother of success
Learning from mistakes.
Roughly equivalent to: Cut your coat to suit your cloth.
Shuǐ mǎn zé yì
Water rises only to overflow
At the point of a crisis. Things are about to turn around.
Roughly equivalent to: The tide is on the turn.
Shuǐ shēn huǒ rè
In deep water and fierce fire
In very deep trouble. A desperate situation with nowhere to turn.
Roughly equivalent to: In dire straits.
miàn chǔ gē
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.
Tù sǐ gǒu pēng
Trusted helpers are dispensable once their job is done
Watch your back. Once the mission is accomplished you may be sacked.
Roughly equivalent to: Outliving your usefulness.
Great Wall, tower
Great Wall in China, near Beijing
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.
暮途 [日暮途窮]
mù tú qióng
The day is ending and the road narrows
The end game is upon us.
Roughly equivalent to: On last legs.
Máng cì zài bèi
A thorn in one's flesh
Someone or something is causing continuous irritation.
shàng Liáng Shān
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.
Roughly equivalent to: Hobson's choice.
釜底游 [釜底游魚]
Jǐn dǐ yóu
A fish at the bottom of the pot
In desperate straits. Life threatening situation - the last fish swimming at the bottom of a barrel.
Roughly equivalent to: Stare into the abyss.
蹈覆辙 [重蹈覆轍]
Chóng dǎo fù zhé
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.
Roughly equivalent to: Once bitten, twice shy.
Míng luò sūn shān
Placed below Sun Shan
A euphemism for failing an examination. The story is that Sun Shan and a 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.
Rén qín jù wáng
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.
Xīn ruò sǐ huī
Heart reduced to ashes
Desperately unhappy.
Chī qiàn, cháng zhì
Fall into a pit but learn from the experience
Gain wisdom from experience of setbacks.
Roughly equivalent to: Learn from your mistakes.
Huàn nàn jiàn zhēn qíng
In adversity, true feelings are shown
Only in a crisis do you know who your friends really are.
Roughly equivalent to: A friend in need is a friend indeed.
烂额 [焦頭爛頟]
Jiāo tóu làn é
Head bruised and brow burned
In terrible trouble.
Roughly equivalent to: Beaten black and blue.
Qī lí zǐ sàn
Wife left; children scattered
A broken family.
japan, Shanghai, protest
To the Sino - Japanese Conflict! War! War! Chinese students in Shanghai at a national demonstration against the invasion of the Japanese in Manchuria. September 1931. Available under a Creative Commons license .
黔驴 [黔馿技窮]
Qián lǖ jì qiong
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.
Roughly equivalent to: Be at one's wit's end.
Wù jí bì fǎn
Extreme conditions will surely calm down
Things will turn around in the opposite direction when they reach the highest point.
Roughly equivalent to: The tide is on the turn.
Xuě shàng jiā shuāng
Add frost to snow
To add to misfortunes unnecessarily.
Roughly equivalent to: Add insult to injury.
Jì wǎng bù jiù
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.
Roughly equivalent to: Forgive and forget.
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.
Hé zhé zhī fù
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.
Roughly equivalent to: In dire straits.
Niǎo jìn gōng cáng
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.
Liáng shàng jūn zǐ
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.
Roughly equivalent to: Caught with your hand in the cookie jar.
扬镳 [分道揚鑣]
Fēn dào yáng biāo
Go separate ways and urge on the horses
Choosing to go separate ways due to different plans and ambitions.
Jí fēng zhī jìng cǎo
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.
Roughly equivalent to: If you cant stand the heat get out of the kitchen.
Bìng rù gāo huāng
The disease has penetrated the vitals
Beyond hope and cure. A hopeless situation.
Roughly equivalent to: Not the ghost of a chance.
Cū chá dàn fàn
On a starvation diet
Eat simple home-made food and yet be healthy.
Gǔ shòu rú chái
Nothing but skin and bones
Dongting, lake, Hunan
One of a pair of six-section folding screens painted in Chinese Southern School style. This screen depicts the Yueyang Tower at Dongting Lake in which literati hold a gathering. c. 1750. Tokyo National Museum.
Image by Emuseum available under a Creative Commons license
Jí yè chéng qiú
A fur coat can be made from poor scraps
Make do with what you have.
Roughly equivalent to: Beggars can't be choosers.
Jié wài shēng zhī
Leaves emerge from where they should not
New problems pop up unexpectedly.
Luàn qī zāo
Chaotic mess
To be in a terrible mess. Dirty and filthy.
否极泰 [否極泰來]
Pǐ jí tài lái
At the extreme point of misfortune, good will surely arrive
When the situation reaches its lowest point it will then begin to improve.
Roughly equivalent to: The darkest hour is just before the dawn.
Shān qióng shuǐ jìn
Run out of food and water
Thirsty and starving; destitute.
Tóng bìng xiāng lián
People with similar illness empathize with each other
People suffering the same misfortune sympathize with each other.
Roughly equivalent to: Birds of a feather flock together.
漏偏 [屋漏偏逢連夜雨]
Wū lòu piān féng lián yè
When the roof is leaking, there will be continuous nights of rain
Misfortunes tend to come all at once.
Roughly equivalent to: When it rains, it pours.
Zì kuì fú rú
Ashamed at own inferiority
Ashamed of oneself.
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.
Láng bèi bù kān
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.
Roughly equivalent to: In dire straits.
Xìng zāi lè huò
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.
Roughly equivalent to: Schadenfreude.
Nì jìng chū rén cái
Rebellion creates capability
Hardship and adversity foster talent.
Roughly equivalent to: If life deals you lemons, make lemonade.

See also