Chinese idioms about carfully laid plans

Proverbs about the wisdom of making plans to give your ambitions the best chance of success.

Sān lìng shēn
Issuing three orders and five injunctions
Giving order after order. Someone who is officious and over-bearing. The use of three and five is often used to give idea of endless repetition.
Roughly equivalent to: Cracking the whip.
Ròu bāo zǐ dǎ gǒu
Hitting a dog with a meat bun
To use a self defeating method to solve a problem.
Dōng shān zài qǐ
To rise again from the east mountain
Coming back after voluntary retirement into public life. Particularly for taking on high office after a long break away from all the action.
Roughly equivalent to: To make a comeback.
Shàng xià qí shǒu
To raise and lower the hand
A conspiracy is at work. A deft gesture signaling important information. The story is that back in the Spring and Autumn period two soldiers both claimed to have captured a prince and demanded their reward. When Bo Zhouli arbitrated he used a hand gesture to signal who he wished to receive the money.
项庄舞剑, [項莊舞劍,意在沛公]
Xiàng zhuāng wǔ jiàn yì zài pèi gōng
Xiang Zhuang performs the sword dance but his intention was to kill Liu Bang
An elaborate evil deception. The Duke of Pei was one of the titles of the first Han Emperor (r. 202-195BCE) Liu Bang. Xiang Zuang was a sword-fighter who intended to murder Liu Bang. In order to get close to Liu he performed a sword dance in front of him. fortunately for Liu the plot was unmasked by Fan Kuai and Liu escaped unharmed. Refers to a hidden malicious agenda.
Miè cǐ zhāo shí
Wipe out the enemy before breakfast
Grasp current opportunity; anxious to do battle. Tackle the important problem first.
Roughly equivalent to: First catch your hare.
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.
Qiǎo fù nán wéi wú mǐ zhī chuī
Even the cleverest cook cannot prepare rice without rice
You need to assemble the right materials for a job.
Jiǎo tù sān kū
A crafty rabbit has three burrows
To succeed you must must have alternative options, in particular several ways of escape from danger.
Roughly equivalent to: There's more than one way to skin a cat.
螳螂捕蝉 [螳螂捕蟬]
Táng láng bǔ chán
The mantis stalks the cicada
Seeking one target unaware of the bigger picture, in this case the mantis was being stalked by a bird. An appeal to heed advice against taking an easy target that would result in greater jeopardy.
Shān yù lái fēng mǎn lóu
The wind sweeping through the tower heralds a rising storm in the mountain
A premonition of something significant about to happen.
Roughly equivalent to: Forewarned is forearmed.
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.
Liǎng tiáo tuǐ zǒu lù
Need two legs to be able to walk
When alternative methods are needed not just one.
Chinese New year, people, family, calligraphy, good fortune
Chinese new year party
Huáng liáng měi mèng
A golden millet dream
A fanciful day dream. The story is of a man who took a brief nap while his host was cooking a bowl of millet. He dreamed of becoming married to a beautiful wife and immensely rich and living to a great age. When he woke up the millet was cooked but he found he was still poor.
Roughly equivalent to: Cloud cuckoo land.
Tóu tóu shì daò
Thinking carefully about the way to proceed
Logically and rigorously argued.
Roughly equivalent to: There's many a slip 'twixt cup and lip.
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.
汤池 [金城湯池]
Jīn chéng tāng chí
A city of metal with a moat of boiling water
An impregnable city with highly effective defenses. Someone/something not worth trying to attack.
Xīng xīng zhī huǒ kě yǐ liáo yuán
One spark can burn a whole grassland
Need for great care and meticulous planning.
畋,竭 [焚林而畋竭澤而漁]
Fén lín ěr tián, jié zé ěr yú
Burn a forest to farm; drain a pond to fish
Ignoring the consequences.
Roughly equivalent to: Marry in haste, repent at leisure.
Bù shàn shǐ zhě bù shàn zhōng
A bad beginning leads to a bad ending
Need to plan everything from the beginning.
Roughly equivalent to: Don't put the cart before the horse.
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.
临渴掘井 [臨渴掘井]
Lín kě jué jǐng
Digging a well only when starting to feel thirsty
Begin taking action when it is far too late.
Roughly equivalent to: Failing to plan is planning to fail.
Zuǒ yòu wéi nán
Both alternatives are difficult
In a dilemma.
Roughly equivalent to: Be in a pickle.
Dōng chuāng shì fā
The plot at the east window has been exposed
The game is up. Generally said of villains whose evil plans have been thwarted. The story is of Qin Hui of the Song dynasty who hatched a plot under the east window of his house to tell lies about General Yue Fei. Qin Hui and his son died shortly after Yue Fei was executed. Qin's wife Wang used a necromancer who discovered the truth and was told by Qin's spirit that the East window plot had been exposed.
Roughly equivalent to: The chickens havee come home to roost.
俱备, [萬事俱備,只欠東風]
Wàn shì jù bèi, zhǐ qiàn dōng fēng
Everything is ready, except for the east wind
Lacking one small, but crucial item. It refers to the battle of Red Cliff in the Three Kingdoms period when Cao Cao's great army threatened to overcome his adversaries on the Yangzi River. The clever strategy advocated by Zhuge Liang was to send fire boats into Cao Cao's navy. Everything was prepared but for ages the wind was in the wrong direction. At last it changed to the east and Cao Cao was defeated.
Roughly equivalent to: For the want of a nail .,. the kingdom was lost.
Kōng zhōng lóu gé
A pavilion in the air
A fanciful and impossible scheme. An impractical idea with a streak of vanity.
Roughly equivalent to: A flight of fancy.
opera, costume, monkey king
Chinese Opera
Jiāo bīng bì bài
An arrogant army is certain to be defeated
Over-confidence will lead to defeat.
Roughly equivalent to: Pride comes before a fall.
Shǔ cùn guāng
A mouse's vision is only one inch long
Looking ahead for only a short time. Only planning for the immediate future.
, [無源之水無本之木]
Wú yuán zhī shuǐ, wú běn zhī mù
A river without a source, a tree without roots
Something without a proper foundation. Not properly planned.
Qiáng lóng nán yā dì tóu shé
Even a dragon finds it difficult to conquer a snake in its lair
Knowledge of local area and people gives them a distinct advantage even against a strong enemy.
, [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.
败俱伤 [兩敗俱傷]
Liǎng bài jù shāng
Both sides will suffer
Heading towards a Pyrric victory - neither side wins. A conflict neither side can win.
Roughly equivalent to: Mutually assured destruction.
暗渡陈仓 [暗渡陳倉]
Àn dù chén cāng
Secretly cross at the Chencang Road
A feigned maneuver designed to outwit. After the fall of the Qin dynasty Liu Bei sent out troops to repair a plank road presumably to mount an attack, but he actually moved his troops across the Wei River at Chencang and so surprised his enemy.
Shuō daò zuò daò
Say and then make
Do what one says.
Roughly equivalent to: Actions speak louder than words.
Lì bù cóng xīn
Strong ambition but no motivation
Lacking in motivation to achieve aims.
Roughly equivalent to: If a job is worth doing it is worth doing well.
Yīn shì lì dǎo
Helping things along
To encourage something along to its natural fulfillment.
Xiā bīng xiè jiàng
Shrimp soldiers led by a crab general. An ineffective army
A laughably ineffective solution to a problem.
Wèi chóu móu
Before the rains repair the cloth
Plan ahead, be prepared.
Roughly equivalent to: An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
Hǔ jiǎ hǔ wēi
A trick of cunning to exaggerate self importance
A fox will pretend to have the power of a tiger. The story is that a fox followed a tiger in a parade. The animals panicked and the fox claimed that this was because they were frightened of the fox not the tiger. It goes back to the Warring States Period.
taijiquan, Hong Kong
Tai chi show in Kowloon Park, Hong Kong
Image by Jakub Halun available under a Creative Commons license
Tú qióng bǐ xiàn
When the map is unrolled the dagger is revealed
A secret plan is revealed, a conspiracy unmasked. The story is of an assassination attempt on the King of Qin back in the Warring States Period. Pretending to cede territory Prince Dan concealed a dagger in a scrolled up map.
Roughly equivalent to: The secret is out.
Dān qiāng pǐ mǎ
A single spear and a single horse
Taking on a difficult task on your own.
Shì shí shèng yú xióng biàn
A real victory is better than a great debate
Better to act than just talk about it.
Roughly equivalent to: Actions speak louder than words.
Bù pò bù lì
If do not destroy will not stand
The old needs to be demolished before building the new.
Roughly equivalent to: Starting again from scratch.
Míng luó kāi dao
Beating the gong to clear the way for dignitaries
To publicize an event.
Wàng méi zhǐ kě
Gaze at a plum to quench thirst
Offering hope by thinking of something currently out of reach.
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.
Péi le fū rén yòu zhé bīng
Losing the lady and the soldiers
Hatching an evil plot that backfires spectacularly. The story is that Sun Quan in the Three Kingdoms period wanted to take territory from the Shu kingdom. He offered his sister's hand in marriage but secretly plotted to attack Liu Bei's troops at the ceremony. Master strategist Zhuge Liang saw through the trap and Liu Bei managed to marry Sun's sister as well as defeat Sun's troops.
养晦 [韜光養晦]
Tāo guāng yǎng huì
Conceal your strength
Bide your time before showing your strength.
Roughly equivalent to: Hiding your light under a bushel.
Lì yù xūn xīn
Strong ambition veils true feeling
To be obsessed with the desire for success at the expense of happiness.
鼎烹 [牛鼎烹雞]
Niú dǐng pēng jī
Cooking a chicken in a pot designed for an ox
An in appropriate tool or scale of preparation for a job. Also refers to when a person of great skill is given a menial job.
Kuàng chí jiǔ
Wasting a great deal of time
Spending a protracted length of time on a task. A waste of time.
Roughly equivalent to: A wild goose chase.
Wǒ kàn jiàn wǒ wàng jì, wǒ tīng jiàn wǒ jì zhù, wǒ zuò wǒ liǎo jiě
When I see, I forget; when I hear, I remember but when I do, I understand.
You learn only by trying it, not by just observing or talking about it.
Roughly equivalent to: Practise what you preach.
music, guzheng
Guzheng is a traditional Chinese musical instrument belonging to the zither family of string instruments
薪尝 [臥薪甞膽]
Wò xīn cháng dǎn
Lying on straw and tasting gall
Patiently suffering while plotting revenge or recovery. Sleeping rough and eating poor food while preparing for a comeback.
Roughly equivalent to: Harboring a grudge.
Shù zhī gāo gé
Store away in the attic
Dismiss someone or something for the moment as currently unimportant. Designate something as low priority.
Roughly equivalent to: Put on the back-burner.
使舵 [看風使舵]
Kàn fēng shǐ duò
Steer the boat wherever the winds lead
Not sticking to the big plan. A fickle mind.
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.
Yáng maó chū zài yáng shēn shàng
Wool comes from a sheep
Unrealistic expectations. You get what you pay for.
Bù sǎ wǎng bù dé
Without casting a big net how can a big fish be caught
Need to think big if to succeed.
Tán hé róng yì
Talking makes look easy
Not as easy as it seemed.
Roughly equivalent to: Easier said than done.
Máo Suì zì jiàn
Mao Sui recommends himself
Volunteering your services for a difficult task. The story is of a servant named Mao Sui to negotiate with the king of Chu over a Qin attack on the kingdom of Zhao (Warring States era). Not enough people volunteered to go on the mission so Mao Sui volunteered against the wishes of his lord. When reluctantly allowed to go Mao Sui proved an able negotiator.
Jiàn yì yǒng wéi
See the just cause and act on it
To see what is right and act with courage.
Gāo wū jiàn líng
Pouring water from the roof of a tall building
Being in a good position to repel attackers. Holding a commanding position.
,殃 [城門失火殃及池魚]
Chéng mén shī huó, yāng jí chí
Burning a city gate kills the fish in the moat
A drastic action may unintentionally affect other people. Show consideration for all.
围魏救赵 [圍魏救趙]
Wéi wèi jiù zhào
Besiege Wei to rescue Zhao
To aid a friend by attacking a mutual enemy. During the Warring States periodthe state of Wei was attacking the state of Zhao. Handan, the capital of Zhao was besieged, The state of Qi wished to help its ally Zhao, rather than intervene to try to lift the siege of Handan, the Qi general launched an attack on the Wei's capital Daliang, forcing the Wei troops to lift the siege.
Nán kē mèng
A dream of Nanke
An absurdly ambitious plan divorced from reality. A dream of grandeur and splendor.
Roughly equivalent to: A pipe dream.
printing, calligraphy
Printing using movable wooden block Chinese characters
微杜渐 [防微杜漸]
Fáng wēi dù jiàn
Prevent problems by early action
A stitch in time saves nine. Tackle problems when they are small and can be dealt with before they get out of hand.
Roughly equivalent to: Nipping it in the bud.
Xiān fā zhì rén
Strike first to gain the upper hand
The first side to attack/move often has the advantage. An admonishment to act now and not dither about.
Roughly equivalent to: The early bird catches the worm.
Yú yǒng kě gǔ
Surplus courage for sale
Enthusiastic to carry on after success. Full of energy.
Roughly equivalent to: Full of beans.
Duō duō yì shàn
The more, the better
Safety in numbers. Wanting to invite as many people as possible to improve chances of success.
Roughly equivalent to: Many hands make light work.
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.
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.
guò tiān qíng
The rain has gone, the sky brightens
Things are improving. Hope for the future.
Lǎo jiān jù huá
To be very crafty and cunning
To be tricky, cunning, crafty. Well versed in the ways of the world.
Roughly equivalent to: All's fair in love and war.
Xiōng yǒu chéng zhú
Keeping the appearance of bamboo in mind
To be able to paint bamboo (or anything else), you have to have a mental image of how it looks. An admonishment to plan ahead carefully and acquire the skill to carry it out.
Roughly equivalent to: Forewarned is forearmed.
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.
制勋 [出奇制勛]
Chū qí zhì xūn
Using an ingenious, unexpected ploy
Using a surprise or ingenious scheme to achieve success.
Roughly equivalent to: As cunning as a fox.
,鲁 [慶父不死,魯難未已]
Qìng fù bù sǐ Lǔ nàn wèi yǐ
The troubles of the state of Lu will continue until Qing Fu is removed
Take action to remove someone/something obstructing progress, In the Spring and Autumn period of Chinese history Qing Fu rose to power in the state of Lu and ruled as a complete despot killing any opponents. Peace did not come until he had been removed from power.
Roughly equivalent to: Grasp the nettle.
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.
Summer palace, Beijing, roof animals, PKChina-68
Roof animals at Kunming Lake, Summer Palace, Beijing. September 2019. Image by Paul Kerswill
Bāo cáng huò xīn
Harboring evil intentions
Having evil intent; concealing malice.
Roughly equivalent to: In league with the devil.
Jǔ zú qīng zhòng
One step decides the outcome
Taking the decisive step; making the crucial decision. A situation where people are hesitant about moving forward and it needs someone to make the first move and the rest follow.
Lì bīng mò mǎ
Sharpening the weapons and feeding the horses
Making preparations for imminent battle. Committed to meet an enemy head-on.
Roughly equivalent to: Locked and loaded.
Yǒu bèi wú huàn
Preparedness averts misfortune
Be prepared against all eventualities to avoid misfortune. Have fallback plans.
Roughly equivalent to: Be Prepared!
Xiān xià shǒu wéi qiáng
Striking first to demonstrate strength
To gain the upper hand by striking first.
Roughly equivalent to: Strike while the iron is hot.
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