Chinese idioms about carfully laid plans

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

[空中樓閣]
Kōng zhōng lóu gé [kong zhong lou ge]
sky middle storied pavilion
A pavilion in the air
A fanciful and impossible scheme. An impractical idea with a streak of vanity.
A flight of fancy
狐假
Hǔ jiǎ hǔ wēi [hu jia hu wei]
fox fake tiger power
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.
使[有錢能使鬼推磨]
Yǒu qián néng shǐ guǐ tuī mò [you qian neng shi gui tui mo]
have money can send devil push grindstone
If you have money you can make the devil push a grind stone
Money can buy you anything
望梅
Wàng méi zhǐ kě [wang mei zhi ke]
gaze plum stop thirst
Gaze at a plum to quench thirst
Offering hope by thinking of something currently out of reach
[兩條骽走路]
Liǎng tiáo tuǐ zǒu lù [liang tiao tui zou lu]
two legs walk journey
Need two legs to be able to walk
When alternative methods are needed not just one
[未雨綢繆]
Wèi chóu móu [wei yu chou mou]
not yet rain silk repair
Before the rains repair the cloth
Plan ahead, be prepared
An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure
[強龍難壓地頭蛇]
Qiáng lóng nán yā dì tóu shé [qiang long nan ya di tou she]
strong dragon difficult press soil head snake
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
Shǔ cùn guāng [shu mu cun guang]
mouse eye inch bright
A mouse's vision is only one inch long
Looking ahead for only a short time. Only planning for the immediate future
Jiǎo tù sān kū [jiao tu san ku]
crafty hare three burrows
A crafty rabbit has three burrows
To succeed you must must have alternative options, in particular several ways of escape from danger
There's more than one way to skin a cat
[力不從心]
Lì bù cóng xīn [li bu cong xin]
strength not from feeling
Strong ambition but no motivation
Lacking in motivation to achieve aims
If a job is worth doing it is worth doing well
养晦 [韜光養晦]
Tāo guāng yǎng huì [tao guang yang hui]
hide brightness nourish darkness
Conceal your strength
Bide your time before showing your strength
Hiding your light under a bushel
畋,竭 [焚林而畋竭澤而漁]
Fén lín ěr tián, jié zé ěr yú [fen lin er tian, jie ze er yu]
burn forest but cultivate, exhaust pool but fishing
Burn a forest to farm; drain a pond to fish
Ignoring the consequences
Marry in haste, repent at leisure
因势[因勢利導]
Yīn shì lì dǎo [yin shi li dao]
cause influence favorable guide
Helping things along
To encourage something along to its natural fulfillment.
Dragon Boat, festival
Dragonboat Racing Festival Macau 2005. Image by lidxplus available under a Creative Commons license
[巧婦難為無米之炊]
Qiǎo fù nán wéi wú mǐ zhī chuī [qiao fu nan wei wu mi zhi chui]
skilful woman difficult pride nothing rice's cook
Even the cleverest cook cannot prepare rice without rice
You need to assemble the right materials for a job
[事實勝于雄辯]
Shì shí shèng yú xióng biàn [shi shi sheng yu xiong bian]
affair real victory goto mighty debate
A real victory is better than a great debate
Better to act than just talk about it
Actions speak louder than words
[單槍匹馬]
Dān qiāng pǐ mǎ [dan qiang pi ma]
single spear horse
A single spear and a single horse
Taking on a difficult task on your own
[左右為難]
Zuǒ yòu wéi nán [zuo you wei nan]
left right pride difficult
Both alternatives are difficult
In a dilemma
Be in a pickle
[頭頭是道]
Tóu tóu shì daò [tou tou shi dao]
head head correct way
Thinking carefully about the way to proceed
Logically and rigorously argued
There's many a slip 'twixt cup and lip
[滅此朝食]
Miè cǐ zhāo shí [mie ci zhao shi]
wipe out this morning eat
Wipe out the enemy before breakfast
Grasp current opportunity; anxious to do battle. Tackle the important problem first.
First catch your hare
[驕兵必敗]
Jiāo bīng bì bài [jiao bing bi bai]
haughty weapon certainly defeated
An arrogant army is certain to be defeated
Over-confidence will lead to defeat
Pride comes before a fall
Xīng xīng zhī huǒ kě yǐ liáo yuán [xing xing zhi huo ke yi liao yuan]
spark's fire can burn plain
One spark can burn a whole grassland
Need for great care and meticulous planning
项庄舞剑, [項莊舞劍,意在沛公]
Xiàng zhuāng wǔ jiàn yì zài pèi gōng [xiang zhuang wu jian yi zai pei gong]
Xiang Zhuang dance sword desire at Duke of Pei
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.
螳螂捕蝉 [螳螂捕蟬]
Táng láng bǔ chán [tang lang bu chan]
praying mantis catch cicada
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.
俱备, [萬事俱備,只欠東風]
Wàn shì jù bèi, zhǐ qiàn dōng fēng [wan shi ju bei, zhi qian dong feng]
All things entirely prepared only lack east wind
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.
For the want of a nail .,. the kingdom was lost
Bù pò bù lì [bu po bu li]
not destroy not stand
If do not destroy will not stand
The old needs to be demolished before building the new
Starting again from scratch
Sān lìng shēn [san ling wu shen]
three orders five explanations
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.
Cracking the whip
Dunhuang, Gansu, music
Musicians in paradise, Yulin cave 25, Dunhuang, Tang Dynasty
Image available under a Creative Commons license
[賠了夫人又折兵]
Péi le fū rén yòu zhé bīng [pei le fu ren you zhe bing]
Lose lady also lose soldiers
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.
暗渡陈仓 [暗渡陳倉]
Àn dù chén cāng [an du chen cang]
secret pass through Chencang
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.
[東山再起]
Dōng shān zài qǐ [dong shan zai qi]
east mountain again rise
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.
To make a comeback
[黃粱美夢]
Huáng liáng měi mèng [huang liang mei meng]
golden sorghum beautiful dream
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.
Cloud cuckoo land
[說到做到]
Shuō daò zuò daò [shuo dao zuo dao]
speak arrive make arrive
Say and then make
Do what one says
Actions speak louder than words
[圖窮匕見]
Tú qióng bǐ xiàn [tu qiong bi xian]
map exhausted dagger appear
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.
The secret is out
Ròu bāo zǐ dǎ gǒu [rou bao zi da gou]
meat wrap child hit dog
Hitting a dog with a meat bun
To use a self defeating method to solve a problem
[鳴鑼開道]
Míng luó kāi dao [ming luo kai dao]
beat gong start road
Beating the gong to clear the way for dignitaries
To publicize an event
临渴掘井 [臨渴掘井]
Lín kě jué jǐng [lin ke jue jing]
approach thirsty dig well
Digging a well only when starting to feel thirsty
Begin taking action when it is far too late.
Failing to plan is planning to fail
[山雨欲來風滿樓]
Shān yù lái fēng mǎn lóu [shan yu yu lai feng man lou]
mountain rain intend arrive wind tower
The wind sweeping through the tower heralds a rising storm in the mountain
A premonition of something significant about to happen
Forewarned is forearmed
汤池 [金城湯池]
Jīn chéng tāng chí [jin cheng tang chi]
metal city boiling moat
A city of metal with a moat of boiling water
An impregnable city with highly effective defenses. Someone/something not worth trying to attack.
败俱伤 [兩敗俱傷]
Liǎng bài jù shāng [liang bai ju shang]
both damage entirely injure
Both sides will suffer
Heading towards a Pyrric victory - neither side wins. A conflict neither side can win.
Mutually assured destruction
[東窗事發]
Dōng chuāng shì fā [dong chuang shi fa]
east window matter expose
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.
The chickens havee come home to roost
garden, Henan
Moon gate view to garden with rocks and bamboo, Henan
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
, [有志者事竟成]
Yǒu zhì zhe, shì jìng chéng [you zhi zhe, shi jing cheng]
have aspiration, matter accomplished
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
Where there's a will, there's a way
[遠水救不了近火]
Yuǎn shuǐ jiǔ bù liaǒ huǒ [yuan shui jiu bu liao huo]
far water rescued not near fire
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
Make it snappy
[不善始者不善終]
Bù shàn shǐ zhě bù shàn zhōng [bu shan shi zhe bu shan zhong]
not good beginning not good end
A bad beginning leads to a bad ending
Need to plan everything from the beginning
Don't put the cart before the horse
[帋上談兵]
Zhǐ shàng tán bīng [zhi shang tan bing]
paper on chat weapon
Fighting war on paper
An armchair general. Making plans without knowledge of the actualité
A little knowledge is a dangerous thing
[蝦兵蟹將]
Xiā bīng xiè jiàng [xia bing xie jiang]
shrimp soldier crab general
Shrimp soldiers led by a crab general. An ineffective army
A laughably ineffective solution to a problem
Shàng xià qí shǒu [shang xia qi shou]
raise lower their hand
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.
因噎废 [因噎廢食]
Yīn yè fèi shí [yin ye fei shi]
because choke abandon eat
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
, [無源之水無本之木]
Wú yuán zhī shuǐ, wú běn zhī mù [wu yuan zhi shui, wu ben zhi mu]
no source water, no root tree
A river without a source, a tree without roots
Something without a proper foundation. Not properly planned
,,[我看見我忘記我听見我記住我做我了解]
Wǒ kàn jiàn wǒ wàng jì, wǒ tīng jiàn wǒ jì zhù, wǒ zuò wǒ liǎo jiě [wo kan jian wo wang ji, wo ting jian wo ji zhu, wo zuo wo liao jie]
I catch sight of I forget, I hear I remember, I do explained
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
Practise what you preach
[毛遂自薦]
Máo Suì zì jiàn [Mao Sui zi jian]
Mao Sui self recommend
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.
Yáng maó chū zài yáng shēn shàng [yang mao chu zai yang shen shang]
wool come out at sheep body on
Wool comes from a sheep
Unrealistic expectations. You get what you pay for
使舵 [看風使舵]
Kàn fēng shǐ duò [kan feng shi duo]
look wind steer rudder
Steer the boat wherever the winds lead
Not sticking to the big plan. A fickle mind
Qilin, Sacred Way, Ming tombs
"Ways of souls" tombs of the Emperors of the Ming Dynasty (1368 to 1644CE). 50km north west of Beijing, in Changping. December 2005. Image by ofol available under a Creative Commons License .
鼎烹 [牛鼎烹雞]
Niú dǐng pēng jī [niu ding peng ji]
ox cauldron boil chicken
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
[一舉兩得]
jǔ liǎng dé [yi ju liang de]
one move two gains
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.
Killing two birds with one stone
Lì yù xūn xīn [li yu xun xin]
sharp desire fogs heart
Strong ambition veils true feeling
To be obsessed with the desire for success at the expense of happiness
[不撒大網不得大魚]
Bù sǎ wǎng bù dé [bu sa da wang bu de da yu]
not cast large net not get large fish
Without casting a big net how can a big fish be caught
Need to think big if to succeed
[曠日持久]
Kuàng chí jiǔ [kuang ri chi jiu]
waste day protracted
Wasting a great deal of time
Spending a protracted length of time on a task. A waste of time.
A wild goose chase
,殃 [城門失火殃及池魚]
Chéng mén shī huó, yāng jí chí [cheng men shi huo, yang ji chi yu]
city gate destroy fire , calamity reach moat fish
Burning a city gate kills the fish in the moat
A drastic action may unintentionally affect other people. Show consideration for all
薪尝 [臥薪甞膽]
Wò xīn cháng dǎn [wo xin chang dan]
lie fuel taste gall
Lying on straw and tasting gall
Patiently suffering while plotting revenge or recovery. Sleeping rough and eating poor food while preparing for a comeback.
Harboring a grudge
[談何容易]
Tán hé róng yì [tan he rong yi]
chat what look easy
Talking makes look easy
Not as easy as it seemed
Easier said than done
[見義勇為]
Jiàn yì yǒng wéi [jian yi yong wei]
see justice brave act
See the just cause and act on it
To see what is right and act with courage
[束之高閣]
Shù zhī gāo gé [shu zhi gao ge]
bundle on high shelf
Store away in the attic
Dismiss someone or something for the moment as currently unimportant. Designate something as low priority.
Put on the back-burner
Gāo wū jiàn líng [gao wu jian ling]
high house make water tank
Pouring water from the roof of a tall building
Being in a good position to repel attackers. Holding a commanding position
眼泪救 [眼淚救不了火]
Yǎn lèi jiù bù liǎo huǒ [yan lei jiu bu liao huo]
tears rescued not fire
Tears do not put out the fire
Decisive action is needed in a crisis not regrets
制勋 [出奇制勛]
Chū qí zhì xūn [chu qi zhi xun]
extraordinary system medal
Using an ingenious, unexpected ploy
Using a surprise or ingenious scheme to achieve success.
As cunning as a fox
kowtow
Kowtowing before the magistrate. Official session at a Chinese Yamen, Guangzhou, pre-1889. Image available under a Creative Commons license
余勇[餘勇可賈]
Yú yǒng kě gǔ [yu yong ke gu]
surplus courage can buy
Surplus courage for sale
Enthusiastic to carry on after success. Full of energy
Full of beans
[南柯一夢]
Nán kē mèng [nan ke yi meng]
Nan Ke one dream
A dream of Nanke
An absurdly ambitious plan divorced from reality. A dream of grandeur and splendor.
A pipe dream
奸巨猾
Lǎo jiān jù huá [lao jian ju hua]
old crafty great cunning
To be very crafty and cunning
To be tricky, cunning, crafty. Well versed in the ways of the world
All's fair in love and war
[一箭雙鵰]
jiàn shuāng diāo [yi jian shuang diao]
one arrow two eagles
Shooting two hawks with one arrow
Completing two (or more) tasks at the same time. A fortunate coincidence.
Killing two birds with one stone
,鲁 [慶父不死,魯難未已]
Qìng fù bù sǐ Lǔ nàn wèi yǐ [qing fu bu si Lu nan wei yi]
Qing Fu not extremely Lu problem have not stopped
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.
Grasp the nettle
Xiōng yǒu chéng zhú [xiong you cheng zhu]
mind have finished bamboo
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.
Forewarned is forearmed
围魏救赵 [圍魏救趙]
Wéi wèi jiù zhào [wei wei jiu zhao]
encircle Wei to save Zhao
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.
[雨過天晴]
guò tiān qíng [yu guo tian qing]
rain past heaven bright
The rain has gone, the sky brightens
Things are improving. Hope for the future
筹帷幄 [運籌帷幄]
Yùn chóu wéi wò [yun chou wei wo]
fortune plan curtain tent
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.
Man with a plan
[先發制人]
Xiān fā zhì rén [xian fa zhi ren]
early show control people
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.
The early bird catches the worm
Duō duō yì shàn [duo duo yi shan]
many many benefit improve
The more, the better
Safety in numbers. Wanting to invite as many people as possible to improve chances of success
Many hands make light work
微杜渐 [防微杜漸]
Fáng wēi dù jiàn [fang wei du jian]
prevent decline restrict gradual
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.
Nipping it in the bud
除根 [斬草除根]
Zhǎn cǎo chú gēn [zhan cao chu gen]
chop weed remove root
Dig up the weeds by the roots
To eradicate completely; to ensure thorough and long term victory. Eliminate all possibility of future trouble.
Slash and burn
tea house
A tea house in Beijing
Image by Luo Shaoyang available under a Creative Commons license
[舉足輕重]
Jǔ zú qīng zhòng [ju zu qing zhong]
act foot easy serious
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.
[有備無患]
Yǒu bèi wú huàn [you bei wu huan]
have preparation no misfortune
Preparedness averts misfortune
Be prepared against all eventualities to avoid misfortune. Have fallback plans.
Be Prepared!
[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
[先下手為強]
Xiān xià shǒu wéi qiáng [xian xia shou wei qiang]
first set about act strong
Striking first to demonstrate strength
To gain the upper hand by striking first
Strike while the iron is hot
[厲兵秣馬]
Lì bīng mò mǎ [li bing mo ma]
sharpen weapons feed horse
Sharpening the weapons and feeding the horses
Making preparations for imminent battle. Committed to meet an enemy head-on
Locked and loaded
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.