Chinese idioms that help with coping with life

This loosely knit group of proverbs all have to do with dealing with a particular predicament. Some of these just describe the situation without offering advice on how to deal with it.

Zhōu guān fàng huǒ [zhou guan fang huo]
prefecture to be set on fire
The magistrate burns down the town
Bewailing pompous and incompetent officials. The story is that an official refused that his name 'Deng' should be used in any official proclamation. A problem arose when the Lantern or 'Deng' festival was to be announced. Instead of 'Deng' he used the character for Fire instead announcing the coming of Fire throughout the town
Couldn't organize a piss-up in a brewey
Xīn huā nù fàng [xin hua nu fang]
heart flower in full bloom
The flower of the heart in full bloom
Full flowering of joy
[雞犬不宁]
Jī quǎn bù ning [ji quan bu ning]
chicken dog not stand
Even the chicken and dog are disturbed. General commotion
All in turmoil and excitement
[再作馮婦]
Zài zuò féng fù [zai zuo feng fu]
again feel Feng Fu
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.
A leopard cannot change its spots
Guā tián xià [gua tian li xia]
melon field plum below
In a melon field and under a plum tree
Avoid circumstances that give rise to false suspicion, If someone is seen near ripe melons or under a plum tree they are open to suspicion of theft. A longer form of the saying makes it clear that you should not tie up your shoes in a melon field or out on a hat under a plum tree as these actions are
[度日如年]
nián [du ri ru nian]
pass day as year
Each day passes as a year
Time seems to pass very slowly
Time drags on
[香消玉損]
Xiāng xiāo yù sǔn [xiang xiao yu sun]
fragrant vanish jade broken
Fragrance is dissipated; jade is broken
Spoken of on the death of a beautiful young woman
Whom the Gods love die young
[開天闢地]
Kāi tiān pì dì [kai tian pi di]
start heaven repel earth
To separate heaven from earth
The beginning of a great task. In one creation myth Pangu set about his momentous work by first separating heaven (yang) from earth (yin). An epic undertaking
To boldly go
[維妙維肖]
Wéi miaò wéi xiaò [wei miao wei xiao]
tie clever tie resemble
Weave skillfully life like images
Produce an image remarkably true to life; highly skilled
[捲土重來]
Juǎn tǔ chóng lái [juan tu chong lai]
sweep dust again come
Sweeping off the dust and trying again
Making a comeback after a setback - determined to have another go. Like getting back on a horse after being thrown off.
Dust yourself off and start all over again
[刻舟求劍]
Kè zhōu qiú jiàn [ke zhou qiu jian]
notch boat seek sword
Marking the boat to locate a sunken sword
A venture made pointless by changing circumstances. The story is of a man who accidentally dropped a sword in the lake while being ferried across it. He reasoned that if he made a notch in the side of the boat that would let him find the sword again,
Wild goose chase
舐犊 [舐犢之愛]
Shì dú zhī ài [shi du zhi ai]
lick calf's love
The love of a cow licking her calf
An example of parental love and devotion. A biased assessment due to family ties - caring for one's own relatives
The fruit does not fall far from the tree
[傾城傾國]
Qīng chéng qīng guó [qing cheng qing guo]
collapse city overturn country
Triumph over city and country
Overwhelm the entire area. Usually applied to a woman of outstanding beauty.
The face that launched a thousand ships
[騎虎難下]
Qí hǔ nán xià [qi hu nan xia]
ride tiger difficult down
When on a tiger's back, it is hard to dismount
When taking risks you have to live with the consequences, it is difficult to back out
He who sups with the Devil should have a long spoon
[郢書燕說]
Yǐng shū yān shuō [ying shu yan shuo]
Ying letter Yan explain
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.
Get hold of the wrong end of the stick
[一顧之榮]
gù zhī róng [yi gu zhi rong]
one attend honor
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.
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.
Yǔ maó wèi fēng [yu mao wei feng]
feather not yet mature
Not yet grown adult plumage. A fledgling bird - young and inexperienced
Still too young and immature
[殃及池魚]
Yāng jí chí [yang ji chi yu]
calamity reach pond fish
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.
Cannon fodder
giant panda
A young Giant Panda cub just four months old
[大義滅親]
yì miè qīn [da yi mie qin]
great justice wipe out relative
Uphold justice by killing one?s own family
Prepared to kill one's own family to keep to the law. Back in the Spring and Autumn Period a father, Shi Que, uncovered the murder of the king of Wei was done by a treasonous group which included his own son Shi Hou. Believing he could not show him special treatment he had him executed.
输攻墨守 [輸攻墨守]
Shū gōng mò shǒu [shu gong mo shou]
Shu to attack surname Mo to defend
Shu attacks and Mo defends
Two opponents of equal skill. Back in the Spring and Autumn period the story goes that Gongshu Ban, a carpenter who had developed a new device to aid the attack of cities, was persuaded by the pacifist philosopher MoZi not to deploy it. Mozi was able to defend against any attack by Gongshu Ban giving stalemate.
Fighting to a standstill
桃源
Shì wài táo yuán [shi wai tao yuan]
world foreign peach source
The land of peach blossoms
A mythical land of peace and harmony. The story is of a hidden land that a fisherman found while trying to escape turmoil and war in the Qin dynasty. Try as he might he never found the land again.
Land of milk and honey
叶障 [一葉障目]
yè zhàng [yi ye zhang mu]
one leaf block eye
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.
Can't see the wood for the trees
[葉公好龍]
Yè gōng hào lóng [Ye gong hao long]
Ye Gong fond of dragon
Duke ?e'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.
Putting on a brave face
[少見多怪]
Shaǒ jiàn duō guài [shao jian duo guai]
less look many odd
Things look strange to the unfamiliar
Unsettled by a new environment
[網開一面]
Wǎng kāi miàn [wang kai yi mian]
net open one side
To leave one side of the net open
To give someone a chance of escape
To let someone off the hook
掩瑜
Xiá bù yǎn yú [xia bu yan yu]
defect not conceal jewel
A speck on a jade stone can't obscure its brilliance
One small fault won't spoil the impression of an overall exceptional person
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
殿 [無事不登三寳殿]
Wú shì bū dēng sān bǎo diàn [wu shi bu deng san bao dian]
nothing matter no climb three treasure hall
No-one comes to pray at the Temple of Three Treasures unless in trouble
Often it is obvious when somebody is after something
[臭不可噹]
Chòu bù kě dāng [chou bu ke dang]
smelly not can equal
Worst ever smell
To give off an unbearable stink
[樹欲靜而風不止]
Shù yù jìng ěr fēng bù zhǐ [shu yu jing er feng bu zhi]
tree desire quiet but wind not still
The trees prefer calm, but the wind does not stop
In spite of a wish for peace, trouble is brewing. Things develop regardless of how you might wish. Powerless to influence outcome
卵击 [以卵擊石]
Yǐ luǎn tóu shí [yi luan tou shi]
use egg strike stone
Try to smash a stone with an egg
Overrating strength and being defeated. Defeat guaranteed.
Kicking a brick wall
[河東獅吼]
Hé dōng shī hǒu [he dong shi hou]
He Dong lion roar
The lioness from Hedong roars
A husband under the control of a domineering wife. The story is of Chen Zao of the Song dynasty who often had guests around in the evening. If his wife got to hear that there were other women with him she would knock on the wall and roar. A hen-pecked man.
She who must be obeyed
[爭先恐後]
Zhēng xiān kǒng hòu [zheng xian kong hou]
strive for first afraid behind
Striving to be first and fearing to be last
Striving for position. Over competitive.
Devil take the hindmost
弹冠 [彈冠相慶]
Tán guān xiāng qìng [tan guan xiang qing]
flick hat mutually celebrate
Knocking the dust off your hat and congratulating each other
Presumptively celebrate promotion/appointment to a job ahead of time. Arrogantly assume a job is already in the bag. The story is of two officials Wang Ji and Gong Yu of the Han dynasty, Both were dismissed but on Emperor Yuan's enthronement Wang Ji was re-appointed, on hearing the news Gong Yu flicked the dust off his official hat assuming he would follow his friend into office
[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
苛政猛 [苛政猛於虎]
Kē zhèng měng yú hǔ [ke zheng meng yu hu]
severe government fierce tiger
Tyranny is more terrible than tigers
The story is that Confucius met a woman near mount Taishan who was weeping bitterly. When asked, she said she had lost father-in-law, husband and son to marauding tigers. When Confucius asked why then she did not move to a safer village she replied that she was sheltering from a despotic government and would rather risk tigers than oppression. Evil government is the worst of evils.
[王顧左右而言他]
Wáng gù zuǒ yòu ér yán tā [wang gu zuo you er yan ta]
king attend to left right and talk other
The king looked left and right and then talked of other things
Evading making an uncomfortable reply by changing the topic of conversation. The story is of Mencius who asked three questions of the king of Qi, when the last question touched on the king's mismanagement of the kingdom, the king looked left and right to other guests to dodge making a response
Avoiding the hot potato
Guizhou, village, bridge
Zhenyuan village in Guizhou is home to many Miao minority people
郎才尽 [江郎才盡]
Jiāng láng cái jìn [jiang lang cai jin]
Jiang official talent exhaust
Master Jiang has exhausted his talent
Losing your creative spark. Jiang Yan was an official in the Southern Liang dynasty [502-557] achieved early repute as a poet and writer but in later years struggled to write anything of value. He dreamed that he owed his talent to the pen of Guo Pu who then reclaimed it.
Running out of steam
[生米煮成熟飯]
Shēng mǐ zhǔ chéng shú fàn [sheng mi zhu cheng shu fan]
produce rice cook accomplish well-cooked food
The rice has already been cooked
What has been done can not be undone
What's done is done
[普天同慶]
tiān tóng qìng [pu tian tong qing]
universal heaven together celebrate
Everyone in celebration
The whole nation is rejoicing at some happy event
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
Yì rú fǎn zhǎng [yi ru fan zhang]
easy as turn over palm
As easy as turning over your hand
Simple. Very easy
穿鞋, [穿新鞋走老路]
Chuān xīn xié, zǒu lǎo lù [chuan xin xie, zou lao lu]
put on new shoes, walk old road
Wear new shoes but follow old paths
Stick to the old ways while appearing to follow the latest trends
齿 [唇亡齒寒]
Chún wáng chǐ hán [chun wang chi han]
lips gone tooth cold
Without lips the teeth feel the cold
Two interdependent things or people. The story of is of an attack on two kingdoms, as they were so mutually dependent the fall of one led directly to the fall of the other.
, [箭在弦上不得不發]
Jiàn zài xián shàng, bù dé bù fā [jian zai xian shang, bu de bu fa]
arrow exist string on, not get no deliver
Once the arrow is on the bow string, it must be shot
Things have reached a point when its necessary for something to be done. No choice
Lights, camera, action
怡, [心曠神怡事事順利]
Xīn kuàng shén yí, shì shì shùn lì [xin kuang shen yi, shi shi shun li]
heart broad spirit joy, matter matter obey profit
Heart joyful, work profitable
Feeling happy and relaxed
Mù yǐ chéng zhōu [mu yi cheng zhou]
tree cease make boat
The tree has been made into a boat
Too late to change anything
What's done is done
, [雷聲大雨點小]
Léi shēng dà, diǎn xiǎo [lei sheng da, yu dian xiao]
thunder sound big, rain drop small
Thunder is loud but little rain falls
Overly portentous. Reality does not match expectations
Empty vessels make the most noise
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
[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
[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
Shān míng shuǐ xiù [shan ming shui xiu]
mountain bright water elegant
Beautiful mountain scenery
Beautiful landscape
[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
曹操,曹操 [說曹操曹操到]
Shuō Cáo Cāo, Cáo Cāo dào [shuo Cao Cao, Cao Cao dao]
speak Cao Cao, Cao Cao arrives
Speak of Cao Cao and he arrives
'Cao Cao of the Three Kingdoms is the embodiment of evil. Someone who you are talking about happens to appear unexpectedly
Speak of the devil and he is sure to appear
[先斬後奏]
Xiān zhǎn hòu zòu [xian zhan hou zou]
early behead afterwards report
Execute first?report later
Taking the initiative; acting without orders. The story is of a newly appointed magistrate who was seeking a murderer. When she was found, the magistrate had her executed on the spot in spite of she being a servant to the Emperor's sister. An execution requires the Emperor's sanction and so the magistrate was in deep trouble,. In this case the magistrate managed to escape with his life.
Off you own bat
蚂蚁 [熱鍋上的螞蟻]
Rè guō shàng de mǎ yǐ [re guo shang de ma yi]
heat pot up of ants
As active as ants on a hot pan
In a state of feverish activity and excitement
Laozi, philosopher
Statue of Lao Tzu (Laozi) in Quanzhou, Fujian. Image by Tom@HK available under a Creative Commons license .
[近水樓台先得月]
Jìn shuǐ lóu tái xiān dé yuè [jin shui lou tai xian de yue]
near river pavilion platform early gets moon
A waterfront pavilion sees the moonlight first
An allusion to the wisdom of having friends in high circles that often results in benefits.
Climbing the greasy poll
[馬馬虎虎]
Mǎ mǎ hǔ hǔ [ma ma hu hu]
horse horse tiger tiger
So so; average; careless
Some people say it comes from an old story in which a horse and a tiger get into a fight. Neither animal could defeat the other. In time, mentioning the two animals together came to mean a fight with no definite winner - and ma ma hu hu came to mean 'so so.'. There is also a story that, a long time ago, an artist drew an animal. He asked other people what the animal he drew was. Some said it looked like a horse while others said it was a tiger. They said, 'ma ma hu hu' because the drawing was just 'so-so'.
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.
Huā huā shì jiè [hua hua shi jie]
flower flower lifespan limit
Life full of experience. Dazzling world of excitement
World seething with life
Qī lí zǐ sàn [qi li zi san]
wife leave child break-up
Wife left; children scattered
A broken family
视眈眈 [虎眎眈眈]
Hǔ shì dān dān [hu shi dan dan]
tiger look at stare stare
A tiger's stare. To look covetously
To eye enviously
Bù bù gāo shēng [bu bu gao sheng]
step step tall ascend
Step by step promotion
Congratulation on promotion or a new job
Bēi gōng shé yǐng [bei gong she ying]
cup bow snake image
Seeing a bow?s reflection in a cup as a snake
Suspicious and frightened; plagued by fearful imagination. The story is of a man who was terrified by the sight of what he thought was a snake swimming in the cup of tea he was drinking. The experience made him ill and only when it was demonstrated that it was just the reflection of a bow left hanging on the wall did he recover.
Afraid of your own shadow
悬崖勒 [懸崖勒馬]
Xuán yá lè mǎ [xuan ya le ma]
precipice rein in horse
Rein in the horse at the cliff edge
Realize danger at the last moment
Ěr xīn [er mu yi xin]
ear eye one new
New sights and sounds
A change of place, everything fresh and new
[一身是膽]
shēn shì dǎn [yi shen shi dan]
one body is courage
Full of courage
Fearless, intrepid. A heroic disposition.
As bold as brass
Guǒ zú bù qián [guo zu bu qian]
bind foot not ahead
Dithering about
Unable to move forward due to misgivings. To hesitate about getting on and doing something.
All of a dither
Cǎo mù jiē bīng [cao mu jie bing]
vegetation all warlike
Every bush harbors an enemy
Being paranoid - believing everyone is out to get you. To be beleaguered
[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
[畫龍點睛]
Huà lóng diǎn jīng [hua long dian jing]
draw dragon dot eye
To add eyes to a painted dragon
Make the final vital addition to complete something. Add finishing touches. The story is of a great painter who painted four dragons without completing the eyes. When challenged he claimed that it was to ensure they did not come to life and fly away. When pressured he drew in the eyes of two dragons and they promptly came to life and flew away.
Dotting the 'i's and crossing the 't's
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
[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.
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
[賓至如歸]
Bīn zhì rú guī [bin zhi ru gui]
guest arrive as if belong
Guests feel at home
Warmly welcoming guests to your home. Guests treated as part of the family.
Be my guest
Sanya, Hainan, beach
Beach scene at Sanya, Hainan. June 2012.
Image by Dounai available under a Creative Commons license
灰复燃 [死灰復燃]
Sǐ huī fù rán [si hui fu ran]
die ash return fire
Ashes burn again
Resuming work after a long break. Taking up a previously held position of authority. Another flush of youthful energy in later life.
[非驢非馬]
Fēi lú: fēi mǎ [fei lu: fei ma]
not donkey not horse
Neither a donkey nor a horse
A person or place that is neither one thing nor another. Indeterminate or strange combination.
Neither fish nor fowl
豪夺 [巧取豪奪]
Qiǎo qǔ háo duó [qiao qu hao duo]
opportunely take grand seize
Grab by trick or by force
Cheat others of their valuables by trickery or force.
Rip off
[風馬牛不相及]
Fēng mǎ niú bù xiāng jí [feng ma niu bu xiang ji]
custom horse cow not each other reach
Horses and cows keep themselves separate
People moving in different circles, different agendas. Having nothing in common.
Apples and oranges
[別無長物]
Bié wú cháng wù [bie wu chang wu]
leave nothing surplus
Having nothing to spare
In great poverty, possessing nothing other than the bare essentials.
The cupboard is bare
[空前絕后]
Kōng qián jué hòu [kong qian jue hou]
empty before terminate behind
Neither seen in the future nor in the past
Something that is genuinely new
漏洞
Lòu dòng bǎi chū [lou dong bai chu]
leak hole hundred get out
Leaking through one hundred holes
Full of mistakes and errors
[司空見慣]
Sī kōng jiàn guàn [si kong jian guan]
Sikong see usual
Sikong is used to it
Sikong was the job title of a minister of works in China. In the Tang dynasty the poet Liu Yuxi was invited by a minister to a feast accompanied by entertainers. This was a common occurrence for the minister but greatly impressed the poet. An everyday occurrence; nothing out of the ordinary
As common as muck
[弱不禁風]
Ruò bù jīn fēng [ruo bu jin feng]
weak not restrict wind
Too weak to stand a gust of wind
Fragile, unable to withstand further setbacks
[風吹草動]
Fēng chuī cǎo dòng [feng chui cao dong]
wind blow grass move
The wind causes the grass to move
A minor repercussion of a larger action. A trifling consequence
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
[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
骨瘦
Gǔ shòu rú chái [gu shou ru chai]
bone thin as lath
Nothing but skin and bones
Emaciated
,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
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
[滿城風雨]
Mǎn chéng fēng [man cheng feng yu]
full town wind rain
Everywhere is lashed by wind and rain
The whole community is awash with scandal or a sensational story.
On everyone's lips
望洋[望洋興嘆]
Wàng yáng xīng tàn [wang yang xing tan]
towards ocean excitement sigh
Consider one?s competance before the ocean
To feel inadequate to perform a great task. Feel misgivings before a big endeavor. The story is of the river god of the Huanghe caused a great flood that made the river a mile wide but when it met the sea it was overcome with relative inadequacy.
锦囊妙计 [錦囊妙計]
Jǐn náng miào jì [jin nang miao ji]
brocade purse wonderful plan
Excellent plans hidden in a brocade bag
To have wise plans in reserve. The story is that the brilliant strategist Zhuge Liang sent plans for a military campaign concealed in a brocade bag.
[門可羅雀]
Mén kě luó què [men ke luo que]
gate can net bird
The gate can catch birds
There are so few visitors that the door could be used to catch birds. Having very few visitors
Xinjiang, Urumqi, road
Expressway into Urumqi, Xinjiang
Tuī xīn zhì fù [tui xin zhi fu]
elect heart put stomach
Having full confidence
Put give someone your full support - body and soul. To trust someone implicitly.
[飛禽走獸]
Fēi qín zǒu shòu [fei qin zou shou]
flying bird walking animal
Birds and beasts
Wildlife
[樂此不疲]
Lè cǐ bù pí [le ci bu pi]
happy no longer weary
Pleasure takes away the fatigue
Said of a task that is enjoyable and so does not seem to be tiring. Can also be applied to a pleasurable task that you never get tired of doing.
Gē ròu zì dàn [ge rou zi dan]
cut flesh oneself eat
Eating one's own flesh
A foolish, self defeating stratagem.
Cutting off your nose to spite your face
Rén shān rén hǎi [ren shan ren hai]
person mountain person sea
People everywhere
Huge crowds of people
[爾虞我詐]
Ěr yú wǒ zhà [er yu wo zha]
you cheat me swindle
Cheating and deceiving each other
Mutual distrust and deception. A relationship without any trust.
Dog eat dog
[言猶在耳]
Yán yóu zài ěr [yan you zai er]
words still exist ear
Words still ringing in one?s ears
Still fresh in the mind. Keeping hold of a recent command or argument. Staying true to purpose.
[聞風喪膽]
Wén fēng sàng dǎn [wen feng sang dan]
hear news lose courage
Panic on hearing news
Panic stricken; terrified by news
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
Qǐ sǐ huí shēng [qi si hui sheng]
raise death return life
Can bring the dead back to life
Amazing recovery from illness. Said of a doctor who has brought someone back from a terminal condition.
Zì yóu zì zài [zi you zi zai]
freedom unrestrained
Unrestricted freedom
To be carefree, peaceful and relaxed
[車載斗量]
Chē zài dǒu liáng [che zai dou liang]
vehicle carry peck capacity
Cartloads and sackfuls
Huge quantity. A very large number. Overabundant.
[風吹草動]
Fēng chuī cǎo dòng [feng chui cao dong]
wind blow grass move
The wind causes the grass to move
A minor repercussion of a larger action. A trifling consequence
Wèi néng miǎn sú [wei neng mian su]
not able avoid convention
Bound up by conventions
Unable to do what you want because social conventions forbid it. Doing something just because it is expected.
Creature of habit
[從容不迫]
Cóng róng bù pò [cong rong bu po]
unhurried not urgent
Calm and unhurried
Taking life calmly and in your stride. Untroubled.
Without a care in the world
[虎口餘生]
kǒu yú shēng [hu kou yu sheng]
tiger den me save
Saved from the tiger?s den
A narrow escape from a dangerous situation.
Bīng tiān xuě [bing tian xue di]
ice sky snow ground
Ice in the sky and snow on the ground
Encountering adverse conditions
[呆若木雞]
Dāi ruò mù jī [dai ruo mu ji]
stupid like wood chicken
As dumb as a wooden chicken
Dumbstruck, unable to move or say anything out of fear.
Caught like a rabbit in the headlights
[日以繼夜]
yǐ jì yè [ri yi ji ye]
day take continue
Day and night continuously
Working without a break. Exhausted
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 .
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
[多行不義必自斃]
Duō xíng bù yì bì zì bì [duo xing bu yi bi zi bi]
much series not justice must self destroy
Persisting in evil leads to self-destruction
Turning to bad deeds will ultimately bring ruin. This is a form of Karma - divine justice which catch up with you one day
Shí quán shí měi [shi quan shi mei]
ten complete ten beautiful
Completely whole and beautiful
Perfection; faultless
[身臨其境]
Shēn lín qí jìng [shen lin qi jing]
body face its border
Present and observing
An eye witness to an event
[侯門似海]
Hóu mén sì hǎi [hou men si hai]
nobleman house appear sea
A noble?s house is as vast as the sea
A very tough task. A nobleman in ancient China would have a courtyard house with high walls and no easy entry. It was also hard to get any way to get an invite to visit such a noble. And so represents a high physical and social barrier.
Beyond your wildest dreams
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
败涂 [一敗塗地]
bài tú dì [yi bai tu di]
whole defeat smear ground
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.
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
[富麗堂皇]
Fù lì táng huáng [fu li tang huang]
good fortune beautiful hall emperor
Prosperous and beautiful
To have the best of good fortune
针毡 [如坐針氈]
Rú zuò zhēn zhān [ru zuo zhen zhan]
like sit needle carpet
Like sitting on a carpet of needles
To feel tense and uneasy
Shǒu kǒu rú píng [shou kou ru ping]
guard mouth like bottle
To keep mouth shut, like a bottle
To avoid giving the game away; to not breathe a word
See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil
[眾怒難犯]
Zhòng nù nán fàn [zhong nu nan fan]
crowd fury disaster to offend
Avoid incurring the wrath of the crowd
It's a bad idea to stir up the anger of a large crowd
[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
含沙
Hán shā shè yǐng [han sha she ying]
keep sand shoot shadow
Making insinuations
To spit sand at someone's shadow, in other words to attack someone indirectly by innuendo. There is a legend of a three-legged turtle that would spit out sand at anyone who passed. Its spittle was so noxious that it would infect someone even if it only hit their shadow.
[家喻戶曉]
Jiā yù hù xiǎo [jia yu hu xiao]
home as household know
Known in every household
A person or fact known to everybody. Something or somebody well known
A household name
[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
模棱 [模棱兩可]
Mó léng liǎng kě [mo leng liang ke]
pattern edge both permit
To equivocate
Position is unclear or uncertain. Failing to make up your mind.
Sitting on the fence
,偏[兼聽則明,偏信則暗]
Jiān tīng zé míng piān xìn zé àn [jian ting ze ming pian xin ze an]
twice listen then understand, stubbornly trust one then muddled
Listen to several people and you will be enlightened; if only a few then you will be muddled
Take advice from all quarters not just a few people. Wide Emperors of China read the reports (memorials) from many senior officials before making policy decisions.
Hong Kong, skyscraper, modern housing, view
The city of Hong Kong at night
[擢髮難數]
Zhuó fà nán shǔ [zhuo fa nan shu]
pull out hair difficult count
As countless as the hairs on the head
Countless. A very large number.
Hòu gù zhī yōu [hou gu zhi you]
back attend worries
Looking after troubles behind you
Worried about events back at home. Said of someone concerned about goings on at home rather than things immediately to hand.
dèng kǒu dāi [mu deng kou dai]
eye stare mouth blank
Staring eyes and mouth open
Dumb struck
[犬牙交錯]
Quǎn yá jiāo cuò [quan ya jiao cuo]
dog tooth deliver interlock
Locked together like dog's teeth
Closely locked together like the two sets of teeth, Said of two opponents who are closely matched in skill who are locked in complex conflict.
[出爾反爾]
Chū ěr fǎn ěr [chu er fan er]
go out thus return thus
Getting just reward
Do as you would be done to. Repay past behavior appropriately. In modern times this has changed meaning to be more to with inconsistency and self contradictory behavior than justice.
What you sow, so shall you reap
[馬到成功]
Mǎ daò chéng gōng [ma dao cheng gong]
horse arrive accomplish merit
Horse win easy victory
Gain immediate victory
[得過且過]
Dé guò qiě guò [de guo qie guo]
contented get along yet live
Getting by
Muddling through life without great ambitions. Contended to just live from day to day.
Enough is as good as a feast
Tiān nán dì běi [tian nan di bei]
heaven south land north
As distant as the heavens
Places or opinions that are very far apart
[門庭若市]
Mén tíng ruò shì [men ting ruo shi]
door hall like market
Front yard is like a market
The house is thronged with visitors. The place is all astir
Hive of industry
[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
[心甘情願]
Xīn gān qíng yuàn [xin gan qing yuan]
feeling sweet fine wish
Delighted and helpful
Delighted to be able to help
续貂 [狗尾續貂]
Gǒu wěi xù diāo [gou wei xu diao]
dog tail to replace sable
Use a dog?s tail to replace a sable
A poor substitute for the original. Said of poor follow-up to promising earlier work. The story is of a usurper to the Jin dynasty throne who gave honors and titles to his whole family and household. There was insufficient sable tails to make the formal robes for all these people so dog tails were used instead.
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.
[一鼓作氣]
gǔ zuò qì [yi gu zuo qi]
single drum grow energy
Gathering courage from a single drum beat
A sudden burst of energy. Easily stimulated into action.
退避
Tuì bì sān shè [tui bi san she]
withdraw to escape three 'she'
Withdrawing three leagues
To retreat ahead of superior force, a tactical withdrawal. A 'she' is an ancient term for three day's march or 30 li. To sensibly avoid conflict.
China motif
Our proverbs come with full information. The modern Chinese characters are given first with links that give information on the character. If the phrase uses traditional characters these are shown in brackets and gray text. As proverbs are so old you will often see them written in the old form. 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 included at the end.

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.

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