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.

指鹿 [指鹿爲馬]
Zhǐ lù wéi mǎ
Making a deer out to be a horse
Lying to mislead others; a deliberate misrepresentation often to please someone important. The famous story goes back to the time of the second Qin Emperor (c. 209BCE) who was an infant and the effective ruler was the despotic Zhao Gao. He presented a stag to the Emperor proclaiming it to be a fine horse. The Imperial ministers were so fearful that when asked whether a stag was a stag or a horse many said a horse. Zhao Gao had all those who told the truth and said 'stag' executed as he wanted ministers who would so anything he said.
Roughly equivalent to: What a tangled web we weave.
Xiāng xiāo yù sǔn
Fragrance is dissipated; jade is broken
Spoken of on the death of a beautiful young woman.
Roughly equivalent to: Whom the Gods love die young.
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.
Zài zuò féng fù
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.
Roughly equivalent to: A leopard cannot change its spots.
Shān míng shuǐ xiù
Beautiful mountain scenery
Beautiful landscape.
Jī quǎn bù ning
Even the chicken and dog are disturbed. General commotion
All in turmoil and excitement.
Hé dōng shī hǒu
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.
Roughly equivalent to: She who must be obeyed.
Yǔ maó wèi fēng
Not yet grown adult plumage. A fledgling bird - young and inexperienced
Still too young and immature.
郎才尽 [江郎才盡]
Jiāng láng cái jìn
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.
Roughly equivalent to: Running out of steam.
Zhēng xiān kǒng hòu
Striving to be first and fearing to be last
Striving for position. Over competitive.
Roughly equivalent to: Devil take the hindmost.
Jìn shuǐ lóu tái xiān dé yuè
A waterfront pavilion sees the moonlight first
An allusion to the wisdom of having friends in high circles that often results in benefits.
Roughly equivalent to: Climbing the greasy poll.
齿 [唇亡齒寒]
Chún wáng chǐ hán
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.
Wǎng kāi miàn
To leave one side of the net open
To give someone a chance of escape.
Roughly equivalent to: To let someone off the hook.
Hong Kong, zodiac, sculpture
The Garden of the Chinese Zodiac features twelve carved animals in the gardens of Kowloon Walled City Park, Hong Kong
苛政猛 [苛政猛於虎]
Kē zhèng měng yú hǔ
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.
Guā tián xià
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.
Wéi miaò wéi xiaò
Weave skillfully life like images
Produce an image remarkably true to life; highly skilled.
Shù yù jìng ěr fēng bù zhǐ
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.
弹冠 [彈冠相慶]
Tán guān xiāng qìng
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.
Yì rú fǎn zhǎng
As easy as turning over your hand
Simple. Very easy.
Juǎn tǔ chóng lái
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.
Roughly equivalent to: Dust yourself off and start all over again.
曹操,曹操 [說曹操曹操到]
Shuō Cáo Cāo, Cáo Cāo dào
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.
Roughly equivalent to: Speak of the devil and he is sure to appear.
, [雷聲大雨點小]
Thunder is loud but little rain falls
Overly portentous. Reality does not match expectations.
Roughly equivalent to: Empty vessels make the most noise.
穿鞋, [穿新鞋走老路]
Chuān xīn xié, zǒu lǎo lù
Wear new shoes but follow old paths
Stick to the old ways while appearing to follow the latest trends.
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.
卵击 [以卵擊石]
Yǐ luǎn tóu shí
Try to smash a stone with an egg
Overrating strength and being defeated. Defeat guaranteed.
Roughly equivalent to: Kicking a brick wall.
Shì wài táo yuán
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.
Roughly equivalent to: Land of milk and honey.
Nanjing, Jiangsu
Nanjing skyline. September 2012.
Image by Ozonefrance available under a Creative Commons license
Shaǒ jiàn duō guài
Things look strange to the unfamiliar
Unsettled by a new environment.
gù zhī róng
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.
Xiān zhǎn hòu zòu
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.
Roughly equivalent to: Off you own bat.
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.
yì miè qīn
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.
Máng cì zài bèi
A thorn in one's flesh
Someone or something is causing continuous irritation.
Wán bì guī zhào
Returning the jade bi to Zhao
A jade bi is a large round piece with a hole in the middle. The story is of an ancient Imperial 'crown jewel' the 'He shi bi' that was stolen by the king of Qin. The ruler of the state of Zhao then managed to get it back. It has come to mean returning something (in good condition) to its rightful owner.
Each day passes as a year
Time seems to pass very slowly.
Roughly equivalent to: Time drags on.
舐犊 [舐犢之愛]
Shì dú zhī ài
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.
Roughly equivalent to: The fruit does not fall far from the tree.
tiān tóng qìng
Everyone in celebration
The whole nation is rejoicing at some happy event.
Qí hǔ nán xià
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.
Roughly equivalent to: He who sups with the Devil should have a long spoon.
Zhōu guān fàng huǒ
The magistrate burns down the town
Bewailing pompous and incompetent officials. The story is that an official who did not want his name 'Deng' to be used in any official proclamation. The problem arose when the Lantern or 'Deng' festival was to be announced. Instead of 'Deng' he used the character for Fire instead and so announced the coming of Fire throughout the town - causing widespread alarm.
Roughly equivalent to: Couldn't organize a piss-up in a brewey.
Kè zhōu qiú jiàn
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,
Roughly equivalent to: Wild goose chase.
Beijing, Beihai Park
The Beihai Park, imperial garden in Beijing. December 2007. Image by storyvillegirl available under a Creative Commons License
Qīng chéng qīng guó
Triumph over city and country
Overwhelm the entire area. Usually applied to a woman of outstanding beauty.
Roughly equivalent to: The face that launched a thousand ships.
怡, [心曠神怡事事順利]
Xīn kuàng shén yí, shì shì shùn lì
Heart joyful, work profitable
Feeling happy and relaxed.
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.
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.
Xiá bù yǎn yú
A speck on a jade stone can't obscure its brilliance
One small fault won't spoil the impression of an overall exceptional person.
Mù yǐ chéng zhōu
The tree has been made into a boat
Too late to change anything.
Roughly equivalent to: What's done is done.
Kāi tiān pì dì
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.
Roughly equivalent to: To boldly go.
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.
Yè gōng hào lóng
Duke Ye'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.
Roughly equivalent to: Putting on a brave face.
Yǐng shū yān shuō
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.
Roughly equivalent to: Get hold of the wrong end of the stick.
, [箭在弦上不得不發]
Jiàn zài xián shàng, bù dé bù fā
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.
Roughly equivalent to: Lights, camera, action.
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.
Chòu bù kě dāng
Worst ever smell
To give off an unbearable stink.
GuanYin, buddhism, statue
A stone statue of Guan Yin. Image by nlamore from USA available under a Creative Commons license
Wáng gù zuǒ yòu ér yán tā
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.
Roughly equivalent to: Avoiding the hot potato.
Shēng mǐ zhǔ chéng shú fàn
The rice has already been cooked
What has been done can not be undone.
Roughly equivalent to: What's done is done.
Míng luó kāi dao
Beating the gong to clear the way for dignitaries
To publicize an event.
Mǎ mǎ hǔ hǔ
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'.
输攻墨守 [輸攻墨守]
Shū gōng mò shǒu
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.
Roughly equivalent to: Fighting to a standstill.
Yāng jí chí
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.
Roughly equivalent to: Cannon fodder.
Xīn huā nù fàng
The flower of the heart in full bloom
Full flowering of joy.
叶障 [一葉障目]
yè zhàng
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.
Roughly equivalent to: Can't see the wood for the trees.
殿 [無事不登三寳殿]
Wú shì bū dēng sān bǎo diàn
No-one comes to pray at the Temple of Three Treasures unless in trouble
Often it is obvious when somebody is after something.
Zuǒ yòu wéi nán
Both alternatives are difficult
In a dilemma.
Roughly equivalent to: Be in a pickle.
蚂蚁 [熱鍋上的螞蟻]
Rè guō shàng de mǎ yǐ
As active as ants on a hot pan
In a state of feverish activity and excitement.
Ěr xīn
New sights and sounds
A change of place, everything fresh and new.
Zēng Shēn shā rén
Zeng Shen committed murder
A false rumor. The story is that the mother of Zeng Shen was weaving cloth. Someone came in to tell her that her son had been found guilty of murder. She did not believe it saying he would not do such a thing. Another person came with the same report and she still would not believe it. Only when the third person gave the same story did she reacted and stopped her work. The story was in fact of another man called 'Zeng Shen' and not her son.
Roughly equivalent to: The word on the street.
Ningxia, mosque, muslim
Mosque for Hui people, Ningxia
Huà lóng diǎn jīng
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.
Roughly equivalent to: Dotting the 'i's and crossing the 't's.
悬崖勒 [懸崖勒馬]
Xuán yá lè mǎ
Rein in the horse at the cliff edge
Realize danger at the last moment.
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.
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.
豪夺 [巧取豪奪]
Qiǎo qǔ háo duó
Grab by trick or by force
Cheat others of their valuables by trickery or force.
Roughly equivalent to: Rip off.
Qiáng nǔ zhī mò
An arrow at the end of its flight
A spent force. An person or impulse that has now lost all its initial energy just as a bolt from a cross-bow gradually loses its power with distance.
Roughly equivalent to: Burned out.
Fēng mǎ niú bù xiāng jí
Horses and cows keep themselves separate
People moving in different circles, different agendas. Having nothing in common.
Roughly equivalent to: Apples and oranges.
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.
Kōng qián jué hòu
Neither seen in the future nor in the past
Something that is genuinely new.
Bù bù gāo shēng
Step by step promotion
Congratulation on promotion or a new job.
Lòu dòng bǎi chū
Leaking through one hundred holes
Full of mistakes and errors.
Bēi gōng shé yǐng
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.
Roughly equivalent to: Afraid of your own shadow.
Bīn zhì rú guī
Guests feel at home
Warmly welcoming guests to your home. Guests treated as part of the family.
Roughly equivalent to: Be my guest.
Wild goose pagoda, Xian, Shaanxi, pagoda
Sunset at the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda, Xi'an
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.
视眈眈 [虎眎眈眈]
Hǔ shì dān dān
A tiger's stare. To look covetously
To eye enviously.
Sī kōng jiàn guàn
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.
Roughly equivalent to: As common as muck.
Ruò bù jīn fēng
Too weak to stand a gust of wind
Fragile, unable to withstand further setbacks.
Guǒ zú bù qián
Dithering about
Unable to move forward due to misgivings. To hesitate about getting on and doing something.
Roughly equivalent to: All of a dither.
困兽犹 [困獸猶鬥]
Kùn shòu yóu dòu
A cornered beast continues to struggle
Desperate measures to keep going. To fight like a cornered animal.
Roughly equivalent to: A drowning man will clutch at a straw.
浦珠 [合浦珠還]
Hé pǔ zhū huán
The Hepu pearls return home
Something or someone returns to its original source. Often said of someone returning to their original home district after years of wandering. The story is from the Han dynasty of Hepu, Gunagxi which was a leading center for pearl fishing until a local official over exploited the beds of pearls leading to Vietnam taking over as the leading procedure. Only when the pearl beds were left for years to recover did the pearl industry return.
Roughly equivalent to: The wheel has come full circle.
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.
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.
Cǎo mù jiē bīng
Every bush harbors an enemy
Being paranoid - believing everyone is out to get you. To be beleaguered.
Fēi lú: fēi mǎ
Neither a donkey nor a horse
A person or place that is neither one thing nor another. Indeterminate or strange combination.
Roughly equivalent to: Neither fish nor fowl.
Zhǔ dòu rán qí
Burning bean-stalks to cook beans
To stir up family quarrels. The stalks supported the beans when they were growing so it seems disloyal for them to be used to cook the beans. To foment disorder which will harm the whole community including yourself.
Jìn ruò hán chán
As silent as a cicada in winter
Cicadas do not 'sing' in cold weather. To keep silent for fear of attracting unwanted attention or incriminating yourself.
Roughly equivalent to: Keeping mum.
Nine Dragon Wall, Beijing, dragon
One of the nine dragons on the Nine Dragon Screen, Forbidden City, Beijing
Bié wú cháng wù
Having nothing to spare
In great poverty, possessing nothing other than the bare essentials.
Roughly equivalent to: The cupboard is bare.
shēn shì dǎn
Full of courage
Fearless, intrepid. A heroic disposition.
Roughly equivalent to: As bold as brass.
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.
顾茅庐 [三顧茅廬]
Sān gù máo lú
Calling three times at the thatched cottage
Committed to get best possible advice. The story is of Liu Bei in the Three Kingdoms Period who wanted the help of the master strategist Zhuge Liang. Zhuge Liang refused to answer the door on Liu's first two visits. When Liu made a third visit Zhuge was sufficiently convinced that Liu was genuinely desperate for his help.
,败 [成也蕭何,敗也蕭何]
Chéng yě Xiāo Hé; bài yě xiāo hé
Accomplished by Xiao He but also lost by Xiao He
Success and failure of your own making. The story is of Liu Bang before he became Emperor had Xiao He as Prime Minister. Xiao recommended Han Xin for a military command. However Han Xin fell from favor and then plotted a revolt. Xiao He lured him to a meeting at the place and killed him. So Xiao He both launched the career and ended the career of Han Xin,
绕梁 [餘音繞樑]
Yú yīn rào liáng
The music lingers around the roof beams
Music so beautiful it seems to reverberate around the roof. A pleasant musical performance and by analogy memory of a joyous occasion.
Roughly equivalent to: Transport of delight.
Jī quǎn shēng tiān
Even chickens and dogs go to heaven
Riding high on someone else's success. When someone gets a plum job all his friends and family will also prosper. Alternatively can mean once a problem has been cracked anyone can solve it.
灰复燃 [死灰復燃]
Sǐ huī fù rán
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.
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.
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.
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.
Qī lí zǐ sàn
Wife left; children scattered
A broken family.
Máng rén xiàng
Blind people touch an elephant
Seeing only part of the situation. A Buddhist tale of how a group of blind men each felt a different part of an elephant and came to very different ideas of what it was. One felt a tusk (a huge carrot?), one a ear (a flat dish?), one a leg (a column?) and the fourth the tail (a rope?). None could agree as to what it was.
Roughly equivalent to: Not seeing the full picture.
Eating dimsum dumplings on the street in gongguan; pictures by tashenka. February 2007. Photo by brappy! from Gongguan Market in Zhongzheng available under a Creative Commons license .
Yuè zǔ dài páo
Laying down the sacrificial vessels and take over the kitchen
To move beyond current work and meddle in other's duties. To take things into your own hands. A back seat driver.
Roughly equivalent to: Poke your nose in someone else's business.
Huā huā shì jiè
Life full of experience. Dazzling world of excitement
World seething with life.
, [將欲取之,必先與之]
Jiāng yù qǔ zhī bì xiān yǔ zhī
Give up in order to take back
A strategy to maintain possession. By giving up something in the hope that it will be rewarded. The story is of a dispute with a greedy neighboring kingdom. Rather than oppose a kingdom volunteered to give up land. When the greed y neighbor continued to take advantage all the neighbors united against it and all the lands were returned.
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.
Dào xǐ xiāng yíng
Putting on shoes the wrong way aroung when greeting a guest
So keen to meet a guest that shoes are put on the wrong way around. Excitement about meeting someone idolized.
Roughly equivalent to: Go weak at the knees.
One morning and one evening
A short space of time. Something transient that will soon pass.
Roughly equivalent to: Over in a flash.
Fēng chuī cǎo dòng
The wind causes the grass to move
A minor repercussion of a larger action. A trifling consequence.
Rǎn yú cāng zé cāng rǎn yú huáng zé huáng
Dyeing dark blue makes dark blue, dyeing yellow makes yellow
People behave differently according to circumstance. Taking on local conventions and customs.
Roughly equivalent to: When in Rome do as the Romans do.
Tuī xīn zhì fù
Having full confidence
Put give someone your full support - body and soul. To trust someone implicitly.
Rú huǒ rú tú
Raging like a fire
Daunting and vigorous. An intimidating prospect.
Roughly equivalent to: Vim and vigour.
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.
yǐ jì yè
Day and night continuously
Working without a break. Exhausted.
苟延残喘 [苟延殘喘]
Gǒu yán cán chuǎn
Lingering at last gasp
In the throes of dying. Making a final desperate action prior to dying.
Roughly equivalent to: At death's door.
Beijing, skyscraper, congestion
Modern highway and buildings, Beijing, 2013
投鞭断流 [投鞭斷流]
Tóu biān duàn liú
Throwing in whips to stop the river
An immense number of people. If all the people carried whips that were thrown into the river Yangzi then they would be so numerous as to block its flow. Overwhelming odds.
Mén kě luó què
The gate can catch birds
There are so few visitors that the door could be used to catch birds. Having very few visitors.
Lì zhuī zhī dì
A place to stick an awl
A very small piece of property. Often said of someone who has fallen on hard times and has only a very small place to live or just to describe a very small space.
Roughly equivalent to: No space to swing a cat.
Wèi néng miǎn sú
Bound up by conventions
Unable to do what you want because social conventions forbid it. Doing something just because it is expected.
Roughly equivalent to: Creature of habit.
Wén fēng sàng dǎn
Panic on hearing news
Panic stricken; terrified by news.
Niú yī duì qì
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.
Biān cháng mò jí
Beyond the reach of the whip
Too far away to be able to help or beyond one's skill or influence.
败涂 [一敗塗地]
bài tú dì
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.
Bīng tiān xuě
Ice in the sky and snow on the ground
Encountering adverse conditions.
Fǎn lǎo huán tóng
Return to youthful vigour
Returning to youthful energy. Turning back the years. Often used as a compliment to someone sprightly in old age.
Roughly equivalent to: New lease of life.
Cǐ dì wú yín sān bǎi liǎng
Three hundred silver taels are not buried here
Accidentally giving away the hidden truth in an explanation. The story is of a man who buried 300 pieces of stolen silver. Strangely he put up a sign to say that the 300 pieces were not buried on top of his horde. Someone a little more clever dug up the cash and replaced the sign to say he had not dug up the cash buried there.
Shā jī yān yòng niú dāo
Using an ox-cleaver to kill a chicken
Taking unnecessary effort to tackle a small problem. Using an inappropriately large tool for the job.
Roughly equivalent to: Using a sledgehammer to crack a nut.
Hán shā shè yǐng
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.
Hong Kong, modern housing, view
Densely populated Hong Kong
Wú niú chuǎn yuè
The ox from Wu pants at the sight of the moon
Unnecessarily fearful of something. The story is of an ox from Wu that thought the moon was the sun and panted through the assumed heat it expected to experience.
Roughly equivalent to: Afraid of your own shadow.
Mǎn chéng fēng
Everywhere is lashed by wind and rain
The whole community is awash with scandal or a sensational story.
Roughly equivalent to: On everyone's lips.
锦囊妙计 [錦囊妙計]
Jǐn náng miào jì
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.
,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.
Wàng yáng xīng tàn
Consider one's competence 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.
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.
Lè cǐ bù pí
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.
Guā xiāng kàn
Rubbing one's eyes when seeing someone
Noticing that someone has changed for the better. Show respect for improvement and progress. Changing a view of someone's abilities.
Roughly equivalent to: Seeing someone in a new light.
kǒu yú shēng
Saved from the tiger's den
A narrow escape from a dangerous situation.
Ěr yú wǒ zhà
Cheating and deceiving each other
Mutual distrust and deception. A relationship without any trust.
Roughly equivalent to: Dog eat dog.
dé shuǐ
Like a fish returned to water
Glad to be back in familiar surroundings. Applied to people returning home after a long absence or someone who has at last found their proper place in life.
Roughly equivalent to: In one's element.
Hóu mén sì hǎi
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.
Roughly equivalent to: Beyond your wildest dreams.
fà qiān jūn
Single hair holding a heavy weight
At a critical point. A single hair holds back a heavy weight. A very dangerous situation.
Roughly equivalent to: Sticky situation.
printing, calligraphy
Printing using movable wooden block Chinese characters
Zhòng nù nán fàn
Avoid incurring the wrath of the crowd
It's a bad idea to stir up the anger of a large crowd.
Fēng chuī cǎo dòng
The wind causes the grass to move
A minor repercussion of a larger action. A trifling consequence.
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.
Shí shì qiú shì
Seek truth from facts
Base judgment on the true facts of the situation and not rumor or custom.
Roughly equivalent to: Know for a fact.
Fù lì táng huáng
Prosperous and beautiful
To have the best of good fortune.
Cóng róng bù pò
Calm and unhurried
Taking life calmly and in your stride. Untroubled.
Roughly equivalent to: Without a care in the world.
Shǒu kǒu rú píng
To keep mouth shut, like a bottle
To avoid giving the game away; to not breathe a word.
Roughly equivalent to: See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.
Xīn fù zhī huàn
Major internal problems
Internal disorder causing crisis. Internal division preventing proper action.
Yán yóu zài ěr
Words still ringing in one's ears
Still fresh in the mind. Keeping hold of a recent command or argument. Staying true to purpose.
Qǐ sǐ huí shēng
Can bring the dead back to life
Amazing recovery from illness. Said of a doctor who has brought someone back from a terminal condition.
Qí lù wáng yáng
The sheep goes astray at the fork of a road
Taking a wrong decision and now hopelessly lost. Unable to work out a way forward because the true situation has not been appreciated,
Luàn qī zāo
Chaotic mess
To be in a terrible mess. Dirty and filthy.
People everywhere
Huge crowds of people.
View from kings peak in Wuyishan mountains , north west Fujian, China.
Image by Ariel Steiner available under a Creative Commons license
Shēn lín qí jìng
Present and observing
An eye witness to an event.
Chē zài dǒu liáng
Cartloads and sackfuls
Huge quantity. A very large number. Overabundant.
Fēi qín zǒu shòu
Birds and beasts
Dāi ruò mù jī
As dumb as a wooden chicken
Dumbstruck, unable to move or say anything out of fear.
Roughly equivalent to: Caught like a rabbit in the headlights.
Gē ròu zì dàn
Eating one's own flesh
A foolish, self defeating stratagem.
Roughly equivalent to: Cutting off your nose to spite your face.
Shí quán shí měi
Completely whole and beautiful
Perfection; faultless.
柱鼓瑟 [膠柱鼓瑟]
Jiāo zhù gǔ sè
Gluing the tuning pegs of a zither
Inflexible and stubborn. Gluing the tuning pegs of a musical instrument so it can not be tuned and brought into harmony.
Roughly equivalent to: As stubborn as a mule.
Jīng gōng zhī niǎo
A bird startled even by the twang of a bow string
Someone who is easily frightened especially if triggered by a previous bad experience. The story is of a great archer who claimed he could shoot a goose out of the sky without releasing an arrow. He then twanged the bow and a goose did fall to the ground. The goose showed signs of a previous arrow injury and had died of fright.
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.
Tān xiǎo shī
Coveting small gains and incurring great losses
Paying attention to the unimportant details not the big picture. Concentration on trivia.
Roughly equivalent to: Penny wise, pound foolish.
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.
Zì yóu zì zài
Unrestricted freedom
To be carefree, peaceful and relaxed.
Gǔ shòu rú chái
Nothing but skin and bones
giant panda, wildlife
An adult Giant Panda eating bamboo
Yú yǒng kě gǔ
Surplus courage for sale
Enthusiastic to carry on after success. Full of energy.
Roughly equivalent to: Full of beans.
Qǔ gāo hè guǎ
Highbrow songs find few singers
A performance or speech that can only be appreciated by some of the audience. Something beyond the understanding of ordinary people.
Roughly equivalent to: An acquired taste.
Duō xíng bù yì bì zì bì
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.
Wáng jǐ dé máo
Losing a halberd but gaining a spear
Losing something but gaining something of similar value. A halberd is rather similar to a spear - having a different blade on the end of a pole. No overall impact - both losses and gains.
Roughly equivalent to: Swings and roundabounts.
针毡 [如坐針氈]
Rú zuò zhēn zhān
Like sitting on a carpet of needles
To feel tense and uneasy.
Tiān nán dì běi
As distant as the heavens
Places or opinions that are very far apart.
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.
况愈 [每況愈下]
Měi kuàng yù xià
Steadily deteriorate
Getting gradually worse each time. Life in a decline.
Roughly equivalent to: A turn for the worse.
Kuà xià zhī rǔ
Forced to crawl under someone's crotch
An act of great humiliation. It was considered unseemly to have to crawl between someone's legs.
Roughly equivalent to: A slap in the face.
Xīn gān qíng yuàn
Delighted and helpful
Delighted to be able to help.
Mǎ daò chéng gōng
Horse win easy victory
Gain immediate victory.
勾销 [一筆勾銷]
bǐ gōu xiāo
To dismiss with one stroke of the pen
Taking tough, decisive action to solve a problem. The story is of a statesman who sacked a whole host of incompetent officials working for him with one stroke of the brush.
Mén tíng ruò shì
Front yard is like a market
The house is thronged with visitors. The place is all astir.
Roughly equivalent to: Hive of industry.
Suzhou, garden, moon gate
Traditional style Suzhou house and garden, Jiangsu
Bàng rén mén
Hanging on another's door
Someone dependent on a household without making much contribution. A hanger-on.
Roughly equivalent to: A sponger.
怀 [懷安喪志]
Huái ān sàng zhì
A contented life saps the will
Living a life of idleness and contentment can lead to idleness and laziness.
Roughly equivalent to: A Lotus eater.
Yǒu shì wú kǒng
Powerful backing dispels fear
Secure in the knowledge that influential people will back you up.
Qí huò kě jū
Scarce goods worth hoarding
Something that people pay good money for in future. A market opportunity.
讳疾忌 [諱疾忌醫]
Huì jí jì yī
Hiding sickness for fear of treatment
Keeping mistakes and shortcomings to yourself. Refuse to listen to advice.
Roughly equivalent to: Sweep it under the carpet.
Tuì bì sān shè
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.
Dé guò qiě guò
Getting by
Muddling through life without great ambitions. Contended to just live from day to day.
Roughly equivalent to: Enough is as good as a feast.
Chéng xià zhī méng
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.
Duō duō guài shì
Something's strange
A matter or incident that is absurd, extraordinary or strange.
gǔ zuò qì
Gathering courage from a single drum beat
A sudden burst of energy. Easily stimulated into action.
Quǎn yá jiāo cuò
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.
Dǎn rú dǒu
A gall bladder as big as a football
Someone who is immensely bold and courageous. In traditional medicine the gall bladder was considered the controller of aggression and courage, so someone with a huge gall bladder was expected to be very courageous.
Roughly equivalent to: As bold as brass.
Chū ěr fǎn ěr
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.
Roughly equivalent to: What you sow, so shall you reap.
Temple of Heaven, Beijing, PKChina-19
Temple of Heaven, Beijing. September 2019. Image by Paul Kerswill
Qián jù hòu gōng
First scornful then respectful
Treating people in a two-faced manner according to people's perceived power and influence. A snobbish person who changes their manner according to who they are dealing with.
Roughly equivalent to: Two faced.
Jiā yù hù xiǎo
Known in every household
A person or fact known to everybody. Something or somebody well known.
Roughly equivalent to: A household name.
xiāng qíng yuàn
A private wish
Acting on a personal wish not shared by others.
Roughly equivalent to: Wishful thinking.
Qǔ ér dài zhī
Taking another person?s place
To act as a substitute or replacement for someone.
Roughly equivalent to: Step into someone's shoes.
Yīng xióng wú yòng wǔ zhī dì
A hero having no opportunity to display his talents
A situation where someone's undoubted talents can not be utilized.
Zhòng pàn qīn lí
Deserted by followers
Finding yourself isolated having lost support.
模棱 [模棱兩可]
Mó léng liǎng kě
To equivocate
Position is unclear or uncertain. Failing to make up your mind.
Roughly equivalent to: Sitting on the fence.
dèng kǒu dāi
Staring eyes and mouth open
Dumb struck.
量体裁 [量體裁衣]
Liáng tǐ cái yī
Choosing clothes to fit
Choose appropriate for circumstances. To live within one's means.
Sàng jiā zhī gǒu
Fleeing from a wild dog
Fleeing in fear and panic due to unexpected visitor or situation.
Gū zhù zhì
Stake all on a single throw
Taking desperate measures to try to save a situation. Gambling everything on a change of fortune.
Roughly equivalent to: Last throw of the dice.
Jiān tīng zé míng piān xìn zé àn
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. Wise Emperors of China read the reports (memorials) from many senior officials before making policy decisions.
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.
Xuanzang, Buddhism, Shanxi, Xian
Statue of Xuanzang at the Great Wild Goose Pagoda, Xi'an, Shaanxi
Hòu gù zhī yōu
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.
niǎo shòu sàn
Scattering like birds and beasts
To flee in all directions. Trying to escape from catastrophe - often used to describe fleeing from danger.
Roughly equivalent to: Run for the hills.
续貂 [狗尾續貂]
Gǒu wěi xù diāo
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.
Cóng shàn rú liú
Following good advice just as water flows
Willing to accept other people's advice just as all water in a stream follows the flow. Readily following good leadership.
Roughly equivalent to: Following the flow.
Zhuó fà nán shǔ
As countless as the hairs on the head
Countless. A very large number.
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