Chinese idioms that help with coping with life

China motif

Our proverbs come with full information. The modern Chinese characters are given first with links that give information on the character. As proverbs are so old you will often see them written using the traditional form of characters; so if some of the characters have been simplified the traditional form is shown in brackets and gray text. The characters are followed by the proverb (normally a chéng yǔ) in pinyin. Next, there is a crude character by character transliteration into English, followed by a more accurate English translation. If this is a Chinese proverb alluding to history the meaning may still not be clear in English, so the general meaning follows. Finally some proverbs have fairly direct English equivalents, if so the English proverb is shown.

For background on the types and history of proverbs please see our guide.

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.

[臭不可噹]
Chòu bù kě dāng
Worst ever smell
To give off an unbearable stink.
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.
[度日如年]
nián
Each day passes as a year
Time seems to pass very slowly.
Roughly equivalent to: Time drags on.
[雞犬不宁]
Jī quǎn bù ning
Even the chicken and dog are disturbed. General commotion
All in turmoil and excitement.
, [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.
, [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.
[馬馬虎虎]
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'.
[鳴鑼開道]
Míng luó kāi dao
Beating the gong to clear the way for dignitaries
To publicize an event.
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.
[騎虎難下]
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.
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.
Shān míng shuǐ xiù
Beautiful mountain scenery
Beautiful landscape.
[少見多怪]
Shaǒ jiàn duō guài
Things look strange to the unfamiliar
Unsettled by a new environment.
Nanchang, Jiangxi
Daybreak view from the Lakeview Hotel window at in Nanchang, Jiangxi. October 2005.
Image by Venus available under a Creative Commons license
[生米煮成熟飯]
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.
[樹欲靜而風不止]
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.
[水深火熱]
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.
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.
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.
[網開一面]
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.
[維妙維肖]
Wéi miaò wéi xiaò
Weave skillfully life like images
Produce an image remarkably true to life; highly skilled.
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.
掩瑜
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.
[香消玉損]
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.
Xīn huā nù fàng
The flower of the heart in full bloom
Full flowering of joy.
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.
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.
rice, Yunnan, terraces
Terraces of rice fields in Yunnan
Yì rú fǎn zhǎng
As easy as turning over your hand
Simple. Very easy.
Yǔ maó wèi fēng
Not yet grown adult plumage. A fledgling bird - young and inexperienced
Still too young and immature.
[左右為難]
Zuǒ yòu wéi nán
Both alternatives are difficult
In a dilemma.
Roughly equivalent to: Be in a pickle.
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 brewery.
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 had developed a new device to attack cities. He was persuaded by the pacifist philosopher Mo Zi not to deploy it. Mo Zi was able to defend against any attack by Gongshu Ban leading to stalemate.
Roughly equivalent to: Fighting to a standstill.
桃源
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.
[捲土重來]
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.
[一顧之榮]
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 horse expert 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
A thorn in one's flesh
Someone or something is causing continuous irritation.
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.
[大義滅親]
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.
[普天同慶]
tiān tóng qìng
Everyone in celebration
The whole nation is rejoicing at some happy event.
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.
Manchu, Shenyang, Liaoning
Shenyang Imperial Palace
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.
[郢書燕說]
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.
[滅此朝食]
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.
[王顧左右而言他]
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.
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.
[開天闢地]
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.
[河東獅吼]
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.
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 suspicious.
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.
[近水樓台先得月]
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.
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.
Bù bù gāo shēng
Step by step promotion
Congratulation on promotion or a new job.
Bīng tiān xuě
Ice in the sky and snow on the ground
Encountering adverse conditions.
Nine Dragon Wall, Beijing, dragon
One of the nine dragons on the Nine Dragon Screen, Forbidden City, Beijing
[馬到成功]
Mǎ daò chéng gōng
Horse win easy victory
Gain immediate victory.

See also