Chinese idioms concerning skill and ability

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.

As well as careful planning, it is necessary to have the right skills and abilities to do the job. There is no point in carrying out a task without the aptitude to do it well.

, [八仙過海各顯神通]
xiān guò hǎi, gè xiǎn shén tōng
The Eight Immortals crossing the sea all have there own particular skills
Everyone has their own special skills to contribute.
Bái shǒu qǐ jiā
Empty hand make house
To build up something from nothing.
[半斤八兩]
Bàn jīn liǎng
Two equivalent measures
Nothing to choose between two alternatives.
Roughly equivalent to: Six of one, and half a dozen of the other.
[藏龍臥虎]
Cáng lóng wò hǔ
Hidden dragon, crouching tiger
There are often people around with great power and skill.
腾达 [飛黃騰達]
Fēi huáng téng dá
To fly in the sky like the legendary horse Fei Huang (flying yellow)
A meteoric rise to success and honour.
赴汤蹈 [赴湯蹈火]
Fù tāng dǎo huǒ
Wade through scolding water and burning flame
Showing great courage and valour.
Gāo bù chéng dī bù jiù
Although not qualified for high office will not accept a lower position
Exaggerating one's skills.
邯郸 [邯鄲學步]
Hán dān xué bù
Trying too hard to impress
Learning how the residents of Handan walk . The story is of a man back in the Warring States period who took on the gait of grand city folk trying to impress but could no longer walk properly. Pompous and pretentious.
Roughly equivalent to: Make an ass of yourself.
[鶴立雞群]
Hè lì jī qún
A crane standing amidst a flock of chickens
Being conspicuously different (often superior)
Roughly equivalent to: Standing head and shoulders above the opposition.
[虎頭蛇尾]
Hǔ tóu shé wěi
Tiger's head; snake's tail
Begins promisingly but ends badly.
Jiǔ niú èr hǔ zhī lì
The strength of nine bulls and two tigers
Tremendously strong.
滥竽充数 [濫竽充數]
Làn yú chōng shù
Passing oneself off as a proficient Yu pipe player
Pretending to be well qualified for a job. The story is that the king of Qi loved to hear an ensemble of yu players. A lazy sponger Nanguo wanted the plum job as a yu player. He faked playing the yu in the large ensemble. It came to an end with the next king of Qi who preferred soloists rather than an ensemble and so, expecting exposure, quickly fled away.
Roughly equivalent to: Pulling a fast one.
[力不從心]
Lì bù cóng xīn
Strong ambition but no motivation
Lacking in motivation to achieve aims.
Roughly equivalent to: If a job is worth doing it is worth doing well.
Tiananmen Square, Beijing
Image by McKay Savage from London, UK available under a Creative Commons license January 2005
[龍爭虎斗]
Lóng zhēng hǔ dòu
Bitter fight between a dragon and tiger. An evenly matched big fight
Struggle between two equal leaders.
驴唇[馿唇不對馬嘴]
Lǖ chún bù duì mǎ zuǐ
Donkey's lips do not fit a horse's mouth
Something that is out of place and inappropriate.
, [宁做雞頭不噹鳳尾]
Nìng zuò jītóu, bù dāng fèng wěi
Rather be a chicken's head than a phoenix's tail
Better to be leader of a humble organization than the stooge of a grand one.
Roughly equivalent to: A big fish in a small pond.
[青出于藍而勝于藍]
Qīng chū yú lán ér shèng yú lán
Indigo is obtained from the indigo plant, but such color is bluer than the plant itself
Wise schooling has produced excellence beyond the teacher. The follower has surpassed the master.
Shì bèi gōng bàn
Work very hard for half the result
Work with care rather than speed.
Roughly equivalent to: Less haste more speed.
急,授 [授人以魚只解一旹之急授人以漁則解一生之需]
Shòu rén zhǐ jiù shí zhī jí, shòu rén yǐ yú zé jiě yī shēng zhī xū
Give a fish and be fed for only a day. Teach how to fish and be free from hunger forever
It is important to learn a skill that will last for life.
[听其言觀其行]
Tīng qí yán guān qí xíng
Listen to what a person says and then watch what is done
Judge people by their actions, not by their words.
Roughly equivalent to: Actions speak louder than words.
脱颖 [脫穎而出]
Tuō yǐng ér chū
A sharp stick protrudes
A talented person can't help but be noticed.
Yǎn gāo shǒu dī
Eyes look up but the hands go down
To have high ambitions but possess limited skills.
识泰 [有眼不識泰山]
Yǒu yǎn bù shí tài shān
To fail to see the great Taishan mountain
To be too arrogant or ignorant to acknowledge true talent.
[欲速則不達]
Yù sù zé bù dá
A desire for speed but unable to reach destination
More interest in working fast than working effectively. Too much interest in the short term rather than the overall strategy.
Roughly equivalent to: More haste less speed.
鹏程
Péng chéng wàn
Peng Niao flies ten thousand miles
Emergence of great talent. The Peng Niao is a mythical bird of huge size and power that could fly huge distance with little effort. Said of someone of immense potential.
[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.
xian, shaanxi, bell tower, night
Bell Tower at center of Xi'an, Shaanxi. Copyright Richard Wingfield, October 2017.
[華而不實]
Huá ér bù shí
Flowering but not bearing fruit
Said of someone is all show and no substance.
Roughly equivalent to: All that glitters is not gold.
yì gū xíng
Obstinately clinging to one's course
Acting dogmatically in pursuit of own objectives without regard to others. Dogged determination. Sometimes this approach is honorable and sometimes leads to ruin but it is the single-mindedness that is being admired.
Roughly equivalent to: Steely-eyed.
Lǎo bàng shēng zhū
An old oyster yields pearls
Remaining fit and healthy into old age, specifically can mean fathering children in advanced years.
Roughly equivalent to: There's many a good tune played on an old fiddle.
zì qiān jīn
One word is worth a thousand gold coins
A literary work of great quality and perfection that can not be improved and more generally applied to very helpful words of advice. The story is of a great writer who offered a reward to anyone who could suggest adding or removing a single character from a work he was very pleased with - the reward went unclaimed.
Roughly equivalent to: Worth its weight in gold.
牝牡骊 [牝牡驪黃]
Pìn mǔ lí huáng
Choose a black mare instead of a yellow stallion
Don't judge by outward appearance. The horse's ability is more important than the external appearance. The story is that a Duke of Qin wanted a good horse. He was told a yellow stallion had been selected. On seeing it was in fact a black mare the duke was annoyed but the horse expert stood his ground saying it was the character and ability that was the important thing.
Roughly equivalent to: Don't judge a book by its cover.
[雞鳴狗盜]
Jī míng gǒu dào
Able to crow like a cockerel and steal like a dog
A person with a range of useful tricks. The story is of someone back in the Warring States period who helped a prince out of difficulty by imitating a dog to distract prison guards and to crow like a cockerel to trick them into thinking it was already morning.
Roughly equivalent to: Every trick in the book.
[伯樂識馬]
Bó Lè shí mǎ
Bo Le, the horse expert
A person of good judgment. Someone who can quickly appreciate skill. The idiom refers to Bo Le from the Warring States period who was an acclaimed judge of horses. It is said that he came upon an old horse trudging along. Only Bo Le could see that this was once a great horse of strength and stamina.
暗渡陈仓 [暗渡陳倉]
Àn dù chén cāng
Secretly cross at the Chencang Road
A feigned maneuver designed to outwit. After the fall of the Qin dynasty Liu Bei sent out troops to repair a plank road presumably to mount an attack, but he actually moved his troops across the Wei River at Chencang and so surprised his enemy.
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.
[再作馮婦]
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.
[爭先恐後]
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.
[走官發財]
Zǒu guān fā cái
Become a government official in order to become rich
Attain riches by work in government.
弄斧 [班門弄斧]
Bān mén nòng fǔ
Demonstrating the axe at Ban's door
Lu Ban (c. 500BCE) was a master engineer inventor and carpenter. So trying to show off your skills with an axe (or adze in those days) at Lu Ban's door is behaving rather pretentiously. So the phrase means to stupidly show off your feeble skills in front of a real expert.
Roughly equivalent to: Teaching your grandmother to suck eggs.
Hubei, Yangzi River, river
Overlooking Fancheng District from Xiangcheng District on the other side of the Han River, which is a tributary of the Yangtze River. October 2011.
Image by Zihanzor available under a Creative Commons license
[別別具一格]
Bié jù yī
Possessing a unique style
Doing things your own way.
黔驴 [黔馿技窮]
Qián lǖ jì qiong
The Guizhou donkey has no more tricks
Even a clever donkey can not solve the problem. The story is that Guizhou province had no donkeys. A man brought a donkey there and having no further use for it set it free. The tiger then spotted the donkey and was scared of the new monster, but seeing it do very little but kick it killed and ate it. So it means being in desperate circumstances with no real options left.
Roughly equivalent to: Be at one's wit's end.
, [人無完人金無足赤]
Rén wú wán rén, jīn wú zú chì
It is as impossible to find a perfect person as it is to discover pure gold
Having to settle for something less than perfection.
[空洞無物]
Kōng dòng wú wù
Vacuous
Empty and devoid of worthwhile content. Usually applied to poor writing that is devoid of meaning.
Roughly equivalent to: Empty words.
Zì zhī zhī míng
Knowing oneself
Knowing your own strengths and weaknesses is an essential first step in life. being able to judge yourself objectively as others see you is a path to harmony and true friendship.
Roughly equivalent to: Know thyself.
Qī yǐ qí lì
Knowing the approptiate way to cheat
To skilfully deceive. Invent a lie that fools the audience. Playing a clever trick.
Roughly equivalent to: Having an ace up the sleeve.
Rù mù sān fēn
Inscribe wood to a depth of three measures
To write with such confidence that the wood is etched away to a good depth. So this means to write with a profound and forceful hand. The story is of the great calligrapher who produced some calligraphy so confidently written that the characters were etched by 3/10th of an inch.
[百發百中]
One hundred arrows, one hundred bullseyes
A superb marksman; showing great skill. Yang Youji and Houyi were archers of great renown.
Roughly equivalent to: A dab hand.
识途 [老馬識途]
Lǎo mǎ shí tú
An old horse knows the way
Knowledge born from long experience. The story is of a Duke of Qi of the Spring and Autumn period who became lost on the way home from a campaign because winter had set in. The Duke proposed that the old horses should be allowed to lead their way home which they did successfully.
Roughly equivalent to: Been around the block a few times.
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.
[天下無雙]
Tiān xià wú shuāng
Unequalled under heaven
Something or someone with superlative skills.
Hǎo rén hǎo shì
Good personality good deeds
Pleasant person who behaves well.
Roughly equivalent to: A good man is hard to find.
Míng chá qiū háo
Able to see an animal's autumn fur
A perceptive and sharp-sighted person who is able to grasp all the detail. In autumn some animals grow new, fine fur to keep themselves warm in winter.
Roughly equivalent to: On the ball.
Nine Dragon Wall, dragon, Beijing
Nine Dragon Wall in the Forbidden City in Beijing. 2012. All made from ceramic glazed tiles. Photo by Seebeer , available under a Creative Commons license .

See also