Chinese idioms concerning skill and ability
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.
high no accomplish low no come near
Although not qualified for high office will not accept a lower position
Exaggerating one's skills
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
clear hand make house
Empty hand make house
To build up something from nothing
flower but not fruit
Flowering but not bearing fruit
Said of someone is all show and no substance
All that glitters is not gold
indigo blue comes out foremost blue but excel foremost blue
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.
tiger head snake tail
Tiger's head; snake's tail
Begins promisingly but ends badly
half catty eight taels
Two equivalent measures
Nothing to choose between two alternatives
Six of one, and half a dozen of the other
female male black horse yellow
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.
Don't judge a book by its cover
donkey lips no match horse mouth
Donkey's lips do not fit a horse's mouth
Something that is out of place and inappropriate
Ban door use hatchet
Demonstrating the axe at Ban's door
Lu Ban (c. 500BCE) was a master engineer inventor and carpenter. So trying to show off you skills with an axe (or adze in those days) at his door was being rather pretentious. So the phrase means to show off your feeble skills in front of a real expert.
Teaching your grandmother to suck eggs
eye high hand low
Eyes look up but the hands go down
To have high ambitions but possess limited skills
chicken cry dog steal
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
Every trick in the book
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
serene make chicken head, no equal phoenix tail
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
A big fish in a small pond
crane stand chicken crowd
A crane standing amidst a flock of chickens
Being conspicuously different (often superior)
Standing head and shoulders above the opposition.
nine ox two tiger 's strength
The strength of nine bulls and two tigers
have eye not know great mountain
To fail to see the great Taishan mountain
To be too arrogant or ignorant to acknowledge true talent
work multiple times merit half
Work very hard for half the result
Work with care rather than speed
Less haste more speed
secret pass through Chencang
Secretly cross at the Chencang Road
A feigned maneuver designed to outwit. After the fall of the Qin dynasty Liu Bei sent out troops to repair a plank road presumably to mount an attack, but he actually moved his troops across the Wei River at Chencang and so surprised his enemy.
hide dragon lie tiger
Hidden dragon, crouching tiger
There are often people around with great power and skill
listen his speech observe his travel
Listen to what a person says and then watch what is done
Judge people by their actions, not by their words
Actions speak louder than words
授人以鱼只解一时之急,授人以渔 则解一生之需 [授人以魚只解一旹之急授人以漁則解一生之需]
award person use fish one explain once quick, award person use fishing standard separate one produce must
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
Peng journey ten thousand li
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.
one idea lonely walk
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.
desire fast level not extend
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
More haste less speed
old oyster grow pearl
An old oyster yields pearls
Remaining fit and healthy into old age, specifically can mean fathering children in advanced years.
There's many a good tune played on an old fiddle
fly yellow gallop extend
To fly in the sky like the legendary horse Fei Huang (flying yellow)
A meteoric rise to success and honour
one word thousand gold
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.
Worth its weight in gold
excessive yu pipe supply fate
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.
Pulling a fast one
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.
from government get rich
Become a government official to get rich
Attain riches by working a government career
Handan study gait
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.
Make an ass of yourself
wade hot water tread fire
Wade through scolding water and burning flame
Showing great courage and valour
Bo Le know horse
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.
dragon war tiger battle
Bitter fight between a dragon and tiger. An evenly matched big fight
Struggle between two equal leaders
strength not from feeling
Strong ambition but no motivation
Lacking in motivation to achieve aims
If a job is worth doing it is worth doing well
take off sharp point and yet emerge
A sharp stick protrudes
A talented person can't help but be noticed
strive for first afraid behind
Striving to be first and fearing to be last
Striving for position. Over competitive.
Devil take the hindmost
eight immortal past sea each show god knowledge
The Eight Immortals crossing the sea all have there own particular skills
Everyone has their own special skills to contribute
cheat according to its ability
Knowing the approptiate way to cheat
To skilfully deceive. Invent a lie that fools the audience. Playing a clever trick.
Having an ace up the sleeve
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.
black donkey skill poor
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
Be at one's wit's end
heaven clothes not seam
Heavenly robe without seams
A perfect result, clothes so well made that the seams cannot be seen. Used to describe an excellent piece of work - especially an essay or speech.
Ticks all the boxes
heaven below no pair
Unequalled under heaven
Something or someone with superlative skills.
person nothing whole person, gold nothing pure gold
It is as impossible to find a perfect person as it is to discover pure gold
Having to settle for something less than perfection
hundred arrows hundred middles
One hundred arrows, one hundred bullseyes
A superb marksman; showing great skill. Yang Youji and Houyi were archers of great renown.
A dab hand
play thing lose ambition
Obsessional play ruins the will
Spending too much time on trivia. Excessive attention to detail. Losing the big picture.
Little things please little minds
enter wood three parts
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.
classify tool one pattern
Possessing a unique style
Doing things your own way
self know self understand
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.
old horse know way
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.
Been around the block a few times
cavity has no thing
Empty and devoid of worthwhile content. Usually applied to poor writing that is devoid of meaning.
draw tiger like dog
A drawing of a tiger that looks like a dog
Foolishly undertaking something over-ambitious and coming a cropper. Taking on something beyond your ability. Puffed up with self-conceit.
The pride of the peacock
fortune plan curtain tent
Formulate plans in a tent
Careful planning for the future - not just a victim of events. An analogy to commanders devising their plans in a tent on the eve of battle.
Man with a plan
千军易得, 一将难求 [千軍易得一將難求]
thousand troops easy get , one general difficult beg
It is easy to find a thousand soldiers, but hard to find a good general
It is hard to find an outstanding leader
words excessively that's true
To embellish the facts
Overstate the facts or exaggerate skills. Someone who is a bit of a windbag.
invert bind child
Wrap up a baby upside down
Accidentally wrapping a new-born baby the wrong way round. Said of someone who though skilled can sometimes make mistakes. An occasional error out of character.
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.
many mouth difficult mix
Difficult to make a meal to suit everyone
You can't please everyone all the time. Everyone has different tastes
One man's meat is another man's poison
God work ghost hatchet
God's work and spirit's axe
So skilled that workmanship presumed to be the work of a god not a human. Fantastic, superb artistry.
big ability tiny use
Big ability barely used
Wasting talent on trivial things. Using someone talented for a menial task
All dressed up and nowhere to go
slaughter dragon skill
Skilled in killing dragons
Possessing a useless skill. Pointless training to achieve something of no value. Wasting time and effort.
good person; good deeds
Good personality good deeds
Pleasant person who behaves well
A good man is hard to find
according to picture search thoroughbred horse
Choosing a fine horse using only a picture
Following a rigid framework to carry out a task. Using standard rules to achieve something or discover something. Knowing and following the basic principles.
one thread not careless
To take care of every thread in a cloth
To be meticulous. To pay atttention to every detail
If a job is worth doing it is worth doing well
catalogue not whole ox
See an ox as a set of joints of meat
A skilled butcher who can see an ox as a collection of joints rather than a whole animal. A person of great practical skill
mind have finished bamboo
Keeping the appearance of bamboo in mind
To be able to paint bamboo (or anything else), you have to have a mental image of how it looks. An admonishment to plan ahead carefully and acquire the skill to carry it out.
Forewarned is forearmed
two writing brush simultaneous down
Painting with two brushes at the same time
To be able to do two things at once. The story is of a painter who was so skilled he could paint two pictures at the same time with a brush in either hand.
A dab hand
Gan Jiang and Mo Ye
Two famous swords
These are the names of two supreme bronze swords of long ago. Gan Jiang was unable to melt the bronze until he added some hair and nail clippings from his wife Mo Ye. Only then could the swords be made and they were the sharpest swords ever made. Used to honor someone or something as superlative.
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.
no sleep skill itch
Itching to show off a skill
Eagerness to impress people with a skill.
not self capacity strength
Overrating your own strength
Overreaching yourself, not taking account of true capabilities. Exaggerate level of skill.
By no stretch of the imagination
behind arrive reside above
A later-comer surpasses everyone
A new arrival outperforms everyone present. A youngster outstrips the older generation
Put everyone in the shade
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.
clear observe autumn hair
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.
On the ball
other song same skill
Different tunes played with the same skill
Different methods giving the same result. Different but equally satisfactory.
Our proverbs come with full information. The modern Chinese characters are given first with links that give information on the character. As proverbs are so old you will often see them written using the traditional form of characters; so if of the characters have been simplified the phrase is shown in brackets and gray text. . The characters are followed by the proverb (Chengyu) in pinyin. Next, there is a crude character by character transliteration into English, followed by a more accurate English translation. If this is a Chinese proverb alluding to history the meaning may still not be clear in English, so the general meaning follows. Finally some proverbs have fairly direct English equivalents, if so the English proverb is shown.
Our translations are in need of improvement, so please let us know your ideas. For background on the types and history of proverbs please see our guide.