Chinese idioms about co-operation

Working together in harmony and co-operation will get everything done quicker and better … except sometimes getting along with everybody can be a strain.

送炭
Xuě lǐ sòng tàn [xue li song tan]
snow neighbourhood deliver charcoal
Send charcoal in a snow storm
To offer assistance when it is needed
A friend in need is a friend indeed
[風雨同舟]
Fēng tóng zhōu [feng yu tong zhou]
wind rain same boat
In the same boat in a storm
Facing troubles together
A trouble shared is a trouble halved
猢狲 [樹倒猢猻散]
Shù daǒ hú sūn sàn [shu dao hu sun san]
tree fall monkey troupe break up
When the tree falls, the monkeys scatter
When a leader loses power, his followers are disorganized and also lose power. Often said to warn someone that they hold their position only so long as their patron is in power
[孤掌難鳴]
Gū zhǎng nán míng [gu zhang nan ming]
solitary palm difficult sound
You can not clap with just one hand
It is difficult to achieve anything on your own
It takes two to Tango
[眾人拾柴火焰高]
Zhòng rén shí chái huǒyàn gāo [zhong ren shi chai huoyan gao]
many people pick up firewood fire flames high
Only when all contribute their firewood can they build up a big fire
People need to pull together to achieve something significant
Many hands make light work
[八字沒一撇]
zì méi piě [ba zi mei yi pie]
eight character not one neglect
The character for eight takes two strokes to write not just one
You can't do everything on your own
It takes two to Tango
[龍爭虎斗]
Lóng zhēng hǔ dòu [long zheng hu dou]
dragon war tiger battle
Bitter fight between a dragon and tiger. An evenly matched big fight
Struggle between two equal leaders
蜂酿[一只蜂釀不成蜜一顆米熬不成粥]
zhī fēng niáng bù chéng mì kē mǐ áo bù chéng zhōu [yi zhi feng niang bu cheng mi yi ke mi ao bu cheng zhou]
only one bee not produce honey, one grain rice cook not complete meal
One bee cannot produce honey; one grain of rice cannot produce a meal
It needs joint effort to achieve anything worthwhile
Many hands make light work
,, [一個和尚挑水喝兩個和尚抬水喝三個和尚沒水喝]
gè hé shang tiāo shuǐ hē, liǎng gè hé shang tái shuǐ hē, sān ge hé shang méi shuǐ hē [yi ge he shang tiao shui he, liang ge he shang tai shui he, san ge he shang mei shui he]
one yet lift water, two yet carry water, three yet not carry water
One monk shoulders water by himself; two can still share the labor between them. When it comes to three, they all go thirsty.
Sometimes work is best done alone, a group may procrastinate without achieving anything
Too many cooks spoil the broth
[藏龍臥虎]
Cáng lóng wò hǔ [cang long wo hu]
hide dragon lie tiger
Hidden dragon, crouching tiger
There are often people around with great power and skill
Sān rén chéng hǔ [san ren cheng hu]
three person accomplish tiger
It only takes three people to confirm a sighting of a tiger.
A rumour can build up to a mighty story when only a handful confirm it. Basing a story on rumor and gossip rather than hard facts.
shān bù róng èr [yi shan bu rong er hu]
one mountain not hold two tigers
Two tigers cannot share one mountain
Two equally talented or able employees do not work well together
, [獨木不成林單弦不成音]
Dú mù bù chéng lín, dān xián bù chéng yīn [du mu bu cheng lin, dan xian bu cheng yin]
only tree no accomplish forest , single string no accomplish sound
A single tree does not make a forest; a single string can not make music
Many things require people to work together to achieve an end
All pull together
Qufu, temple, Confucius, Shandong
Lingxing Gate of Qufu Confucian Temple, Qufu, Shandong. January 2009.
Image by Sean Shih available under a Creative Commons license
, [八仙過海各顯神通]
xiān guò hǎi, gè xiǎn shén tōng [ba xian guo hai, ge xian shen tong]
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
覆巢完卵 [覆巢無完卵]
Fù cháo wú wán luǎn [fu chao wu wan luan]
overturn nest no entire egg
When the nest is overturned, no egg is left unbroken
In a disaster everyone will feel the consequences. Failure will affect everyone involved
[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
[獨木難支]
Dú mù nán zhī [du mu nan zhi]
only timber difficult prop up
A single stick will not prop up a whole building
It often requires more than one person to resolve problems
Two heads are better than one
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.
匠,凑诸葛亮 [三個臭皮匠湊個諸葛亮]
Sān gè chòu pí jiàng, còu gè Zhūgě Liàng [san ge chou pi jiang, cou ge Zhuge Liang]
three smelly shoemakers, gather together Zhuge Liang
Three humble shoemakers brainstorming make a great statesman like Zhuge Liang
Joint effort can help solve big problems
Two heads are better than one
, [水能載舟亦能覆舟]
Shuǐ néng zài zhōu, yì néng fù zhōu [shui neng zai zhou, yi neng fu zhou]
water can carry boat, also can sink boat
Not only does water float a boat, it can sink it too
Events and people can have both positive and negative influences
[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
[殺一儆百]
Shā jǐng bǎi [sha yi jing bai]
kill one warn hundred
Kill one to warn a hundred
To warn many people by punishing a few. Making example punishments
Shàng xià qí shǒu [shang xia qi shou]
raise lower their hand
To raise and lower the hand
A conspiracy is at work. A deft gesture signaling important information. The story is that back in the Spring and Autumn period two soldiers both claimed to have captured a prince and demanded their reward. When Bo Zhouli arbitrated he used a hand gesture to signal who he wished to receive the money.
补短 [取長補短]
Qǔ cháng bǔ duǎn [qu chang bu duan]
take long mend short
Learn from other's good points to offset your own shortcomings
Take notice of other people's admirable qualities
qiū zhī hé [yi qiu zhi he]
single mound's raccoon
Raccoons of the same mound
People of the same bad character. Referring to people of similar ill repute who tend to behave the same way.
Birds of a feather flock together
[殺雞給猴看]
Shā jī gěi hóu kàn [sha ji gei hou kan]
kill chicken give monkey look
Kill a chicken before a monkey. The monkey can then take the message as a warning
To punish somebody as a lesson and warning to others
Guangzhou, Guangdong
Guangzhou Tower 2009
Image by User:慕尼 available under a Creative Commons license
[一衣帶水]
yī dài shuǐ [yi yi dai shui]
one belt water
Separated by a narrow ditch
Close neighbors. Located physically (or emotionally) close together with very little to separate.
Cheek by jowl
麻雀,脏俱 [麻雀雖小五臟俱全]
Má què suī xiǎo, zàng jù quán [ma que sui xiao, wu zang ju quan]
rough sparrow although small, five innards all complete
Small as it is, the sparrow has all the vital organs
A person is a person regardless of size. Complete in every detail
破镜[破鏡重圓]
Pò jìng chóng yuán [po jing chong yuan]
broken mirror again round
A broken mirror remade
A reunion after a couple are separated or patching up after a quarrel. There are several legends in China about a couple who on separation each took one half of a mirror (which used to be of bronze) and when they eventually they are reunited they found each other by matching up the two pieces of mirror.
[約法三章]
Yuē fǎ sān zhāng [yue fa san zhang]
treaty law three clauses
Setting out the three articles of law
Imposing simple and clear laws. At the end of the bitter Civil War that brought the Qin dynasty to an end in 206BCE, the leader Liu Bang chose to dispose of all the laws of the Qin, replacing them with three simple laws: do not kill; do not harm and do not steal. Liu Bang went on to found the Han dynasty that ruled for 400 years.
嫁祸 [嫁旤于人]
Jià huò yú rén [jia huo yu ren]
marry disaster foremost person
A person in misfortune blames someone else
Spread blame onto others
Duō duō yì shàn [duo duo yi shan]
many many benefit improve
The more, the better
Safety in numbers. Wanting to invite as many people as possible to improve chances of success
Many hands make light work
[各自為政]
Gè zì wéi zhèng [ge zi wei zheng]
each person act as government
Each following his own policy
Acting selfishly. Following own plans and ideas with no regard for others.
Jiě yī tuī shí [jie yi tui shi]
remove clothes cut food
Sharing garments and food
Sharing clothes and food with someone in need. To treat with great kindness and consideration.
休戚 [休戚相關]
Xiū qī xiāng guān [xiu qi xiang guan]
cease sorrow mutually involve
Share both joys and sorrows
People with close ties and shared interests, Mutual dependency.
Common ground
糟糠
Zāo kāng zhī qī [zao kang zhi qi]
Chaff wife
A wife of chaff-eating days
A loyal wife. Chaff is only eaten when no other food is available and so it means someone who is prepared to share in depredations - sharing the bad times as well as the good.
Through thick and thin
[其貌不揚]
Qí mào bù yáng [qi mao bu yang]
its appearance not raised
Undistinguished in appearance
Unappealing appearance.
Plain Jane
[從善如流]
Cóng shàn rú liú [cong shan ru liu]
follow well-disposed as flow
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.
Following the flow
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 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.