Chinese idioms to discourage procrastination

Proverbs aimed at encouraging people to snap out of idleness and laziness.

Hǎo hǎo xiān shēng [hao hao xian sheng]
good good mister
Yes-man
Someone who agrees with everything said. More likely to be so as to not give any offense rather than ingratiating
Guǒ zú bù qián [guo zu bu qian]
bind foot not ahead
Dithering about
Unable to move forward due to misgivings. To hesitate about getting on and doing something.
All of a dither
[遠水救不了近火]
Yuǎn shuǐ jiǔ bù liaǒ huǒ [yuan shui jiu bu liao huo]
far water rescued not near fire
Distant water will not extinguish the nearby fire
There is no point in waiting for far off help. Get to it and solve the problem now
Make it snappy
悬崖勒 [懸崖勒馬]
Xuán yá lè mǎ [xuan ya le ma]
precipice rein in horse
Rein in the horse at the cliff edge
Realize danger at the last moment
shí hán [yi pu shi han]
one sunning ten cold
One day in the sun and then ten days of freezing
The story is that second sage of Confucianism, Mencius (Menzi) said this of the king of Qi. He considered him a person who only showed enthusiasm for Mencius' ideas for a short time while he was around to encourage him to ruling well. So it has come to describe the many people who have short bursts of enthusiasm - no staying power.
Blowing hot and cold
[華而不實]
Huá ér bù shí [hua er bu shi]
flower but not fruit
Flowering but not bearing fruit
Said of someone is all show and no substance
All that glitters is not gold
,[今日事今日畢]
Jīn shì, jīn [jin ri shi, jin ri bi]
this day task, this day complete
Today's task, today's job to complete
Finish the current job before starting something new
Don't put off until tomorrow what can be done today
shí bù xiào bǎi [wu shi bu xiao yi bai bu]
50 pace smile 100 pace
Fifty steps laugh at a hundred steps
Being complacent about the future. Believing a job is all but done when only half done.
Pride cometh before a fall
[樂不思蜀]
Lè bù sī Shǔ [le bu si Shu]
happy not consider Shu
So happy that the kingdom of Shu is forgotten
Lost in present pleasures so as to forget home and duties. Said of Liu Chan ruler of the Shu kingdom (Sichuan province) who when defeated and in exile heard songs of his old kingdom but did not become melancholy like his other guests. So it refers to someone living in the present and not caring about the past. Lost in the moment
[志不可慢旹不可失]
Zhì bù kě màn shí bù kě shī [zhi bu ke man shi bu ke shi]
aspiration not can slow, time not can lose
Do not let your aspirations weaken; do not waste time
Keep hold of your hopes and dreams, waste no time in achieving them
Don't change horses midstream
[曠日持久]
Kuàng chí jiǔ [kuang ri chi jiu]
waste day protracted
Wasting a great deal of time
Spending a protracted length of time on a task. A waste of time.
A wild goose chase
[走馬看花]
Zǒu mǎ kàn huā [zou ma kan hua]
walk horse look flower
Looking at the flowers while riding a horse
To take a cursory look at something. Smug
补牢 [亡羊補牢]
Wáng yáng bǔ láo [wang yang bu lao]
lose sheep mend pen
Mend the pen after the sheep are lost
Can mean taking action too late or else taking action to protect against a future repeat of misfortune
Mending the stable door after the horse has bolted
[道聽途說]
Dào tīng tú shuō [dao ting tu shuo]
road listen road speak
Paying heed to gossip
Listening to roadside gossip or tittle-tattle.
[安步當車]
Ān bù dàng chē [an bu dang che]
content walk replace vehicle
Choosing to walk rather than take the limousine
Turn down luxury and high office for a simpler life. The story is of a scholar from the Warring States period who was offered great wealth and his own carriage to serve the King of Qi.
旁观 [袖手旁觀]
Xiù shǒu páng guān [xiu shou pang guan]
sleeve hand side observe
To look on with folded arms
To look on without offering any help or showing concern
[逆來順受]
Nì lái shùn shòu [ni lai shun shou]
disobey arrive obey receive
Do not block but welcome arrival
Deal with things as they happen; do not put them off
Cū zhī [cu zhi da ye]
thick branch big leaf
A large branch with large leaves. Unable to draw in fine detail
Lack of attention to detail
, [也要馬兒好也要馬兒不吃草]
Yě yaò mǎ ér haǒ, yě yaò mǎ ér bù chī caǒ [ye yao ma er hao, ye yao ma er bu chi cao]
also want horse good, also want horse not eat grass
Want the horse to prosper, but not want the horse to eat grass
To prosper you must make compromises, you can not have it all your own way
You can't have your cake and eat it
Anhui, Huangshan, mountains
Stone Monkey' gazing over view from Huangshan (Yellow) Mountains in Anhui Province
逐末 [捨本逐末]
Shě běn zhú mò [she ben zhu mo]
abandon foundation pursue end
Pursuing trivia while neglecting essentials
Concentrating on the little details rather than the important stuff
Putting the cart before the horse
西宿 [東食西宿]
Dōng shí xī sù [dong shi xi su]
east food west night
Eating in the east and sleeping in the west
Taking fully advantage of kindly offers - accepting hospitality in a selfish way. The story is of a girl who was asked to choose whether to live with a family in the east or west side of a village. She chose to eat with the rich family of one suitor on the east side but also sleep with the poor but good looking suitor on the west side.
Butter one's bread on both sides
bù dēng tiān [yi bu deng tian]
one stride reach heaven
Approach heaven with a single stride
An attempt to achieve a goal all in one go without hard work
Rome was not built in a day
[以鄭爲壑]
Yǐ zhèng wèi hè [yi zheng wei he]
use Zheng as gully
Building a drain onto neighbor?s land
Diverting flood water onto neighbor's land - moving a problem onto others rather than try to solve it. Acting selfishly.
Look out for number one
Shí yán ér féi [shi yan er fei]
eat words and so fat
Getting fat by eating one?s words
Someone is forever retracting what was previously said. Someone with poor judgment and a big mouth. The story is of a minister Meng Wubo of the kingdom of Lu who often pontificated only to contradict himself. A snide commentator suggested that Meng was growing fat because he ate so many of his own words.
Shoot your mouth off
China motif
Our proverbs come with full information. The modern Chinese characters are given first with links that give information on the character. If the phrase uses traditional characters these are shown in brackets and gray text. As proverbs are so old you will often see them written in the old form. 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 included at the end.

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.

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