Chinese idioms about carfully laid plans

Proverbs about the wisdom of making plans to give your ambitions the best chance of success.

Gāo wū jiàn líng [gao wu jian ling]
high house make water tank
Pouring water from the roof of a tall building
Being in a good position to repel attackers. Holding a commanding position
[頭頭是道]
Tóu tóu shì daò [tou tou shi dao]
head head correct way
Thinking carefully about the way to proceed
Logically and rigorously argued
There's many a slip 'twixt cup and lip
[左右為難]
Zuǒ yòu wéi nán [zuo you wei nan]
left right pride difficult
Both alternatives are difficult
In a dilemma
Be in a pickle
, [有志者事竟成]
Yǒu zhì zhe, shì jìng chéng [you zhi zhe, shi jing cheng]
have aspiration, matter accomplished
If a person has ambition, anything can be accomplished
It requires ambition to succeed in life. The story comes from the Han dynasty when Emperor Guangwu praised Geng Yan for steadfastly completed his task of mopping up opponents in Shandong
Where there is a will, there is a way
[談何容易]
Tán hé róng yì [tan he rong yi]
chat what look easy
Talking makes look easy
Not as easy as it seemed
Easier said than done
使舵 [看風使舵]
Kàn fēng shǐ duò [kan feng shi duo]
look wind steer rudder
Steer the boat wherever the winds lead
Not sticking to the big plan. A fickle mind
[先發制人]
Xiān fā zhì rén [xian fa zhi ren]
early show control people
Strike first to gain the upper hand
The first side to attack/move often has the advantage. An admonishment to act now and not dither about.
The early bird catches the worm
因势[因勢利導]
Yīn shì lì dǎo [yin shi li dao]
cause influence favorable guide
Helping things along
To encourage something along to its natural fulfillment.
[單槍匹馬]
Dān qiāng pǐ mǎ [dan qiang pi ma]
single spear horse
A single spear and a single horse
Taking on a difficult task on your own
奸巨猾
Laǒ jiān jù huá [lao jian ju hua]
old crafty great cunning
To be very crafty and cunning
To be tricky, cunning, crafty. Well versed in the ways of the world
All's fair in love and war
[未雨綢繆]
Wèi chóu móu [wei yu chou mou]
not yet rain silk repair
Before the rains repair the cloth
Plan ahead, be prepared
An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure
[雨過天晴]
guò tiān qíng [yu guo tian qing]
rain past heaven bright
The rain has gone, the sky brightens
Things are improving. Hope for the future
鼎烹 [牛鼎烹雞]
Niú dǐng pēng jī [niu ding peng ji]
ox cauldron boil chicken
Cooking a chicken in a pot designed for an ox
An in appropriate tool or scale of preparation for a job. Also refers to when a person of great skill is given a menial job
Xīng xīng zhī huǒ kě yǐ liáo yuán [xing xing zhi huo ke yi liao yuan]
spark's fire can burn plain
A spark can burn a whole grassland
Need for great care and meticulous planning
望梅
Wàng méi zhǐ kě [wang mei zhi ke]
gaze plum stop thirst
Gaze at a plum to quench thirst
Offering hope by thinking of something currently out of reach
[帋上談兵]
Zhǐ shàng tán bīng [zhi shang tan bing]
paper on chat weapon
Fighting war on paper
An armchair general. Making plans without knowledge of the actualité
A little knowledge is a dangerous thing
[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
[厲兵秣馬]
Lì bīng mò mǎ [li bing mo ma]
sharpen weapons feed horse
Sharpening the weapons and feeding the horses
Making preparations for imminent battle. Committed to meet an enemy head-on
Locked and loaded
螳螂捕蝉 [螳螂捕蟬]
Táng láng bǔ chán [tang lang bu chan]
praying mantis catch cicada
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.
printing, calligraphy
Printing using movable wooden block Chinese characters
[南柯一夢]
Nán kē mèng [nan ke yi meng]
Nan Ke one dream
A dream of Nanke
An absurdly ambitious plan divorced from reality. A dream of grandeur and splendor.
A pipe dream
Yáng maó chū zài yáng shēn shàng [yang mao chu zai yang shen shang]
wool come out at sheep body on
Wool comes from a sheep
Unrealistic expectations. You get what you pay for
[圖窮匕見]
Tú qióng bǐ xiàn [tu qiong bi xian]
map exhausted dagger appear
When the map is unrolled the dagger is revealed
A secret plan is revealed, a conspiracy unmasked. The story is of an assassination attempt on the King of Qin back in the Warring States Period. Pretending to cede territory Prince Dan concealed a dagger in a scrolled up map.
The secret is out
Ròu bāo zǐ dǎ gǒu [rou bao zi da gou]
meat wrap child hit dog
Hitting a dog with a meat bun
To use a self defeating method to solve a problem
蹈覆辙 [重蹈覆轍]
Chóng dǎo fù zhé [chong dao fu zhe]
repeat tread overturn rut
Following the track of an overturned cart
To repeat a disastrous strategy. Not learning from previous mistakes - slavishly following previous practice. The story is of a virtuous official who risked Han emperor Huan's displeasure by pointing out that he was repeating the mistakes of the second Qin emperor.
Once bitten, twice shy
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
[不善始者不善終]
Bú shàn shǐ zhě bù shàn zhōng [bu shan shi zhe bu shan zhong]
not good beginning not good end
A bad beginning leads to a bad ending
Need to plan everything from the beginning
Don't put the cart before the horse
[滅此朝食]
Miè cǐ zhāo shí [mie ci zhao shi]
wipe out this morning eat
Wipe out the enemy before breakfast
Grasp current opportunity; anxious to do battle. Tackle the important problem first.
First catch your hare
Shǔ cùn guāng [shu mu cun guang]
mouse eye inch bright
A mouse's vision is only one inch long
Looking ahead for only a short time. Only planning for the immediate future
[見義勇為]
Jiàn yì yǒng wéi [jian yi yong wei]
see justice brave act
See the just cause and act on it
To see what is right and act with courage
临渴掘井 [臨渴掘井]
Lín kě jué jǐng [lin ke jue jing]
approach thirsty dig well
Digging a well only when starting to feel thirsty
Begin taking action when it is far too late.
Failing to plan is planning to fail
因噎废 [因噎廢食]
Yīn yè fèi shí [yin ye fei shi]
because choke abandon eat
If is foolish to refuse to eat just because of the chance of choking
Life does not come without risks. Risk of failure is not an argument for not trying
[鳴鑼開道]
Míng luó kāi dao [ming luo kai dao]
beat gong start road
Beating the gong to clear the way for dignitaries
To publicize an event
[蝦兵蟹將]
Xiā bīng xiè jiàng [xia bing xie jiang]
shrimp soldier crab general
Shrimp soldiers led by a crab general. An ineffective army
A laughably ineffective solution to a problem
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.
[先下手為強]
Xiān xià shǒu wéi qiáng [xian xia shou wei qiang]
first set about act strong
Striking first to demonstrate strength
To gain the upper hand by striking first
Strike while the iron is hot
Lì yù xūn xīn [li yu xun xin]
sharp desire fogs heart
Strong ambition veils true feeling
To be obsessed with the desire for success at the expense of happiness
[山雨欲來風滿樓]
Shān yù lái fēng mǎn lóu [shan yu yu lai feng man lou]
mountain rain intend arrive wind tower
The wind sweeping through the tower heralds a rising storm in the mountain
A premonition of something significant about to happen
Forewarned is forearmed
[說到做到]
Shuō daò zuò daò [shuo dao zuo dao]
speak arrive make arrive
Say and then make
Do what one says
Actions speak louder than words
banquet, Song dynasty
An Elegant Party (detail), an outdoor painting of a small Chinese banquet hosted by the emperor for scholar-officials from the Song Dynasty (960-1279). Although painted in the Song period, it is most likely a reproduction of an earlier Tang Dynasty (618-907) work of art. The painting is attributed to Emperor Huizong of Song (r. 1100?1125 AD). Image by PericlesofAthens available under a Creative Commons license .
Xiōng yǒu chéng zhú [xiong you cheng zhu]
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
Bù pò bù lì [bu po bu li]
not destroy not stand
If do not destroy will not stand
The old needs to be demolished before building the new
Starting again from scratch
, [無源之水無本之木]
Wú yuán zhī shuǐ, wú běn zhī mù [wu yuan zhi shui, wu ben zhi mu]
no source water, no root tree
A river without a source, a tree without roots
Something without a proper foundation. Not properly planned
[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
,,[我看見我忘記我听見我記住我做我了解]
Wǒ kàn jiàn wǒ wàng jì, wǒ tīng jiàn wǒ jì zhù, wǒ zuò wǒ liǎo jiě [wo kan jian wo wang ji, wo ting jian wo ji zhu, wo zuo wo liao jie]
I catch sight of I forget, I hear I remember, I do explained
When I see, I forget; when I hear, I remember but when I do, I understand.
You learn only by trying it, not by just observing or talking about it
Practise what you preach
[力不從心]
Lì bù cóng xīn [li bu cong xin]
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
[空中樓閣]
Kōng zhōng lóu gé [kong zhong lou ge]
sky middle storied pavilion
A pavilion in the air
A fanciful and impossible scheme. An impractical idea with a streak of vanity.
A flight of fancy
暗渡陈仓 [暗渡陳倉]
Àn dù chén cāng [an du chen cang]
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.
眼泪救 [眼淚救不了火]
Yǎn lèi jiù bù liǎo huǒ [yan lei jiu bu liao huo]
tears rescued not fire
Tears do not put out the fire
Decisive action is needed in a crisis not regrets
使[有錢能使鬼推磨]
Yǒu qián néng shǐ guǐ tuī mò [you qian neng shi gui tui mo]
have money can send devil push grindstone
If you have money you can make the devil push a grind stone
Money can buy you anything
[賠了夫人又折兵]
Péi le fū rén yòu zhé bīng [pei le fu ren you zhe bing]
Lose lady also lose soldiers
Losing the lady and the soldiers
Hatching an evil plot that backfires spectacularly. The story is that Sun Quan in the Three Kingdoms period wanted to take territory from the Shu kingdom. He offered his sister's hand in marriage but secretly plotted to attack Liu Bei's troops at the ceremony. Master strategist Zhuge Liang saw through the trap and Liu Bei managed to marry Sun's sister as well as defeat Sun's troops.
,殃 [城門失火殃及池魚]
Chéng mén shī huó, yāng jí chí [cheng men shi huo, yang ji chi yu]
city gate destroy fire , calamity reach moat fish
Burning a city gate kills the fish in the moat
A drastic action may unintentionally affect other people. Show consideration for all
Jiǎo tù sān kū [jiao tu san ku]
crafty hare three burrows
A crafty rabbit has three burrows
To succeed you must must have alternative options, in particular several ways of escape from danger
There's more than one way to skin a cat
[巧婦難為無米之炊]
Qiǎo fù nán wéi wú mǐ zhī chuī [qiao fu nan wei wu mi zhi chui]
skilful woman difficult pride nothing rice's cook
Even the cleverest cook cannot prepare rice without rice
You need to assemble the right materials for a job
汤池 [金城湯池]
Jīn chéng tāng chí [jin cheng tang chi]
metal city boiling moat
A city of metal with a moat of boiling water
An impregnable city with highly effective defenses. Someone/something not worth trying to attack.
[一箭雙鵰]
jiàn shuāng diāo [yi jian shuang diao]
one arrow two eagles
Shooting two hawks with one arrow
Completing two (or more) tasks at the same time. A fortunate coincidence.
Killing two birds with one stone
[毛遂自薦]
Máo Suì zì jiàn [Mao Sui zi jian]
Mao Sui self recommend
Mao Sui recommends himself
Volunteering your services for a difficult task. The story is of a servant named Mao Sui to negotiate with the king of Chu over a Qin attack on the kingdom of Zhao (Warring States era). Not enough people volunteered to go on the mission so Mao Sui volunteered against the wishes of his lord. When reluctantly allowed to go Mao Sui proved an able negotiator.
[驕兵必敗]
Jiāo bīng bì bài [jiao bing bi bai]
haughty weapon certainly defeated
An arrogant army is certain to be defeated
Over-confidence will lead to defeat
Pride cometh before a fall
[事實勝于雄辯]
Shì shí shèng yú xióng biàn [shi shi sheng yu xiong bian]
affair real victory goto mighty debate
A real victory is better than a great debate
Better to act than just talk about it
Actions speak louder than words
wedding, marriage, dress
Traditional Chinese wedding dress with phoenix crown () headpiece, Qing Dynasty style. Still used in many parts of southeast Asia, including Taiwan. 26th December 2011. Image by Kelidimari available under a Creative Commons license .
狐假
Hǔ jiǎ hǔ wēi [hu jia hu wei]
fox fake tiger power
A trick of cunning to exaggerate self importance
A fox will pretend to have the power of a tiger. The story is that a fox followed a tiger in a parade. The animals panicked and the fox claimed that this was because they were frightened of the fox not the tiger. It goes back to the Warring States Period.
[東窗事發]
Dōng chuāng shì fā [dong chuang shi fa]
east window matter expose
The plot at the east window has been exposed
The game is up. Generally said of villains whose evil plans have been thwarted. The story is of Qin Hui of the Song dynasty who hatched a plot under the east window of his house to tell lies about General Yue Fei. Qin Hui and his son died shortly after Yue Fei was executed. Qin's wife Wang used a necromancer who discovered the truth and was told by Qin's spirit that the East window plot had been exposed.
The chickens havee come home to roost
畋,竭 [焚林而畋竭澤而漁]
Fén lín ěr tián, jié zé ěr yú [fen lin er tian, jie ze er yu]
burn forest but cultivate, exhaust pool but fishing
Burn a forest to farm; drain a pond to fish
Ignoring the consequences
Marry in haste, repent at leisure
[不撒大網不得大魚]
Bú sǎ wǎng bù dé [bu sa da wang bu de da yu]
not cast large net not get large fish
Without casting a big net how can a big fish be caught
Need to think big if to succeed
[強龍難壓地頭蛇]
Qiáng lóng nán yā dì tóu shé [qiang long nan ya di tou she]
strong dragon difficult press soil head snake
Even a dragon finds it difficult to conquer a snake in its lair
Knowledge of local area and people gives them a distinct advantage even against a strong enemy
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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