Chinese idioms that help with coping with life

This loosely knit group of proverbs all have to do with dealing with a particular predicament. Some of these just describe the situation without offering advice on how to deal with it.

[幸災樂禍]
Xìng zāi lè huò [xing zai le huo]
lucky calamity laugh misfortune
Delighting in the misfortune of others
The story is of a king who delighted in the plight of the neighboring kingdom that was suffering from famine and would not help them even though he had received help when his people were suffering. So it means sadistic glee.
Schadenfreude
Qī lí zǐ sàn [qi li zi san]
wife leave child break-up
Wife left; children scattered
A broken family
[樹欲靜而風不止]
Shù yù jìng ěr fēng bù zhǐ [shu yu jing er feng bu zhi]
tree desire quiet but wind not still
The trees prefer calm, but the wind does not stop
In spite of a wish for peace, trouble is brewing. Things develop regardless of how you might wish. Powerless to influence outcome
[臭不可噹]
Chòu bù kě dāng [chou bu ke dang]
smelly not can equal
Worst ever smell
To give off an unbearable stink
[身臨其境]
Shēn lín qí jìng [shen lin qi jing]
body face its border
Present and observing
An eye witness to an event
[雞犬不宁]
Jī quǎn bù ning [ji quan bu ning]
chicken dog not stand
Even the chicken and dog are disturbed. General commotion
All in turmoil and excitement
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
, [箭在弦上不得不發]
Jiàn zài xián shàng, bù dé bù fā [jian zai xian shang, bu de bu fa]
arrow exist string on, not get no deliver
Once the arrow is on the bow string, it must be shot
Things have reached a point when its necessary for something to be done. No choice
Lights, camera, action
败涂 [一敗塗地]
bài tú dì [yi bai tu di]
whole defeat smear ground
A crushing defeat
Defeat so total bodies will litter the ground. Beaten and in a hopeless situation. Suggest the enemy is in such a rage that no mercy will be shown.
[心甘情願]
Xīn gān qíng yuàn [xin gan qing yuan]
feeling sweet fine wish
Delighted and helpful
Delighted to be able to help
Shǒu kǒu rú píng [shou kou ru ping]
guard mouth like bottle
To keep mouth shut, like a bottle
To avoid giving the game away; to not breathe a word
See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil
Shí quán shí měi [shi quan shi mei]
ten complete ten beautiful
Completely whole and beautiful
Perfection; faultless
Bù bù gāo shēng [bu bu gao sheng]
step step tall ascend
Step by step promotion
Congratulation on promotion or a new job
[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
Zhōu guān fàng huǒ [zhou guan fang huo]
prefecture to be set on fire
The magistrate burns down the town
Bewailing pompous and incompetent officials. The story is that an official refused that his name 'Deng' should be used in any official proclamation. A problem arose when the Lantern or 'Deng' festival was to be announced. Instead of 'Deng' he used the character for Fire instead announcing the coming of Fire throughout the town
Couldn't organize a piss-up in a brewey
[香消玉損]
Xiāng xiāo yù sǔn [xiang xiao yu sun]
fragrant vanish jade broken
Fragrance is dissipated; jade is broken
Spoken of on the death of a beautiful young woman
Whom the Gods love die young
Huā huā shì jiè [hua hua shi jie]
flower flower lifespan limit
Life full of experience. Dazzling world of excitement
World seething with life
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.
Mù yǐ chéng zhōu [mu yi cheng zhou]
tree cease make boat
The tree has been made into a boat
Too late to change anything
What's done is done
Sichuan, food
Roadside snacks at Chengdu, Sichuan
[大義滅親]
yì miè qīn [da yi mie qin]
great justice wipe out relative
Uphold justice by killing one?s own family
Prepared to kill one's own family to keep to the law. Back in the Spring and Autumn Period a father, Shi Que, uncovered the murder of the king of Wei was done by a treasonous group which included his own son Shi Hou. Believing he could not show him special treatment he had him executed.
[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.
[別無長物]
Bié wú cháng wù [bie wu chang wu]
leave nothing surplus
Having nothing to spare
In great poverty, possessing nothing other than the bare essentials.
The cupboard is bare
[日以繼夜]
yǐ jì yè [ri yi ji ye]
day take continue
Day and night continuously
Working without a break. Exhausted
Jì wǎng bù jiù [ji wang bu jiu]
already past not to blame
It is pointless to blame past events
What is done is done. It is pointless to live a life of regret for things that can't be changed.
Forgive and forget
[門可羅雀]
Mén kě luó què [men ke luo que]
gate can net bird
The gate can catch birds
There are so few visitors that the door could be used to catch birds. Having very few visitors
[非驢非馬]
Fēi lú: fēi mǎ [fei lu: fei ma]
not donkey not horse
Neither a donkey nor a horse
A person or place that is neither one thing nor another. Indeterminate or strange combination.
Neither fish nor fowl
Zì yóu zì zài [zi you zi zai]
freedom unrestrained
Unrestricted freedom
To be carefree, peaceful and relaxed
骨瘦
Gǔ shòu rú chái [gu shou ru chai]
bone thin as lath
Nothing but skin and bones
Emaciated
卵击 [以卵擊石]
Yǐ luǎn tóu shí [yi luan tou shi]
use egg strike stone
Try to smash a stone with an egg
Overrating strength and being defeated. Defeat guaranteed.
Kicking a brick wall
[飛禽走獸]
Fēi qín zǒu shòu [fei qin zou shou]
flying bird walking animal
Birds and beasts
Wildlife
[空前絕后]
Kōng qián jué hòu [kong qian jue hou]
empty before terminate behind
Neither seen in the future nor in the past
Something that is genuinely new
[一顧之榮]
gù zhī róng [yi gu zhi rong]
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.
[馬馬虎虎]
Mǎ mǎ hǔ hǔ [ma ma hu hu]
horse horse tiger tiger
So so; average; careless
Some people say it comes from an old story in which a horse and a tiger get into a fight. Neither animal could defeat the other. In time, mentioning the two animals together came to mean a fight with no definite winner - and ma ma hu hu came to mean 'so so.'. There is also a story that, a long time ago, an artist drew an animal. He asked other people what the animal he drew was. Some said it looked like a horse while others said it was a tiger. They said, 'ma ma hu hu' because the drawing was just 'so-so'.
[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
[聞風喪膽]
Wén fēng sàng dǎn [wen feng sang dan]
hear news lose courage
Panic on hearing news
Panic stricken; terrified by news
苛政猛 [苛政猛於虎]
Kē zhèng měng yú hǔ [ke zheng meng yu hu]
severe government fierce tiger
Tyranny is more terrible than tigers
The story is that Confucius met a woman near mount Taishan who was weeping bitterly. When asked, she said she had lost father-in-law, husband and son to marauding tigers. When Confucius asked why then she did not move to a safer village she replied that she was sheltering from a despotic government and would rather risk tigers than oppression. Evil government is the worst of evils.
[度日如年]
nián [du ri ru nian]
pass day as year
Each day passes as a year
Time seems to pass very slowly
Time drags on
[富麗堂皇]
Fù lì táng huáng [fu li tang huang]
good fortune beautiful hall emperor
Prosperous and beautiful
To have the best of good fortune
dragon, graphic
Carving of a dragon at a Chinese temple
[少見多怪]
Shaǒ jiàn duō guài [shao jian duo guai]
less look many odd
Things look strange to the unfamiliar
Unsettled by a new environment
掩瑜
Xiá bù yǎn yú [xia bu yan yu]
defect not conceal jewel
A speck on a jade stone can't obscure its brilliance
One small fault won't spoil the impression of an overall exceptional person
芒刺
Máng cì zài bèi [mang ci zai bei]
tip thorn exist back
A thorn in one?s flesh
Someone or something is causing continuous irritation.
[侯門似海]
Hóu mén sì hǎi [hou men si hai]
nobleman house appear sea
A noble?s house is as vast as the sea
A very tough task. A nobleman in ancient China would have a courtyard house with high walls and no easy entry. It was also hard to get any way to get an invite to visit such a noble. And so represents a high physical and social barrier.
Beyond your wildest dreams
模棱 [模棱兩可]
Mó léng liǎng kě [mo leng liang ke]
pattern edge both permit
To equivocate
Position is unclear or uncertain. Failing to make up your mind.
Sitting on the fence
[司空見慣]
Sī kōng jiàn guàn [si kong jian guan]
Sikong see usual
Sikong is used to it
Sikong was the job title of a minister of works in China. In the Tang dynasty the poet Liu Yuxi was invited by a minister to a feast accompanied by entertainers. This was a common occurrence for the minister but greatly impressed the poet. An everyday occurrence; nothing out of the ordinary
As common as muck
视眈眈 [虎眎眈眈]
Hǔ shì dān dān [hu shi dan dan]
tiger look at stare stare
A tiger's stare. To look covetously
To eye enviously
[風吹草動]
Fēng chuī cǎo dòng [feng chui cao dong]
wind blow grass move
The wind causes the grass to move
A minor repercussion of a larger action. A trifling consequence
Xīn huā nù fàng [xin hua nu fang]
heart flower in full bloom
The flower of the heart in full bloom
Full flowering of joy
蚂蚁 [熱鍋上的螞蟻]
Rè guō shàng de mǎ yǐ [re guo shang de ma yi]
heat pot up of ants
As active as ants on a hot pan
In a state of feverish activity and excitement
[亂七八糟]
Luàn qī zāo [luan qi ba zao]
chaos seven eight dregs
Chaotic mess
To be in a terrible mess. Dirty and filthy
[呆若木雞]
Dāi ruò mù jī [dai ruo mu ji]
stupid like wood chicken
As dumb as a wooden chicken
Dumbstruck, unable to move or say anything out of fear.
Caught like a rabbit in the headlights
shàng Liáng Shān [bi shang Liang Shan]
compel get into Liang mountain
Compelled to become a Liangshan rebel
Forced to take an undesirable action. The story is of Lin Chong who was hounded down by Chao Gai because he wanted Lin's wife. After being falsely accused of attempted murder Lin was further victimized by Chao Gai until he was left with no choice but to join the rebels. So it means left with no choice at all.
Hobson's choice
[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
Hòu gù zhī yōu [hou gu zhi you]
back attend worries
Looking after troubles behind you
Worried about events back at home. Said of someone concerned about goings on at home rather than things immediately to hand.
[馬到成功]
Mǎ daò chéng gōng [ma dao cheng gong]
horse arrive accomplish merit
Horse win easy victory
Gain immediate victory
Qǐ sǐ huí shēng [qi si hui sheng]
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.
[騎虎難下]
Qí hǔ nán xià [qi hu nan xia]
ride tiger difficult down
When on a tiger's back, it is hard to dismount
When taking risks you have to live with the consequences, it is difficult to back out
He who sups with the Devil should have a long spoon
Shān míng shuǐ xiù [shan ming shui xiu]
mountain bright water elegant
Beautiful mountain scenery
Beautiful landscape
Suzhou, garden, moon gate
Traditional style Suzhou house and garden, Jiangsu
[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
殿 [無事不登三寳殿]
Wú shì bū dēng sān bǎo diàn [wu shi bu deng san bao dian]
nothing matter no climb three treasure hall
No-one comes to pray at the Temple of Three Treasures unless in trouble
Often it is obvious when somebody is after something
[捲土重來]
Juǎn tǔ chóng lái [juan tu chong lai]
sweep dust again come
Sweeping off the dust and trying again
Making a comeback after a setback - determined to have another go. Like getting back on a horse after being thrown off.
Dust yourself off and start all over again
miàn chǔ gē [si mian chu ge]
four side Chu song
On all four sides hear Chu kingdom songs.
Ambushed from all sides. Hopeless situation. In the battle of Gaixia troops surrounding the enemy sang songs of home, breaking their spirit. From the classic Shi Ji from 2,200 years ago. After the end of the Qin dynasty the Han general used this tactic against of the Chu kingdom. The Chu songs persuaded the surrounded Chu forces that the Han must have overrun much of the Chu kingdom already
含沙
Hán shā shè yǐng [han sha she ying]
keep sand shoot shadow
Making insinuations
To spit sand at someone's shadow, in other words to attack someone indirectly by innuendo. There is a legend of a three-legged turtle that would spit out sand at anyone who passed. Its spittle was so noxious that it would infect someone even if it only hit their shadow.
锦囊妙计 [錦囊妙計]
Jǐn náng miào jì [jin nang miao ji]
brocade purse wonderful plan
Excellent plans hidden in a brocade bag
To have wise plans in reserve. The story is that the brilliant strategist Zhuge Liang sent plans for a military campaign concealed in a brocade bag.
Yì rú fǎn zhǎng [yi ru fan zhang]
easy as turn over palm
As easy as turning over your hand
Simple. Very easy
针毡 [如坐針氈]
Rú zuò zhēn zhān [ru zuo zhen zhan]
like sit needle carpet
Like sitting on a carpet of needles
To feel tense and uneasy
穿鞋, [穿新鞋走老路]
Chuān xīn xié, zǒu lǎo lù [chuan xin xie, zou lao lu]
put on new shoes, walk old road
Wear new shoes but follow old paths
Stick to the old ways while appearing to follow the latest trends
烂额 [焦頭爛頟]
Jiāo tóu làn é [jiao tou lan e]
beaten head burnt brow
Head bruised and brow burned
In terrible trouble
Beaten black and blue
曹操,曹操 [說曹操曹操到]
Shuō Cáo Cāo, Cáo Cāo dào [shuo Cao Cao, Cao Cao dao]
speak Cao Cao, Cao Cao arrives
Speak of Cao Cao and he arrives
'Cao Cao of the Three Kingdoms is the embodiment of evil. Someone who you are talking about happens to appear unexpectedly
Speak of the devil and he is sure to appear
[家喻戶曉]
Jiā yù hù xiǎo [jia yu hu xiao]
home as household know
Known in every household
A person or fact known to everybody. Something or somebody well known
A household name
Ěr xīn [er mu yi xin]
ear eye one new
New sights and sounds
A change of place, everything fresh and new
[眾怒難犯]
Zhòng nù nán fàn [zhong nu nan fan]
crowd fury disaster to offend
Avoid incurring the wrath of the crowd
It's a bad idea to stir up the anger of a large crowd
漏洞
Lòu dòng bǎi chū [lou dong bai chu]
leak hole hundred get out
Leaking through one hundred holes
Full of mistakes and errors
[維妙維肖]
Wéi miaò wéi xiaò [wei miao wei xiao]
tie clever tie resemble
Weave skillfully life like images
Produce an image remarkably true to life; highly skilled
Bīng tiān xuě [bing tian xue di]
ice sky snow ground
Ice in the sky and snow on the ground
Encountering adverse conditions
dèng kǒu dāi [mu deng kou dai]
eye stare mouth blank
Staring eyes and mouth open
Dumb struck
[喪家之狗]
Sàng jiā zhī gǒu [sang jia zhi gou]
to flee home own dog
Fleeing from a wild dog
Fleeing in fear and panic due to unexpected visitor or situation
food
Eating dimsum dumplings on the street in gongguan; pictures by tashenka. February 2007. Photo by brappy! from Gongguan Market in Zhongzheng available under a Creative Commons license .
[弱不禁風]
Ruò bù jīn fēng [ruo bu jin feng]
weak not restrict wind
Too weak to stand a gust of wind
Fragile, unable to withstand further setbacks
[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
[水深火熱]
Shuǐ shēn huǒ rè [shui shen huo re]
water deep fire hot
In deep water and fierce fire
In very deep trouble. A desperate situation with nowhere to turn.
In dire straits
狼狈[狼狽不堪]
Láng bèi bù kān [lang bei bu kan]
wolf distressed not endure
In a sorry plight
Facing total defeat. Left high and dry. The story is of Ma Chao in the Three Kingdoms Period who was out maneuvered by Cao Cao and faced total defeat.
In dire straits
, [雷聲大雨點小]
Léi shēng dà, diǎn xiǎo [lei sheng da, yu dian xiao]
thunder sound big, rain drop small
Thunder is loud but little rain falls
Overly portentous. Reality does not match expectations
Empty vessels make the most noise
Rén shān rén hǎi [ren shan ren hai]
person mountain person sea
People everywhere
Huge crowds of people
Gē ròu zì dàn [ge rou zi dan]
cut flesh oneself eat
Eating one's own flesh
A foolish, self defeating stratagem.
Cutting off your nose to spite your face
Yǔ maó wèi fēng [yu mao wei feng]
feather not yet mature
Not yet grown adult plumage. A fledgling bird - young and inexperienced
Still too young and immature
[風吹草動]
Fēng chuī cǎo dòng [feng chui cao dong]
wind blow grass move
The wind causes the grass to move
A minor repercussion of a larger action. A trifling consequence
捉襟[捉襟見肘]
Zhuō jīn jiàn zhǒu [zhuo jin jian zhou]
clutch lapel see elbow
Pulling the lapels only to expose the elbows
In poverty - wearing an old coat so threadbare that pulling it up exposes the elbows through holes. Unable to make ends meet. Up Queer street.
As poor as a church mouse
怡, [心曠神怡事事順利]
Xīn kuàng shén yí, shì shì shùn lì [xin kuang shen yi, shi shi shun li]
heart broad spirit joy, matter matter obey profit
Heart joyful, work profitable
Feeling happy and relaxed
Chéng xià zhī méng [cheng xia zhi meng]
city walls down oath
Only under duress
It literally means an embittered agreement at a city wall when a city has surrendered to besieging forces. So it is a reluctant and bitter deal forced by circumstance.
[生米煮成熟飯]
Shēng mǐ zhǔ chéng shú fàn [sheng mi zhu cheng shu fan]
produce rice cook accomplish well-cooked food
The rice has already been cooked
What has been done can not be undone
What's done is done
桃源
Shì wài táo yuán [shi wai tao yuan]
world foreign peach source
The land of peach blossoms
A mythical land of peace and harmony. The story is of a hidden land that a fisherman found while trying to escape turmoil and war in the Qin dynasty. Try as he might he never found the land again.
Land of milk and honey
[滿城風雨]
Mǎn chéng fēng [man cheng feng yu]
full town wind rain
Everywhere is lashed by wind and rain
The whole community is awash with scandal or a sensational story.
On everyone's lips
输攻墨守 [輸攻墨守]
Shū gōng mò shǒu [shu gong mo shou]
Shu to attack surname Mo to defend
Shu attacks and Mo defends
Two opponents of equal skill. Back in the Spring and Autumn period the story goes that Gongshu Ban, a carpenter who had developed a new device to aid the attack of cities, was persuaded by the pacifist philosopher MoZi not to deploy it. Mozi was able to defend against any attack by Gongshu Ban giving stalemate.
Fighting to a standstill
Tiān nán dì běi [tian nan di bei]
heaven south land north
As distant as the heavens
Places or opinions that are very far apart
[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
[網開一面]
Wǎng kāi miàn [wang kai yi mian]
net open one side
To leave one side of the net open
To give someone a chance of escape
To let someone off the hook
Shandong, beach, boat, coast
Old fishing boat on Ru Shan Shi beach, Shandong
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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