Chinese proverbs 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.

Gāo bù chéng dī bù jiù [gao bu cheng di bu jiu]
high no accomplish low no come near
Although not qualified for high office will not accept a lower position
Exaggerating one's skills
Míng chá qiū háo [ming cha qiu hao]
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
[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
[半斤八兩]
Bàn jīn liǎng [ban jin ba liang]
half catty eight taels
Two equivalent measures
Nothing to choose between two alternatives
Six of one, and half a dozen of the other
[鶴立雞群]
Hè lì jī qún [he li ji qun]
crane stand chicken crowd
A crane standing amidst a flock of chickens
Being conspicuously different (often superior)
Standing head and shoulders above the opposition.
滥竽充数 [濫竽充數]
Làn yú chōng shù [lan yu chong shu]
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 quickly fled away.
Pulling a fast one
[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.
[言過其實]
Yán guò qí shí [yan guo qi shi]
words excessively that's true
To embellish the facts
Overstate the facts or exaggerate skills. Someone who is a bit of a windbag.
[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
腾达 [飛黃騰達]
Fēi huáng téng dá [fei huang teng da]
fly yellow gallop extend
To fly in the sky like the legendary horse Fei Huang (flying yellow)
A meteoric rise to success and honour
急,授 [授人以魚只解一旹之急授人以漁則解一生之需]
Shòu rén zhǐ jiù shí zhī jí, shòu rén yǐ yú zé jiě yī shēng zhī xū [shou ren yi yu zhi jiu yi shi zhi ji, shou ren yi yu ze jie yi sheng zhi xu]
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
Haǒ rén haǒ shì [hao ren hao shi]
good person; good deeds
Good personality good deeds
Pleasant person who behaves well
A good man is hard to find
[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
[青出于藍而勝于藍]
Qīng chū yú lán ér shèng yú lán [qing chu yu lan er sheng yu lan]
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.
, [千軍易得一將難求]
Qiān jūn yì dé, yī jiang nán qiú [qian jun yi de, yi jiang nan qiu]
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
yì gū xíng [yi yi gu xing]
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.
Steely-eyed
[別別具一格]
Bié jù yī [bie ju yi ge]
classify tool one pattern
Possessing a unique style
Doing things your own way
[虎頭蛇尾]
Hǔ tóu shé wěi [hu tou she wei]
tiger head snake tail
Tiger's head; snake's tail
Begins promisingly but ends badly
赴汤蹈 [赴湯蹈火]
Fù tāng dǎo huǒ [fu tang dao huo]
wade hot water tread fire
Wade through scolding water and burning flame
Showing great courage and valour
Harbin, Heilongjiang, ice
Pagoda, Ice Sculpture, Harbin, 2009
Image by Farm available under a Creative Commons license
Bái shǒu qǐ jiā [bai shou qi jia]
clear hand make house
Empty hand make house
To build up something from nothing
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.
驴唇[馿唇不對馬嘴]
Lǖ chún bù duì mǎ zuǐ [lu chun bu dui ma zui]
donkey lips no match horse mouth
Donkey's lips do not fit a horse's mouth
Something that is out of place and inappropriate
, [人無完人金無足赤]
Rén wú wán rén, jīn wú zú chì [ren wu wan ren, jin wu zu chi]
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
, [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
, [宁做雞頭不噹鳳尾]
Nìng zuò jītóu, bù dāng fèng wěi [ning zuo jitou, bu dang feng wei]
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
[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
黔驴 [黔馿技窮]
Qián lǖ jì qiong [qian lu ji qiong]
black donkey skill poor
No idea on how to proceed
Even a clever donkey can not solve the problem. The story is that a tiger first spotted a donkey and was scared of the new monster, but seeing it do very little but kick it killed and ate the donkey.
Be at wit's end
Yǎn gāo shǒu dī [yan gao shou di]
eye high hand low
Eyes look up but the hands go down
To have high ambitions but possess limited skills
识泰 [有眼不識泰山]
Yǒu yǎn bù shí tài shān [you yan bu shi tai shan]
have eye not know great mountain
To fail to see the great Taishan mountain
To be too arrogant or ignorant to acknowledge true talent
Shì bèi gōng bàn [shi bei gong ban]
work multiple times merit half
Work very hard for half the result
Work with care rather than speed
Less haste more speed
Jiǔ niú èr hǔ zhī lì [jiu niu er hu zhi li]
nine ox two tiger 's strength
The strength of nine bulls and two tigers
Tremendously strong
[欲速則不達]
Yù sù zé bù dá [yu su ze bu da]
desire fast level not extend
A desire for speed but unable to reach destination
More interest in working fast than working effectively
Less haste more speed
[眾口難調]
Zhòng kǒu nán tiáo [zhong kou nan tiao]
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
鹏程
Péng chéng wàn [peng cheng wan li]
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.
邯郸 [邯鄲學步]
Hán dān xué bù [han dan xue bu]
Handan study gait
Learning how the residents of Handan walk . A story of a man who took on the gait of a cityfolk trying to impress but could no longer walk properly
A story of a man who took on the gait of grand city folk trying to impress but could no longer walk properly. Pompous and pretentious. Trying too hard to impress
[一絲不苟]
sī bù gǒu [yi si bu gou]
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
脱颖 [脫穎而出]
Tuō yǐng ér chū [tuo ying er chu]
take off sharp point and yet emerge
A sharp stick protrudes
A talented person can't help but be noticed
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
[听其言觀其行]
Tīng qí yán guān qí xíng [ting qi yan guan qi xing]
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
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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