Chinese idioms about people's characters
People are all different, so proverbs that stress how important it is that we all rub along together are always helpful.
axe sharp no fear wood hard
A sharp axe does not fear hard wood
A talented person is not afraid of a difficult task
change residence forget wife
Move house but overlook wife
Foolish and forgetful. Move to a new house and take everything - except your partner.
Soft in the head
chat tiger look transform
Turning pale at the mere mention of a tiger
To be so timid that even mentioning danger causes fear.
Afraid of your own shadow
dragon war tiger battle
Bitter fight between a dragon and tiger. An evenly matched big fight
Struggle between two equal leaders
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.
flower but not fruit
Flowering but not bearing fruit
Said of someone is all show and no substance
All that glitters is not gold
early behead afterwards report
Execute first?report later
Taking the initiative; acting without orders. The story is of a newly appointed magistrate who was seeking a murderer. When she was found, the magistrate had her executed on the spot in spite of she being a servant to the Emperor's sister. An execution requires the Emperor's sanction and so the magistrate was in deep trouble,. In this case the magistrate managed to escape with his life.
Off you own bat
凡人不可貌相, 海水不可斗量 [凡人不可貌相海水不可斗量]
every person can not looks mutual, sea water can not argue capacity
Neither a person can be judged by his looks nor can the sea be fathomed
Judging by appearance is dangerous
Do not judge a book by its cover
Bo Le know horse
Bo Le, the horse expert
A person of good judgment. Someone who can quickly appreciate skill. The idiom refers to Bo Le from the Warring States period who was an acclaimed judge of horses. It is said that he came upon an old horse trudging along. Only Bo Le could see that this was once a great horse of strength and stamina.
radish cabbage, each have place fond
Some prefer radish while others like cabbage
Everyone has their own preferences
Each to his own
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
crane stand chicken crowd
A crane standing amidst a flock of chickens
Being conspicuously different (often superior)
Standing head and shoulders above the opposition.
arrow mouth deny
To shoot arrows from the mouth
To flatly deny the truth
nine ox two tiger 's strength
The strength of nine bulls and two tigers
hide brightness nourish darkness
Conceal your strength
Bide your time before showing your strength
Hiding your light under a bushel
tree monkey but wear hat
A hat-wearing macaque
A worthless person hiding behind imposing looks. Trying to impress too hard
All that glitters is not gold
tapestry up add flower
Add another flower to a tapestry
Taking too much trouble with detail to try to achieve perfection. Fiddling when already complete
Gilding the lily
He Dong lion roar
The lioness from Hedong roars
A husband under the control of a domineering wife. The story is of Chen Zao of the Song dynasty who often had guests around in the evening. If his wife got to hear that there were other women with him she would knock on the wall and roar. A hen-pecked man.
She who must be obeyed
three orders five explanations
Issuing three orders and five injunctions
Giving order after order. Someone who is officious and over-bearing. The use of three and five is often used to give idea of endless repetition.
Cracking the whip
A schematic of the 'Chinese' or human body meridians. The Chinese meridians are used in various oriental fight styles, as well as in healthcare; e.g. in traditional herbal medicine, massage techniques (see pressure points ➚), ... The schematic was based on an image of the Northern Crane Martial Arts Association dojo. Permission was given for the use of the image at wikimedia commons by sensei Phil Perez. Image by KVDP ➚ available under a Creative Commons license ➚.
Ye Gong fond of dragon
Duke ?e's love of dragons
Pretending to be fond of something which is actually greatly feared. The story is of Duke Ye who decorated whole his house and clothes with dragon motifs. However when a real dragon flew over and landed near his house he trembled in fear. Said of someone hiding their true feelings.
Putting on a brave face
self I drunk
Drunk with oneself. Narcissistic
Conceited and arrogant
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.
person heart no attain snake swallow elephant
A person's greed is like a snake that seeks to swallow an elephant
Greed is insatiable
suckle smelly not yet made
Still suckling and in nappies. Still an infant. Young and inexperienced
Infantile and immature
begin entrance see mountain
As soon as the door is opened see the mountain
To come straight to the point. Avoid procrastination
Brevity is the soul of wit
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
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
person heart separate belly
A person's heart is not discernible from looking just at the body
People are inscrutable. Do not judge by appearance
Do not judge a book by its cover
sit lap no disorder
Not to be tempted even when a beautiful woman sits on one's lap
To describe a man who refuses to be tempted by lustful thoughts
good horse no eat return head grass
A good horse will not eat the grass behind it
Pride may forbid a person going back to his home town after failure. Do not dwell on past actions, progress forward
same bed different dream
Dream different dreams on the same bed
Not everyone thinks the same
It takes all sorts to make the world
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
sit well watch sky
To sit at the bottom of a well and view the sky
A blinkered or limited view of the world
grind pestle accomplish needle
Grinding an iron pestle down to a needle
Patiently setting about a great, lengthy task step by step. Anything can be achieved with a firm resolve,
Little strokes fell great oaks
again feel Feng Fu
Becoming Feng Fu again
Returning to old ways and habits. Feng Fu was a renowned tiger hunter from the state of Jin in the Zhou dynasty. After a successful career he vowed never to hurt another living thing. However when he chanced upon a local hunt for a vicious tiger he could not resist temptation to go back to old ways and killed the tiger single handed.
A leopard cannot change its spots
collapse city overturn country
Triumph over city and country
Overwhelm the entire area. Usually applied to a woman of outstanding beauty.
The face that launched a thousand ships
hare die fox sorrow
A fox mourns the death of a rabbit
Feigning concern to conceal true feeling
To weep crocodile tears
slow opening flower did not certainly not smell
A late-blooming flower is not necessarily lacking in fragrance
It's never too late to try something new
dragon fly phoenix dance
A dragon's flight and a phoenix's dance - very powerful and invigorating.
Flamboyant. Lively and vigorous
eat soft not eat hard
Only able to chew tender food, not the tough
Unable to withstand harsh criticism
carry thorns ask pain
To carry a cane and ask to be punished
Admit a fault and offer an apology. The story is from the Zhou dynasty when Lin Xiangru of the Zhao kingdom had an adversity in Lian Po. Lian Po used every opportunity to dis his boss Lin Xiangru. Lian Po was then shown that solidarity was key to the state's survival and offered a humble apology. Lian Po carried brambles on his back for some distance to show his contrition
Swallowing your pride
compose law self harm
Making laws that harm yourself
To fall foul of rules of your own making.
invite lord enter vat
Please step into the vat
To fall victim to a punishment that you yourself devised. The story is from the reign of Empress Wuzetian when two cruel ministers vied to create the vilest tortures. Zhou Ying suggested a large vat should be heated and the victim placed in it. His fellow minister threatened to apply the torture on Zhou Ying himself. He then confessed to all his crimes.
To give someone a taste of their own medicine
嫁鸡随鸡, 嫁狗随狗 [嫁雞隨雞嫁狗隨狗]
marry chicken follow chicken, marry dog follow dog
Marry a chicken and live with its ways, marry a dog and live with its ways
Changing approach and actions according to who you are with
When in Rome do as the Romans do
rabbit no eat burrow side grass
Rabbits do not eat the grass around their burrows
Thieves do not steal from neighbors
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
goat character tiger skin
A goat in a tiger's skin
Someone not living up to outward appearance. Looking fierce but actually timid.
All that glisters is not gold
walk horse look flower
Looking at the flowers while riding a horse
To take a cursory look at something. Smug
person not judge appearance mutual, sea water not judge bucket measure
A person cannot be judged by appearance just as the sea cannot be measured with a bucket
First appearances can be deceptive
Judging a book by its cover
one cry startle people
One chirp surprises everyone
To rise to stardom overnight. Discovering an unknown talent. The story is of an Emperor who kept a bird that did not fly or sing and people wondered why he kept it. One day the Emperor rose to meritorious action surprising everyone
gold jade outside withered cotton wadding middle
Precious on the outside but shabby on the inside
Don't be fooled by outward appearances
Beauty is only skin deep
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
heart flower in full bloom
The flower of the heart in full bloom
Full flowering of joy
endure disgrace bear repetition
Enduring humiliations in line of duty
Willing to put up with disgrace and humiliation so that work can be done. Often applied to someone given a very difficult but important task.
Taking the flak
desire fast level not extend
A desire for speed but unable to reach destination
More interest in working fast than working effectively. Too much interest in the short term rather than the overall strategy
More haste less speed
old thoroughbred hidden stable, aspiration exist 1000 miles
The old horse in the stable still yearns to gallop 1,000 miles
Ambitions never fade. An old person still has high hopes
Old soldiers never die, they just fade away
half catty eight taels
Two equivalent measures
Nothing to choose between two alternatives
Six of one, and half a dozen of the other
Ceiling of a Pavilion in the Forbidden City, Bejing
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.
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.
to work diligently to forget food
Working so hard as to forget to eat
Concentrating on work so much that appetite is forgotten. Implication that work is interesting rather than drudgery.
sea admit hundred rivers
All rivers run to the sea
We all shared a common destiny
near vermilion that red, near ink that black
He who stays near vermilion is stained red; he who stays near ink is stained black
Taking on the color of the company kept. Adapt to surroundings
A person is known by the company he keeps
child permit teach
A student worth teaching
A promising youngster who is open to learning. The story is of Zhang Liang who had failed in an attempt to assassinate the first Qin Emperor and went into hiding. He came across a mysterious old man who set him a series of tests to judge his keenness to learn from him. After passing all the test the old man gave him a book on military strategy and Zhang became a leading military strategist.
pull awl prick thigh
Pricking your thigh with an awl
Study hard with great determination. An awl is a sharp pointed tool for making holes in wood. The story is from the Three Character classic which tells how Su Qin of the Han dynasty pricked himself in the thigh to keep himself awake and alert for study. Used as a parent or teacher's encouragement for children to study diligently.
Hit the books
person must have face, tree must have skin
Keeping a good reputation is as essential as bark is to a tree
Reputation ('face') must be maintained at all costs
self tall self big
Think oneself tall and great
Full of conceit and ego
east mountain again rise
To rise again from the east mountain
Coming back after voluntary retirement into public life. Particularly for taking on high office after a long break away from all the action.
To make a comeback
kindness will enemy repay
Repay kindness with hostility
Biting the hand that feeds it
flick hat mutually celebrate
Knocking the dust off your hat and congratulating each other
Presumptively celebrate promotion/appointment to a job ahead of time. Arrogantly assume a job is already in the bag. The story is of two officials Wang Ji and Gong Yu of the Han dynasty, Both were dismissed but on Emperor Yuan's enthronement Wang Ji was re-appointed, on hearing the news Gong Yu flicked the dust off his official hat assuming he would follow his friend into office
from government get rich
Become a government official to get rich
Attain riches by working a government career
child no teach father's past
A father is responsible for his son's conduct
Parents are responsible for their children's education
fall leaf return root
Fallen leaves return to the root
Returning to place of birth
There's no place like home
big develop thunder
Develop large thunderstorm
Fly into a furious rage
To spit nails
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
feather not yet mature
Not yet grown adult plumage. A fledgling bird - young and inexperienced
Still too young and immature
Qi man worried sky
The from Qi who fears the sky is falling
Unnecessary concern. A person who is over-fearful or credulous. The idiom is based on the story of man from the state of Qi who feared the sky would fall and also that the Earth might cave in.
Afraid of your own shadow
The character long for dragon 龙 written in a variety of different script styles (Seal, official script, regular script, running script, cursive script). Image available under a Creative Commons license ➚.
die ash return fire
Ashes burn again
Resuming work after a long break. Taking up a previously held position of authority. Another flush of youthful energy in later life.
tiger father not dog child
A tiger does not father a dog
A son is similar to his father
Like father, like son
cavity has no thing
Empty and devoid of worthwhile content. Usually applied to poor writing that is devoid of meaning.
weak not restrict wind
Too weak to stand a gust of wind
Fragile, unable to withstand further setbacks
self know self understand
Knowing your own strengths and weaknesses is an essential first step in life. being able to judge yourself objectively as others see you is a path to harmony and true friendship.
custom horse cow not each other reach
Horses and cows keep themselves separate
People moving in different circles, different agendas. Having nothing in common.
Apples and oranges
one night ten towards
Ten visits in one night
Showing great care and concern. The story comes from the Han dynasty when an official checked the state of a sick relative ten times during the night.
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
raw swallow alive skin
Swallowing it all
To unthinkingly take on board someone's opinion. Uncritical application. Copying someone else's actions. The story is of Zhang Huaiqing of the Tang dynasty who plagiarized other poet's work by mechanically adding a few characters here and there. The resultant poems were gibberish.
Monkey see: monkey do
hundred arrows hundred middles
One hundred arrows, one hundred bullseyes
A superb marksman; showing great skill. Yang Youji and Houyi were archers of great renown.
A dab hand
cup bow snake image
Seeing a bow?s reflection in a cup as a snake
Suspicious and frightened; plagued by fearful imagination. The story is of a man who was terrified by the sight of what he thought was a snake swimming in the cup of tea he was drinking. The experience made him ill and only when it was demonstrated that it was just the reflection of a bow left hanging on the wall did he recover.
Afraid of your own shadow
wolf feeling dog lungs
Wolves are aggressive, dog bark. Ungrateful; cruel and unscrupulous
Ungrateful and unscrupulous
vegetation all warlike
Every bush harbors an enemy
Being paranoid - believing everyone is out to get you. To be beleaguered
bind foot not ahead
Unable to move forward due to misgivings. To hesitate about getting on and doing something.
All of a dither
old spirit across autumn
Old and decrepi but experienced
No longer youthful
three visits to thatched hut
Calling three times at the thatched cottage
Committed to get best possible advice. The story is of Liu Bei in the Three Kingdoms Period who wanted the help of the master strategist Zhuge Liang. Zhuge Liang refused to answer the door on Liu's first two visits. When Liu made a third visit Zhuge was sufficiently convinced that Liu was genuinely desperate for his help.
surpass sacrificial food replace kitchen
Laying down the sacrificial vessels and take over the kitchen
To move beyond current work and meddle in other's duties. To take things into your own hands. A back seat driver.
Poke your nose in someone else's business
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
morning three evening four
Say three in the morning, four in the evening
Indecisive saying one thing and then changing mind later and saying another. The story is of a monkey trainer who reduced their chestnut rations from 3 in the morning and 4 in the evenings. The monkeys were most unhappy but when the trainer changed it to 4 in the morning and 3 in the evenings they were delighted. And so the phrase can also mean being foolishly deceived.
Hemming and hahing
A wide selection of different types of Chinese coins. Image provided by David Hartill ➚
person each have capability have no capability
Every person has things that he can do and those that he cannot do
Everyone has their own particular set of skills
It takes all sorts to make a world
Song Xiang 's benevolence
Kindness like Song Duke Xianggong
Showing mercy and consideration to opponents. The story is from the Spring and Autumn period when Duke Xianggong of the kingdom of Song confronted an army from the kingdom of Chu. His officers pleaded with the duke to attack while they were still crossing the river, the duke refused considering this an unfair tactic.
ghost caused by mind life
Ghosts are figments of the mind
Being scared of the paranormal; irrational fear of dark and shadows.
Frightened of your own shadow
praying mantis arm obstruct vehicle
Mantis obstructing a chariot
Overrate abilities and attempt the impossible. A mantis is a fearsome insect that does not back down even if faced with a much larger predator. So it means someone full of pride making an idle threat.
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.
one body is courage
Full of courage
Fearless, intrepid. A heroic disposition.
As bold as brass
Luoyang paper expensive
To make paper expensive in Luoyang
The story is of a book that initially failed to find any interest, when he came to the then capital of Luoyang several respected scholars found it exceptional. The book then became so popular that printers exhausted the supply of paper to print copies of it. It therefore is used to describe a book that is destined to be a sensation.
Become all the rage
Ye Lang self big
Ye Lang thinks highly of himself
Pompous and conceited. The story is of the king of Ye Lang a tiny country in south-western China who in Han dynasty times considered himself the equal of the Emperor of China.
As proud as a peacock
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
heaven below no pair
Unequalled under heaven
Something or someone with superlative skills.
to exhaust bamboo distress book
So many crimes that there is not enough bamboo to record them all
So evil that there is not enough paper to record all the misdemeanors. Records used to be made on bamboo strips before paper was invented.
classify tool one pattern
Possessing a unique style
Doing things your own way
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
not shame under question
There is no shame in asking help from those less fortunate or senior than yourself.
A cat may look at a king
habit grow nature
Become habitual, normal
Habit becomes engrained
big ability tiny use
Big ability barely used
Wasting talent on trivial things. Using someone talented for a menial task
All dressed up and nowhere to go
towards ocean excitement sigh
Consider one?s competance before the ocean
To feel inadequate to perform a great task. Feel misgivings before a big endeavor. The story is of the river god of the Huanghe caused a great flood that made the river a mile wide but when it met the sea it was overcome with relative inadequacy.
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
frightened bow's bird
A bird startled even by the twang of a bow string
Someone who is easily frightened especially if triggered by a previous bad experience. The story is of a great archer who claimed he could shoot a goose out of the sky without releasing an arrow. He then twanged the bow and a goose did fall to the ground. The goose showed signs of a previous arrow injury and had died of fright.
Emperor Qianlong's Pleasure during Snowy Weather. c. 1736-1738. From Chiumei Ho: The Glorious Reign of Emperor Qianlong, London 2004. Painting by Giuseppe Castiglione ➚ (1688?1766). Available under a Creative Commons license ➚.
hair bone fearful promise
Hair standing on end
Petrified with fright
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
words excessively that's true
To embellish the facts
Overstate the facts or exaggerate skills. Someone who is a bit of a windbag.
ten complete ten beautiful
Completely whole and beautiful
ambition exist four directions
Having high ambition
Willing to travel far and wide to achieve aims. Aspiring to achieve great things in life.
Nan Ke one dream
A dream of Nanke
An absurdly ambitious plan divorced from reality. A dream of grandeur and splendor.
A pipe dream
outside strong middle dry
Outwardly strong but inwardly weak
Looking strong and powerful but actually weak. Flattering appearance that does not represent true worth.
Don't judge a book by its covers
cannot measure high deep
Too high or deep to measure
Enigmatic, unfathomable. Too profound to be readily understood
Still waters run deep
wine meat friends
Friends only for the food and drink
Fair weather friends
you cheat me swindle
Cheating and deceiving each other
Mutual distrust and deception. A relationship without any trust.
Dog eat dog
east hasten west walk
Be busy; bustling about
wood person rock heart
Body of wood, heart of stone
A heartless person or also someone who is unwaveringly determined to carry out a task and will not be distracted
Heart of stone
harmony face contended colour
Having a happy face looking contented
each person act as government
Each following his own policy
Acting selfishly. Following own plans and ideas with no regard for others.
great swan 's aspiration
The aspirations of a great swan
Having unrealistic ambitions.
Wish for the moon
forget favor lose justice
Forget a previous favor
Ungratefully forget to acknowledge a favor.
concentrate mind devote ambition
Study hard to achieve ambitions
An admonishment to encourage full concentration in order to study effectively and so achieve ambitions.
not able avoid convention
Bound up by conventions
Unable to do what you want because social conventions forbid it. Doing something just because it is expected.
Creature of habit
rely on person nose breath
Depend on someone, even for breathe
To be totally dependent on others, as if unable to breathe without their help. Showing great weakness.
Chinese folding fan with traditional landscape painting
glue peg strike zither
Gluing the tuning pegs of a zither
Inflexible and stubborn. Gluing the tuning pegs of a musical instrument so it can not be tuned and brought into harmony.
As stubborn as a mule
walk corpse walk flesh
A walking zombie
An unworthy person. Someone bereft of value - just a walking body with no active mind.
self ashamed not like
Ashamed at own inferiority
Ashamed of oneself
elect heart put stomach
Having full confidence
Put give someone your full support - body and soul. To trust someone implicitly.
one poor stupid blank
Both poor and stupid
A disparaging term for backwardness
unhurried not urgent
Calm and unhurried
Taking life calmly and in your stride. Untroubled.
Without a care in the world
Qi man grab gold
The gold grabber from Qi
Blinded by lust for gain. Greed. Avarice. Blinded by ambition. The story if of a man from the kingdom of Qi who seeing gold just grabbed it and ran off, oblivious of the consequences.
also step also walk fast
To follow in someone's footsteps
To imitate slavishly. The story is of a devoted pupil of Confucius, Yan Hui, who aped everything Confucius did including his walk. Pointless copying
situation as if split bamboo
Like splitting bamboo
Continuing a successful series. Once you get the knack of splitting bamboo it's best to keep on going. The story is of a general who was advised to rest his army for the winter after a series of successes. The general disagreed, his army had high morale and went on to complete the victory.
Don't stop while you are winning
same ill mutual pity
People with similar illness empathize with each other
People suffering the same misfortune sympathize with each other
Birds of a feather flock together
good good mister
Someone who agrees with everything said. More likely to be so as to not give any offense rather than ingratiating
Zheng person buy shoe
The man from Zheng buys shoes
Stubbornly sticking to a silly plan; inflexible and stupid. The story is of a man from Zheng who measured his own feet in readiness to buying new shoes. When he reached the shop in a distant town he found he had forgotten the paper on which the measurement was recorded. So he walked all the way home to fetch it rather than just try on shoes in the shop.
Stupid is as stupid does
good person; good deeds
Good personality good deeds
Pleasant person who behaves well
A good man is hard to find
see monster not monster
Calm at the sight of the unknown
Face the unexpected and disturbing with calmness and fortitude
Keep a cool head
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
until death not comprehend
Failing to understand even to death
Stubbornly holding to views. Obstinate and set in ways.
As stubborn as a mule
assist Jie to become oppressive
Aiding King Jie in his cruelty
An admonishment not to turn to the dark side. King Jie was the last ruler of the Xia dynasty and a byword for cruelty and depravity.
Supping with the Devil
cut flesh oneself eat
Eating one's own flesh
A foolish, self defeating stratagem.
Cutting off your nose to spite your face
return old return child
Return to youthful vigour
Returning to youthful energy. Turning back the years. Often used as a compliment to someone sprightly in old age.
New lease of life
Child practising calligraphy
old illness duplicate issue
An old ailment returns
It is difficult to shake off a deeply rooted habit
The leopard does not change his spots
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
absurd self respect great
Having an inflated opinion of oneself
Full of inflated pride. There are many examples throughout history of people thinking rather too highly of themselves.
Pride cometh before a fall
carry fat select thin
To separate out the fat and pick only the lean meat
A very picky person. Over zealous attention to detail
provoke agitation cross market
Parading through the busy streets
Boastful behavior; to be puffed up with pride . Walking the streets seeking the adulation of the crowds.
Pride comes before a fall
old able to increase strength
Old but still vigorous
Remaining vigorous, skillful and healthy in old age.
not act five peck rice bend waist
Refuse to bow for the sake of five measures of rice
Refusing inducements to betray a principles. Incorruptible. The story is of a man who refused to work for a corrupt and arrogant official even though he lost out on a generous salary.
as fire as flourishing
Raging like a fire
Daunting and vigorous. An intimidating prospect.
Vim and vigour
capable those who many work
The talented are kept busy
Busy people are busy because they are capable
If you want something done ask a busy man
toe high energy raise
Putting on airs and graces
An arrogant person who may well face a comeuppance due to complacency and self-conceit.
Pride cometh before a fall
deceive world steal fame
Deceiving the public to gain fame
A con artist. Someone who sets out to become famous by lies and deception.
Every trick in the book
thing with similarity congregate
Like attracts like
People tends to form groups with like-minded individuals.
Birds of a feather flock together
be good fortune not benevolent
Have riches but not be generous
Be rich but heartless
moon under wise person
The old man under the moon
The deity of matchmakers for marriage . said of someone who is trying to get a couple together. The tradition was that husband and wife had an invisible red thread tying them together from birth.
taste as if chicken rib
As tasteless as chicken ribs
A humdrum, boring activity and by extension a person lacking character. Insipid, bland.
千军易得, 一将难求 [千軍易得一將難求]
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
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
scrape eye appearance look at
Rubbing one?s eyes when seeing someone
Noticing that someone has changed for the better. Show respect for improvement and progress. Changing a view of someone's abilities.
Seeing someone in a new light
problem elder brother problem younger brother
Brothers of the same ilk
Two brothers showing similar personalities. Two people hard to tell apart.
One is just as bad as the other
Statue of Xuanzang at the Great Wild Goose Pagoda, Xi'an, Shaanxi
hero powerful not employ military place
A hero having no opportunity to display his talents
A situation where someone's undoubted talents can not be utilized.
gall big as peck
A gall bladder as big as a football
Someone who is immensely bold and courageous. In traditional medicine the gall bladder was considered the controller of aggression and courage, so someone with a huge gall bladder was expected to be very courageous.
As bold as brass
Smug and self-satisfied
To be very pleased with oneself. Giving an air of sublime complacency.
I'm all right Jack
kill person not blink eye
Killing without blinking an eye
lose hatchet doubt neighbor
Lose an axe and suspect a neighbour
Groundless suspicions. Jumping to conclusions.
large just not selfish
Helping everyone else. Not motivated by self-interest.
pattern edge both permit
Position is unclear or uncertain. Failing to make up your mind.
Sitting on the fence
push self to reach person
Imagine being in someone's position
To understand a situation from someone else's perspective.
Get the bigger picture
I work I usual
To continue in habitual ways
Stuck following old ways
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
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
avoid mentioning sickness fear medical
Hiding sickness for fear of treatment
Keeping mistakes and shortcomings to yourself. Refuse to listen to advice.
Sweep it under the carpet
one pen strike-out cancel
To dismiss with one stroke of the pen
Taking tough, decisive action to solve a problem. The story is of a statesman who sacked a whole host of incompetent officials working for him with one stroke of the brush.
single drum grow energy
Gathering courage from a single drum beat
A sudden burst of energy. Easily stimulated into action.
contented get along yet live
Muddling through life without great ambitions. Contended to just live from day to day.
Enough is as good as a feast
word but nothing true
Speak but not mean it
To go back on one's word
first stubborn after respectful
First scornful then respectful
Treating people in a two-faced manner according to people's perceived power and influence. A snobbish person who changes their manner according to who they are dealing with.
home as household know
Known in every household
A person or fact known to everybody. Something or somebody well known
A household name
character inside line between
Between the lines
Uncovering the hidden meaning or character
Reading between the lines
Photo by Anonymous, Chinese plate, Ming dynasty, Yongle period 1403-1424, porcelain with under-glaze blue, 23 inches [58 cms] diameter, Honolulu Academy of Arts. Available under a Creative Commons license ➚.
other song same skill
Different tunes played with the same skill
Different methods giving the same result. Different but equally satisfactory.
near person door
Hanging on another?s door
Someone dependent on a household without making much contribution. A hanger-on.
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
fear head fear tail
Fearing both the head and the tail
Nervous and afraid. Fearful at both the start and end of some event.
Afraid of your own shadow
actual direction nothing previous
No obstacle in any direction
To be able to conquer anyone on all fronts. Invincible against all opponents. An irresistible force
two writing brush simultaneous down
Painting with two brushes at the same time
To be able to do two things at once. The story is of a painter who was so skilled he could paint two pictures at the same time with a brush in either hand.
A dab hand
its appearance not raised
Undistinguished in appearance
after raise him refined
Promising young talent
Said of someone showing talent at an early age.
He/she will go far
glue paint mutually refuge
As close as glue and paint
A loyal and strong friendship.
road listen road speak
Paying heed to gossip
Listening to roadside gossip or tittle-tattle.
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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