Chinese idioms about getting along with others

China motif

Our proverbs come with full information. The modern Chinese characters are given first with links that give information on the character. As proverbs are so old you will often see them written using the traditional form of characters; so if some of the characters have been simplified the traditional form is shown in brackets and gray text. The characters are followed by the proverb (normally a chéng yǔ) 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 shown.

For background on the types and history of proverbs please see our guide.

Everyone is different, so proverbs that stress the importance of rubbing along together are helpful.

[半斤八兩]
Bàn jīn liǎng
Two equivalent measures
Nothing to choose between two alternatives.
Roughly equivalent to: Six of one, and half a dozen of the other.
[遲開的花未必不香]
Chí kāi de huā wèi bì bú xiāng
A late-blooming flower is not necessarily lacking in fragrance
It's never too late to try something new.
[吃軟不吃硬]
Chī ruǎn bù chī yìng
Only able to chew tender food, not the tough
Unable to withstand harsh criticism.
穿鞋, [穿新鞋走老路]
Chuān xīn xié, zǒu lǎo lù
Wear new shoes but follow old paths
Stick to the old ways while appearing to follow the latest trends.
[大發雷霆]
léi tíng
Develop large thunderstorm
Fly into a furious rage.
Roughly equivalent to: To spit nails.
[恩將仇報]
Ēn jiāng chóu baò
Repay kindness with hostility
Reject kindness.
Roughly equivalent to: Biting the hand that feeds it.
, [凡人不可貌相海水不可斗量]
Fán rén bù kě mào xiàng, hǎi shuǐ bù kě dòu liàng
Neither a person can be judged by his looks nor can the sea be fathomed
Judging by appearance is dangerous.
Roughly equivalent to: Don't judge a book by its cover.
负荆[負荊請罪]
Fù jīng qǐng zuì
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.
Roughly equivalent to: Swallowing your pride.
Fǔ kuài bú pà mù chái yìng
A sharp axe does not fear hard wood
A talented person is not afraid of a difficult task.
[海納百川]
Hǎi nà bǎi chuān
All rivers run to the sea
We all share a common destiny.
[好馬不吃回頭草]
Hǎo mǎ bù chī huí tóu cǎo
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.
[鶴立雞群]
Hè lì jī qún
A crane standing amidst a flock of chickens
Being conspicuously different (often superior)
Roughly equivalent to: Standing head and shoulders above the opposition.
, 嫁 [嫁雞隨雞嫁狗隨狗]
Jià jī suí jī, jià gǒu suí gǒu
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.
Roughly equivalent to: When in Rome do as the Romans do.
Summer palace, Beijing, roof animals, PKChina-68
Roof animals at Kunming Lake, Summer Palace, Beijing. September 2019. Image by Paul Kerswill
[錦上添花]
Jǐn shàng tiān huā
Add another flower to a tapestry
Taking too much trouble with detail to try to achieve perfection. Fiddling when already complete.
Roughly equivalent to: Gilding the lily.
, [近朱者赤近墨者黑]
Jìn zhū zhě chì, jìn mò zhě hēi
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.
Roughly equivalent to: A person is known by the company he keeps.
Jiǔ niú èr hǔ zhī lì
The strength of nine bulls and two tigers
Tremendously strong.
[開門見山]
Kāi mén jiàn shān
As soon as the door is opened see the mountain
To come straight to the point. Avoid procrastination.
Roughly equivalent to: Brevity is the soul of wit.
骥伏枥, [老驥伏櫪志在千里]
Lǎo jì fú lì, zhì zài qiān lǐ
The old horse in the stable still yearns to gallop 1,000 miles
Ambitions never fade. An old person still has high hopes.
Roughly equivalent to: Old soldiers never die, they just fade away.
[龍飛鳳舞]
Lóng fēi fèng wǔ
A dragon's flight and a phoenix's dance - very powerful and invigorating.
Flamboyant. Lively and vigorous.
[龍爭虎斗]
Lóng zhēng hǔ dòu
Bitter fight between a dragon and tiger. An evenly matched big fight
Struggle between two equal leaders.
, [蘿卜白菜各有所愛]
Luó bo bái cài, gè yǒu suǒ ài
Some prefer radish while others like cabbage
Everyone has their own preferences.
Roughly equivalent to: Each to his own.
落叶[落叶歸根]
Luò yè guī gèn
Fallen leaves return to the root
Returning to place of birth.
Roughly equivalent to: There's no place like home.
沐猴
Mù hóu ér guàn
A hat-wearing macaque
A worthless person hiding behind imposing looks. Trying to impress too hard.
Roughly equivalent to: All that glitters is not gold.
,[人不可貌相海水不可斗量]
Rén bù kě mào xiàng, hǎi shuǐ bù kě dǒu liáng
A person cannot be judged by appearance just as the sea cannot be measured with a bucket
First appearances can be deceptive.
Roughly equivalent to: Judging a book by its cover.
Rén xīn bù zú shé tūn xiàng
A person's greed is like a snake that seeks to swallow an elephant
Greed is insatiable.
隔肚
Rén xīn gé dù pí
A person's heart is not discernible from looking just at the body
People are inscrutable. Do not judge by appearance.
Roughly equivalent to: Don't judge a book by its cover.
tea, people
Demonstrating the elaborate tea ceremony at the Du Fu Thatched Cottage Museum, Chengdu, Sichuan
脸, [人要臉樹要皮]
Rén yaò liǎn, shù yaò pí
Keeping a good reputation is as essential as bark is to a tree
Reputation ('face') must be maintained at all costs.
乳臭
Rǔ chòu wèi gān
Still suckling and in nappies. Still an infant. Young and inexperienced
Infantile and immature.
否认 [矢口否認]
Shǐ kǒu fǒu rèn
To shoot arrows from the mouth
To flatly deny the truth.
, [水能載舟亦能覆舟]
Shuǐ néng zài zhōu, yì néng fù zhōu
Not only does water float a boat, it can sink it too
Events and people can have both positive and negative influences.
[听其言觀其行]
Tīng qí yán guān qí xíng
Listen to what a person says and then watch what is done
Judge people by their actions, not by their words.
Roughly equivalent to: Actions speak louder than words.
[同床異夢]
Tóng chuáng yì mèng
Dream different dreams on the same bed
Not everyone thinks the same.
Roughly equivalent to: It takes all sorts to make a world.
狐悲
Tù sǐ hú bēi
A fox mourns the death of a rabbit
Feigning concern to conceal true feeling.
Roughly equivalent to: To weep crocodile tears.
[兔子不吃窩邊草]
Tù zi bù chī wō biān cǎo
Rabbits do not eat the grass around their burrows
Thieves do not steal from neighbors.
殿 [無事不登三寳殿]
Wú shì bū dēng sān bǎo diàn
No-one comes to pray at the Temple of Three Treasures unless in trouble
Often it is obvious when somebody is after something.
掩瑜
Xiá bù yǎn yú
A speck on a jade stone can't obscure its brilliance
One small fault won't spoil the impression of an overall exceptional person.
Xīn huā nù fàng
The flower of the heart in full bloom
Full flowering of joy.
[一鳴驚人]
míng jīng rén
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.
Yǔ maó wèi fēng
Not yet grown adult plumage. A fledgling bird - young and inexperienced
Still too young and immature.
mahjong, people
Family Mahjong game
[欲速則不達]
Yù sù zé bù dá
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.
Roughly equivalent to: More haste less speed.
[子不教父之過]
Zǐ bù jiào fù zhī guò
A father is responsible for his son's conduct
Parents are responsible for their children's education.
Zì gāo zì
Think oneself tall and great
Full of conceit and ego.
陶醉
Zì wǒ táo zuì
Drunk with oneself. Narcissistic
Conceited and arrogant.
[走馬看花]
Zǒu mǎ kàn huā
Looking at the flowers while riding a horse
To take a cursory look at something. Smug.
怀 [坐懷不亂]
Zuò huái bù luàn
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.
井观 [坐井觀天]
Zuò jǐng guān tiān
To sit at the bottom of a well and view the sky
A blinkered or limited view of the world.
[安步當車]
Ān bù dàng chē
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.
鹏程
Péng chéng wàn
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.
忍辱负 [忍辱負重]
Rěn rǔ fù zhòng
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.
Roughly equivalent to: Taking the flak.
[羊質虎皮]
Yáng zhì hǔ pí
A goat in a tiger's skin
Someone not living up to outward appearance. Looking fierce but actually timid.
Roughly equivalent to: All that glisters is not gold.
[別別具一格]
Bié jù yī
Possessing a unique style
Doing things your own way.
西 [東奔西走]
Dōng bēn xī zǒu
Busy everywhere
Be busy; bustling about.
kowtow
Kowtowing before the magistrate. Official session at a Chinese Yamen, Guangzhou, pre-1889. Image available under a Creative Commons license
[所向無前]
Suǒ xiàng wú qián
No obstacle in any direction
To be able to conquer anyone on all fronts. Invincible against all opponents. An irresistible force.

See also