Chinese idioms about showing due consideration for other people

Working together requires consideration for other people, and this thought features in many Chinese proverbs. Things get along much better if everyone works in harmony.

旁观 [袖手旁觀]
Xiù shǒu páng guān [xiu shou pang guan]
sleeve hand side observe
To look on with folded arms
To look on without offering any help or showing concern
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
[強扭的瓜不甜]
Qiáng niǔ de guā bù tián [qiang niu de gua bu tian]
energetic seize melon not sweet
A melon taken off its vine is not sweet
Coercion never ends up satisfactorily. Leave things to develop naturally
蜡烛,却毁 [蠟燭照亮別人㕁毀滅了自己]
Là zhú zhào liàng bié rén, què huǐ miè le zì jǐ [la zhu zhao liang bie ren, que hui mie le zi ji]
candle illuminate bright other people, but destroy extinguish itself
A candle illuminates others at the cost of burning itself up
Helping others at the cost of not looking after yourself
Love thy neighbor as thyself
衔环 [結草銜環]
Jié cǎo xián huán [jie cao xian huan]
tie grass link ring
Tying grass and delivering rings
Generously repaying a debt of gratitude. The story is of Yang Bao who nursed a sick bird back to health. After he had released the siskin into the wild he dreamed of the bird carrying grass tied in rings in its beak which transformed into a boy with precious jade rings . The boy gave Yang Bao enduring good fortune in gratitude.
[橫行霸道]
Héng xíng bà dào [heng xing ba dao]
across walk bully road
Walking sidewise to block the way
Being deliberately obstructive
指桑骂槐 [指桑罵槐]
Zhǐ sāng mà huái [zhi sang ma huai]
finger mulberry blame locust tree
Pointing to the mulberry tree when the locust tree is to blame
Deliberately deflecting criticism to someone or something else - often to protect friends or family
[打人不打臉]
rén bù dǎ liǎn [da ren bu da lian]
strike person not strike 'face'
Better to hit a person than their reputation. Losing 'face' is a major consideration for Chinese people
Be diplomatic and tactful when being critical
To err is human; to forgive divine
[風雨同舟]
Fēng tóng zhōu [feng yu tong zhou]
wind rain same boat
In the same boat in a storm
Facing troubles together
A trouble shared is a trouble halved
[不告而別]
Bù gaò ér bié [bu gao er bie]
not tell but leave
No words spoken when leave
Leave without saying goodbye
举案齐眉 [舉案齊眉]
Jǔ àn qí méi [ju an qi mei]
lift table level with eyebrow
Lifting the tray up to the eyebrows
Showing respect and affection for someone. It is a traditional show of respect to lift a tray high when presenting food to a respected guest. Lasting love and consideration
脸, [人要臉樹要皮]
Rén yaò liǎn, shù yaò pí [ren yao lian, shu yao pi]
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
完璧[完璧歸趙]
Wán bì guī zhào [wan bi gui zhao]
complete jade bi return Zhao
Returning the jade bi to Zhao
A jade bi is a large round piece with a hole in the middle. The story is of an ancient Imperial 'crown jewel' the 'He shi bi' that was stolen by the king of Qin. The ruler of the state of Zhao then managed to get it back. It has come to mean returning something (in good condition) to its rightful owner.
Shanxi, Sui dynasty, sculpture
An ancient mythological beast (pixiu) made of iron at Yuci Village, Shanxi
[恩將仇報]
Ēn jiāng chóu baò [en jiang chou bao]
kindness will enemy repay
Repay kindness with hostility
Reject kindness
Biting the hand that feeds it
抛砖引 [拋塼引玉]
Pāo zhuān yǐn yù [pao zhuan yin yu]
throw brick draw jade
Cast out a brick to invite jade
Stimulate others to contribute to conversation by making a silly or superficial remark that sparks off debate.
, [蘿卜白菜各有所愛]
Luó bo bái cài, gè yǒu suǒ ài [luo bo bai cai, ge you suo ai]
radish cabbage, each have place fond
Some prefer radish while others like cabbage
Everyone has their own preferences
Each to his own
舐犊 [舐犢之愛]
Shì dú zhī ài [shi du zhi ai]
lick calf's love
The love of a cow licking her calf
An example of parental love and devotion. A biased assessment due to family ties - caring for one's own relatives
The fruit does not fall far from the tree
[兔子不吃窩邊草]
Tù zi bù chī wō biān cǎo [tu zi bu chi wo bian cao]
rabbit no eat burrow side grass
Rabbits do not eat the grass around their burrows
Thieves do not steal from neighbors
猢狲 [樹倒猢猻散]
Shù daǒ hú sūn sàn [shu dao hu sun san]
tree fall monkey troupe break up
When the tree falls, the monkeys scatter
When a leader loses power, his followers are disorganized and also lose power. Often said to warn someone that they hold their position only so long as their patron is in power
[家丑不可外揚]
Jiā chǒu bù kě wài yáng [jia chou bu ke wai yang]
family shame not allowed outside scatter
Family shame should not be spread
Keep family problems within the family
送鹅 [千里送鵝毛]
Qiān lǐ sòng é máo [qian li song e mao]
thousand Chinese mile deliver swan feather
A swan feather from a thousand miles away
Showing appreciation on receiving a gift that shows the sender has taken time and trouble to choose it. Traveling a very long way to deliver what seems to be a trifle. The tale is from the Tang dynasty, when Mian Bogai sent a gift of a special swan to the Emperor. However the feather was all that was left from a swan when he arrived. So this is a rejoinder when someone receives a gift that is seemingly of low value.
Don't look a gift horse in the mouth
[隔岸觀火]
Gé àn guān huǒ [ge an guan huo]
separate bank observe fire
Watch the fire burn from the other side of the river
Refusing to help others when it is needed
[得魚忘筌]
wàng quán [de yu wang quan]
catch fish forget trap
After catching a fish forget the trap
Ungrateful behavior, ignoring help given to make things possible
Don't bite the hand that feeds you
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.
随俗 [入鄉隨俗]
Rù xiāng suí sú [ru xiang sui su]
enter village follow custom
When entering a village, follow its customs
Take account of local people and opinions
When in Rome do as the Romans do
[河東獅吼]
Hé dōng shī hǒu [he dong shi hou]
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
Dowager Empress Cixi, Qing dynasty
Dowager Empress Cixi with the wives of European diplomats in western clothing standing on either side, together with an adopted Chinese orphan. 1902. Image from http://puyi.netor.com/gallery available under a Creative Commons license .
[樂不思蜀]
Lè bù sī Shǔ [le bu si Shu]
happy not consider Shu
So happy that the kingdom of Shu is forgotten
Lost in present pleasures so as to forget home and duties. Said of Liu Chan ruler of the Shu kingdom (Sichuan province) who when defeated and in exile heard songs of his old kingdom but did not become melancholy like his other guests. So it refers to someone living in the present and not caring about the past. Lost in the moment
[㱃水思源]
Yǐn shuǐ sī yuán [yin shui si yuan]
drink water think source
When drinking water remember the origin
Do not forget the source of your good fortune (particularly your parents)
Count your blessings
Sòng Xiāng zhī rén [Song Xiang zhi ren]
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.
[約法三章]
Yuē fǎ sān zhāng [yue fa san zhang]
treaty law three clauses
Setting out the three articles of law
Imposing simple and clear laws. At the end of the bitter Civil War that brought the Qin dynasty to an end in 206BCE, the leader Liu Bang chose to dispose of all the laws of the Qin, replacing them with three simple laws: do not kill; do not harm and do not steal. Liu Bang went on to found the Han dynasty that ruled for 400 years.
[害群之馬]
Hài qún zhī mǎ [hai qun zhi ma]
injure crowd this horse
The horse that causes trouble to the herd
The bad person of the family or group
Bad apple; Black sheep
[賓至如歸]
Bīn zhì rú guī [bin zhi ru gui]
guest arrive as if belong
Guests feel at home
Warmly welcoming guests to your home. Guests treated as part of the family.
Be my guest
Fǎn fù tuī qiāo [fan fu tui qiao]
contrary overturn push and knock
Carefully considering the words push and knock
Spending considerable time to get the words just right. Showing excessive concern on minor details. Said to be the story of an Tang dynasty official who could not choose whether 'knock' or 'push' was the appropriate word in a poem.
Slow but sure
[一夜十徃]
shí wǎng [yi ye shi wang]
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.
[家家戶戶]
Jiā jiā hù hù [jia jia hu hu]
house house door door
Every family
The whole community
麻雀,脏俱 [麻雀雖小五臟俱全]
Má què suī xiǎo, zàng jù quán [ma que sui xiao, wu zang ju quan]
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
拆桥 [過河拆橋]
Guò hé chāi qiáo [guo he chai qiao]
go river destroy bridge
Dismantling the bridge after crossing it
Not showing due consideration for others
[節哀順變]
Jié āi shùn biàn [jie ai shun bian]
holiday pity submit to alter
Hold back on grief and accept the mishap
Often said as a token of condolence on a death
,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
Laozi, philosopher
Statue of Lao Tzu (Laozi) in Quanzhou, Fujian. Image by Tom@HK available under a Creative Commons license .
[程門立雪]
Chéng mén xuě [cheng men li xue]
Cheng door stand snow
Standing at Cheng?s door in the snow
Showing great respect for someone - usually a teacher or scholar. The story is that a great scholar accidentally left two students waiting for him for hours out in the snow.
[顧左右而言他]
Gù zuǒ yòu ér yán tā [gu zuo you er yan ta]
look at left and right sides but then talk him
Looking both ways and changing the subject
Avoiding talking about something; taking a long digression
[安居樂業]
Ān jū lè yè [an ju le ye]
peace reside happy enterprise
Live and work in peace and contentment
Wishing you well in a new home
Chū shēng rù sǐ [chu sheng ru si]
be born enter death
To risk one's life
Offer unquestioning support
Through thick and thin
[老當益壯]
Lǎo dāng yì zhuàng [lao dang yi zhuang]
old able to increase strength
Old but still vigorous
Remaining vigorous, skillful and healthy in old age.
Jiě yī tuī shí [jie yi tui shi]
remove clothes cut food
Sharing garments and food
Sharing clothes and food with someone in need. To treat with great kindness and consideration.
嫁祸 [嫁旤于人]
Jià huò yú rén [jia huo yu ren]
marry disaster foremost person
A person in misfortune blames someone else
Spread blame onto others
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
[一眎同仁]
shì tóng rén [yi shi tong ren]
one look same benevolence
Everybody treat same kindness
Treat all people the same
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.
糟糠
Zāo kāng zhī qī [zao kang zhi qi]
Chaff wife
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
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 of the characters have been simplified the phrase is shown in brackets and gray text. . 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 shown.

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.