Chinese idioms about the pitfalls of cunning plans and duplicity
The advantages and disadvantages of using clever tactics to achieve your ends.
kill wife seek general
Killing your wife to become a general
Ruthless action to further one's ambition. The story is of Wu Qi who served the state of Lu. His wife originally came from the enemy state of Qi; seeing this as an obstacle to his ambition to become a general, he killed his wife. He got the promotion so it is about ruthless but effective action.
Sell your grandmother
mouth trustworthy stomach sword
Honeyed mouth but harboring dagger
Machiavellian. Using kind words to conceal malice
Smile of the crocodile
turn over cloud overturn rain
Conjuring clouds with one hand and rain with the other
Trying too hard to impress
fox fake tiger power
A trick of cunning to exaggerate self importance
A fox will pretend to have the power of a tiger. The story is that a fox followed a tiger in a parade. The animals panicked and the fox claimed that this was because they were frightened of the fox not the tiger. It goes back to the Warring States Period.
weapon not detest cheat
In conflict cheating is permitted
In warfare nothing is too dishonest
All is fair in love and war
secret pass through Chencang
Secretly cross at the Chencang Road
A feigned maneuver designed to outwit. After the fall of the Qin dynasty Liu Bei sent out troops to repair a plank road presumably to mount an attack, but he actually moved his troops across the Wei River at Chencang and so surprised his enemy.
thief shout 'stop thief'
A thief cries 'Stop thief!'
Diverting attention to cover misdoing
raise lower their hand
To raise and lower the hand
A conspiracy is at work. A deft gesture signaling important information. The story is that back in the Spring and Autumn period two soldiers both claimed to have captured a prince and demanded their reward. When Bo Zhouli arbitrated he used a hand gesture to signal who he wished to receive the money.
smile inside conceal knife
A dagger concealed in a smile
Malice concealed by apparent friendliness. There is a story of Li Yifu who was a great flatterer of the early Tang dynasty. He was always smiles but sought to blackmail and deceive. Eventually Emperor Gaozong discovered his duplicity and he was banished.
Don't judge a book by its cover
crafty hare three burrows
A crafty rabbit has three burrows
To succeed you must must have alternative options, in particular several ways of escape from danger
There's more than one way to skin a cat
east food west night
Eating in the east and sleeping in the west
Taking fully advantage of kindly offers - accepting hospitality in a selfish way. The story is of a girl who was asked to choose whether to live with a family in the east or west side of a village. She chose to eat with the rich family of one suitor on the east side but also sleep with the poor but good looking suitor on the west side.
Butter one's bread on both sides
near river pavilion platform early gets moon
A waterfront pavilion sees the moonlight first
An allusion to the wisdom of having friends in high circles that often results in benefits.
Climbing the greasy poll
hare die fox sorrow
A fox mourns the death of a rabbit
Feigning concern to conceal true feeling
To weep crocodile tears
move tiger leave mountain
Lure a tiger down from its mountain. This is one of the age old strategms of war.
Lure an enemy out of its home territory in order to attack it
map exhausted dagger appear
When the map is unrolled the dagger is revealed
A secret plan is revealed, a conspiracy unmasked. The story is of an assassination attempt on the King of Qin back in the Warring States Period. Pretending to cede territory Prince Dan concealed a dagger in a scrolled up map.
The secret is out
cause influence favorable guide
Helping things along
To encourage something along to its natural fulfillment.
metal city boiling moat
A city of metal with a moat of boiling water
An impregnable city with highly effective defenses. Someone/something not worth trying to attack.
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
steal girder change post
Steal beams replaced with wooden poles
To carry out a crafty deception
arrow mouth deny
To shoot arrows from the mouth
To flatly deny the truth
chicken cry dog steal
Able to crow like a cockerel and steal like a dog
A person with a range of useful tricks. The story is of someone back in the Warring States period who helped a prince out of difficulty by imitating a dog to distract prison guards and to crow like a cockerel to trick them into thinking it was already morning
Every trick in the book
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
sandpiper clam mutually strive, fisherman elderly obtain benefit
The sandpiper and clam fight each other
The sandpiper (or snipe) is too busy fighting a clam to notice the wily fishermen who snares them both. Taking advantage of situation when other people are too distracted with their own business.
As cunning as a fox
cheat according to its ability
Knowing the approptiate way to cheat
To skilfully deceive. Invent a lie that fools the audience. Playing a clever trick.
Having an ace up the sleeve
take desire get it must first give it
Give up in order to take back
A strategy to maintain possession. By giving up something in the hope that it will be rewarded. The story is of a dispute with a greedy neighboring kingdom. Rather than oppose a kingdom volunteered to give up land. When the greed y neighbor continued to take advantage all the neighbors united against it and all the lands were returned.
evil person first tell complaint
The offender is the first to complain
The perpetrator diverts attention by being the first to complain
To cry 'wolf'
one move two gains
Achieving two goals at once
A lucky stroke. There is a story of a two hunters. They saw two tigers feasting on a dead ox. One of them was keen to attack both of them but his friend advised against it. He thought that the tigers were bound to fight each other and whichever won would be weakened and much easier to attack. Following this advice two tigers were killed with one attack.
Killing two birds with one stone
hang up sheep head sell dog meat
Hanging up a sheep?s head but selling dog meat
Deceiving people into believing you are selling something much less valuable than it appears to be. A con trick. Dishonest advertising.
Buying a pig in a poke
bright know incident ask
Already knowing the answer
To ask a question when already knowing the answer
covet heaven 's achievement
Appropriate the achievements of others
Cheating others of their just reward. The story is of an official who was swindled out of his just reward for good service. Eventually the ruler worked out what had happened and he was given an even greater reward.
extraordinary system medal
Using an ingenious, unexpected ploy
Using a surprise or ingenious scheme to achieve success.
As cunning as a fox
encircle Wei to save Zhao
Besiege Wei to rescue Zhao
To aid a friend by attacking a mutual enemy. During the Warring States periodthe state of Wei was attacking the state of Zhao. Handan, the capital of Zhao was besieged, The state of Qi wished to help its ally Zhao, rather than intervene to try to lift the siege of Handan, the Qi general launched an attack on the Wei's capital Daliang, forcing the Wei troops to lift the siege.
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
old crafty great cunning
To be very crafty and cunning
To be tricky, cunning, crafty. Well versed in the ways of the world
All's fair in love and war
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.
desire moreover which how misfortune not dismiss
There is always a crime that somebody can be accused of
No-one is spotless and so everyone can be rightly accused of a crime. Nobody's perfect.
first set about act strong
Striking first to demonstrate strength
To gain the upper hand by striking first
Strike while the iron is hot
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.