Chinese idioms about the pitfalls of cunning plans and duplicity

The advantages and disadvantages of using clever tactics to achieve your ends.

Fān yún fù [fan yun fu yu]
turn over cloud overturn rain
Conjuring clouds with one hand and rain with the other
Trying too hard to impress
[圖窮匕見]
Tú qióng bǐ xiàn [tu qiong bi xian]
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
Shàng xià qí shǒu [shang xia qi shou]
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.
Jiǎo tù sān kū [jiao tu san ku]
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
[羊質虎皮]
Yáng zhì hǔ pí [yang zhi hu pi]
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
狐假
Hǔ jiǎ hǔ wēi [hu jia hu wei]
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.
贼喊捉贼 [賊喊捉賊]
Zéi hǎn zhuō zéi [zei han zhuo zei]
thief shout 'stop thief'
A thief cries 'Stop thief!'
Diverting attention to cover misdoing
Crying 'wolf'
偷梁换柱 [偷梁換柱]
Tōu liáng huàn zhù [tou liang huan zhu]
steal girder change post
Steal beams replaced with wooden poles
To carry out a crafty deception
[調虎离山]
Diào hǔ lí shān [diao hu li shan]
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
Xiào lǐ cáng dāo [xiao li cang dao]
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
暗渡陈仓 [暗渡陳倉]
Àn dù chén cāng [an du chen cang]
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.
汤池 [金城湯池]
Jīn chéng tāng chí [jin cheng tang chi]
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.
[近水樓台先得月]
Jìn shuǐ lóu tái xiān dé yuè [jin shui lou tai xian de yue]
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
厌诈 [兵不厭詐]
Bīng bù yàn zhà [bing bu yan zha]
weapon not detest cheat
In conflict cheating is permitted
In warfare nothing is too dishonest
All is fair in love and war
西宿 [東食西宿]
Dōng shí xī sù [dong shi xi su]
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
寄腹剑 [口寄腹劍]
Kǒu jì fù jiàn [kou ji fu jian]
mouth trustworthy stomach sword
Honeyed mouth but harboring dagger
Machiavellian. Using kind words to conceal malice
Smile of the crocodile
[殺妻求將]
Shā qī qiú jiàng [sha qi qiu jiang]
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
狐悲
Tù sǐ hú bēi [tu si hu bei]
hare die fox sorrow
A fox mourns the death of a rabbit
Feigning concern to conceal true feeling
To weep crocodile tears
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.
Ming dynasty, pagoda
Ming dynasty Linlong pagoda detail
[雞鳴狗盜]
Jī míng gǒu dào [ji ming gou dao]
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
否认 [矢口否認]
Shǐ kǒu fǒu rèn [shi kou fou ren]
arrow mouth deny
To shoot arrows from the mouth
To flatly deny the truth
沐猴
Mù hóu ér guàn [mu hou er guan]
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
鹬蚌争, [鷸蚌相爭,漁翁得利]
Yù bàng xiāng zhēng yú wēng dé lì [yu bang xiang zheng yu weng de li]
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
[貪天之功]
Tān tiān zhī gōng [tan tian zhi gong]
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.
Rough justice
[一舉兩得]
jǔ liǎng dé [yi ju liang de]
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
[噁人先告狀]
È rén xiān gàozhuàng [e ren xian gaozhuang]
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'
[明知故問]
Míng zhī gù wèn [ming zhi gu wen]
bright know incident ask
Already knowing the answer
To ask a question when already knowing the answer
Qī yǐ qí lì [qi yi qi li]
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
[掛羊頭賣狗肉]
Guà yáng tóu mài gǒu ròu [gua yang tou mai gou rou]
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
罪,[欲加之罪,何患無辭]
Yù jiā zhī zuì hé huàn wú cí [yu jia zhi zui he huan wu ci]
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.
[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
锦囊妙计 [錦囊妙計]
Jǐn náng miào jì [jin nang miao ji]
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.
奸巨猾
Lǎo jiān jù huá [lao jian ju hua]
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
围魏救赵 [圍魏救趙]
Wéi wèi jiù zhào [wei wei jiu zhao]
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.
制勋 [出奇制勛]
Chū qí zhì xūn [chu qi zhi xun]
extraordinary system medal
Using an ingenious, unexpected ploy
Using a surprise or ingenious scheme to achieve success.
As cunning as a fox
[先下手為強]
Xiān xià shǒu wéi qiáng [xian xia shou wei qiang]
first set about act strong
Striking first to demonstrate strength
To gain the upper hand by striking first
Strike while the iron is hot
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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