Warnings about the need to prepare for impending danger, and how to cope when a threat is at hand.
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 成语 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.
Of the thirty-six stratagems, running away is the best.
Sometimes it is best to avoid conflict altogether. Flight can be the best option. 'The Thirty-Six Stratagems' was written by the great military thinker Sun Zi ➚
Roughly equivalent to: Devil take the hindmost.
Yǐ luǎn tóu shí
Try to smash a stone with an egg
Overrating strength and being defeated. Defeat guaranteed.
Roughly equivalent to: Kicking a brick wall.
Yīn yè fèi shí
If is foolish to refuse to eat just because of the chance of choking
Life does not come without risks. Risk of failure is not an argument for not trying.
Máng cì zài bèi
A thorn in one's flesh
Someone or something is causing continuous irritation.
Qǐng jūn rù wèng
Please step into the vat
To fall victim to a punishment that you yourself devised. The story is from the reign of Empress Wu Zetian 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 Zhou Ying with his own torture. Zhou then rapidly confessed to all his crimes!
Roughly equivalent to: To give someone a taste of their own medicine.
Yǔ hú móu pí
Asking a fox for its skin
Make an unrealistic request of someone who is bound to refuse. A pointless request requiring someone to act against their normal character.
Roughly equivalent to: The leopard does not change his spots.
Dōng chuāng shì fā
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.
Roughly equivalent to: The chickens have come home to roost.
Kē zhèng měng yú hǔ
Tyranny is more terrible than tigers
The story is that Confucius met a woman near mount Taishan who was weeping bitterly. When asked, she said she had lost father-in-law, husband and son to marauding tigers. When Confucius asked why then she did not move to a safer village she replied that she was sheltering from a despotic government and would rather risk tigers than oppression. Evil government is the worst of evils.
Avoid circumstances that give rise to false suspicion, If someone is seen near ripe melons or under a plum tree they are open to suspicion of theft. A longer form of the saying makes it clear that you should not tie up your shoes in a melon field or out on a hat under a plum tree as these actions are suspicious.
In desperate straits. Life threatening situation - the last fish swimming at the bottom of a barrel.
Roughly equivalent to: Stare into the abyss.
Chóng dǎo fù zhé
Following the track of an overturned cart
To repeat a disastrous strategy. Not learning from previous mistakes - slavishly following previous practice. The story is of a virtuous official who risked Han emperor Huan's displeasure by pointing out that he was repeating the mistakes of the second Qin emperor.
Being scared of the paranormal; irrational fear of dark and shadows.
Roughly equivalent to: Frightened of your own shadow.
Cǎo mù jiē bīng
Every bush harbors an enemy
Being paranoid - believing everyone is out to get you. To be beleaguered.
Jìn ruò hán chán
As silent as a cicada in winter
Cicadas do not 'sing' in cold weather. To keep silent for fear of attracting unwanted attention or incriminating yourself.
Roughly equivalent to: Keeping mum.
Jí fēng zhī jìng cǎo
A storm tests the strength of a blade of grass
Being put to the test in harsh circumstances. To show resolution under extreme stress. Remaining loyal to a cause when the going gets tough.
Roughly equivalent to: If you cant stand the heat get out of the kitchen.
Qiáng nǔ zhī mò
An arrow at the end of its flight
A spent force. An person or impulse that has now lost all its initial energy just as a bolt from a cross-bow gradually loses its power with distance.
Roughly equivalent to: Burned out.
Qū tū xǐ xīn
Bend the chimney and move the firewood
A warning to avoid danger. The story of a man who was advised that his chimney was too straight and the stack of firewood too close to the fire as these could easily cause a fire to take hold. The advice was ignored and sure enough a serious fire damaged the house,
It is easy to dodge a spear from in front; but hard to avoid an arrow from behind
It is difficult to guard against furtive attacks.
Qián pà láng hòu pà hǔ
To fear wolves ahead and tigers behind
To be obsessed by fears of attack from all sides.
Zhòng nù nán fàn
Avoid incurring the wrath of the crowd
It's a bad idea to stir up the anger of a large crowd.
Yán guò qí shí
To embellish the facts
Overstate the facts or exaggerate skills. Someone who is a bit of a windbag.
Bù hán ér lì
Shivering yet not cold
Shudder with fear and dread. There is a story of a sadistic official of the Han dynasty who arbitrarily sentenced people to death. When their relatives and friends came to protest he had them executed too. Everyone was quaking with fear when they saw the official.
Defeat so total bodies will litter the ground. Beaten and in a hopeless situation. Suggest the enemy is in such a rage that no mercy will be shown.
Dāi ruò mù jī
As dumb as a wooden chicken
Dumbstruck, unable to move or say anything out of fear.
Roughly equivalent to: Caught like a rabbit in the headlights.
Gǒu yán cán chuǎn
Lingering at last gasp
In the throes of dying. Making a final desperate action prior to dying.
Roughly equivalent to: At death's door.
Qìng fù bù sǐ Lǔ nàn wèi yǐ
The troubles of the state of Lu will continue until Qing Fu is removed
Take action to remove someone/something obstructing progress, In the Spring and Autumn period of Chinese history Qing Fu rose to power in the state of Lu and ruled as a complete despot killing any opponents. Peace did not come until he had been removed from power.
A wish to die in action on the battlefield. A heroic wish to serve until death.
Roughly equivalent to: With all guns blazing.
Wéi wèi jiù zhào
Besiege Wei to rescue Zhao
To aid a friend by attacking a mutual enemy. During the Warring States period the 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.
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.