Chinese idioms A to F ordered by English equivalent

A list of Chinese proverbs ordered by the rough English equivalent.

A big fish in a small pond

, [宁做雞頭不噹鳳尾]
Nìng zuò jītóu, bù dāng fèng wěi
Rather be a chicken's head than a phoenix's tail
Better to be leader of a humble organization than the stooge of a grand one.

A cat may look at a king

[不恥下問]
Bù chǐ xià wèn
There is no shame in asking help from those less fortunate or senior than yourself.

A copycat

[亦步亦趨]
Yì bù yì qū
To follow in someone's footsteps
To imitate slavishly. The story is of a devoted pupil of Confucius, Yan Hui, who aped everything Confucius did including his walk. Pointless copying.

A dab hand

管齐 [雙管齊下]
Shuāng guǎn qí xià
Painting with two brushes at the same time
To be able to do two things at once. The story is of a painter who was so skilled he could paint two pictures at the same time with a brush in either hand.
[百發百中]
One hundred arrows, one hundred bullseyes
A superb marksman; showing great skill. Yang Youji and Houyi were archers of great renown.

A drop in the ocean

Jiǔ niú maó
Nine cows are missing just one hair
An insignificant amount. A trivial matter.

A drowning man will clutch at a straw

困兽犹 [困獸猶鬥]
Kùn shòu yóu dòu
A cornered beast continues to struggle
Desperate measures to keep going. To fight like a cornered animal.

A feast for the eyes

Xiù sè kě cān
A lovely sight to feast the eyes on
A beautiful woman.

A finishing touch

[一字之師]
zì zhī shī
A teacher of one word
Needing only a slight change to become perfect. Praise for work that is nearly perfect but requires an expert to complete. The story is of a poem that was greatly improved by a great poet changing just one character.

A flight of fancy

[空中樓閣]
Kōng zhōng lóu gé
A pavilion in the air
A fanciful and impossible scheme. An impractical idea with a streak of vanity.

A fool and his money are soon parted

[大手大腳]
shǒu jiaǒ
Large hands and feet
Lavish and grandiose expenditure on tasteless trifles.

A fool's errand

[徒勞無功]
Tú láo wú gōng
Futile effort
Pointless effort that will achieve nothing.

A forlorn hope

卫填 [精衛填海]
Jīng wèi tián hǎi
Jingwei tries to fill up the ocean
Even the mythical bird Jing Wei will be unable to fill the oceans with pebbles. Facing a Herculean task. Determined against impossible odds. The story is of Jing Wei who was the daughter of Emperor Yan. A great typhoon came and killed her and she was then transformed into a bird. In revenge for her early death she determined to fill up the ocean by filling it with pebbles one by one.
palace, eunuch, Beijing
Entrance through the Gate of Peace at the Lama Temple Beijing (Yonghegong), or Palace of Peace and Harmony Lama Temple or Yonghegong Lamsery, a renowned lama temple of the Yellow Hat Sect of Lamaism. Building work on the YongHeGong Temple started in 1694 during the Qing Dynasty. It originally served as an official residence for court eunuchs. It was then converted into the court of Prince Yong Zheng (Yin Zhen), a son of emperor KangXi. After YongZheng's ascension to the throne in 1722, half of the building was converted into a lamasery, a monastery for monks of Tibetan Buddhism, while the other half remained an imperial palace. November 2006. Image by Dennis Jarvis from Halifax, Canada available under a Creative Commons license

A friend in need is a friend indeed

[患難見真情]
Huàn nàn jiàn zhēn qíng
In adversity, true feelings are shown
Only in a crisis do you know who your friends really are.
送炭
Xuě lǐ sòng tàn
Send charcoal in a snow storm
To offer assistance when it is needed.

A good man is hard to find

Hǎo rén hǎo shì
Good personality good deeds
Pleasant person who behaves well.

A household name

[家喻戶曉]
Jiā yù hù xiǎo
Known in every household
A person or fact known to everybody. Something or somebody well known.

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step

循序渐 [循序漸進]
Xún xù jiàn jìn
Make gradual progress one step at a time
To make steady step by step progress towards an end.

A leopard cannot change its spots

[再作馮婦]
Zài zuò féng fù
Becoming Feng Fu again
Returning to old ways and habits. Feng Fu was a renowned tiger hunter from the state of Jin in the Zhou dynasty. After a successful career he vowed never to hurt another living thing. However when he chanced upon a local hunt for a vicious tiger he could not resist temptation to go back to old ways and killed the tiger single handed.

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing

[帋上談兵]
Zhǐ shàng tán bīng
Fighting war on paper
An armchair general. Making plans without knowledge of the actualité

A load of codswallop

[痴人說夢]
Chī rén shuō mèng
A fool describing his dream
Talking irrelevant nonsense. Ravings of no possible interest.

A Lotus eater

怀 [懷安喪志]
Huái ān sàng zhì
A contented life saps the will
Living a life of idleness and contentment can lead to idleness and laziness.

A match made in heaven

琴瑟 [琴瑟咊鳴]
Qín sè hé míng
Qin and harp in harmony
In blissful harmony. The story is from the Song dynasty when Zhao Mingcheng and Li Qingzhao fell in love and lived a life of bliss. They collected ancient inscriptions and played the guqin (type of zither) and harp together. Tragedy struck when the Jurchen invaded Shandong. The couple fled south to Hangzhou but Zhao died and Li spent 25 years as a mournful widow.

A person is known by the company he keeps

, [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.

A pipe dream

[南柯一夢]
Nán kē mèng
A dream of Nanke
An absurdly ambitious plan divorced from reality. A dream of grandeur and splendor.

A rolling stone gathers no moss

Bù pà màn jiù pà zhàn
Not fear slowing down; fear coming to a halt
Do not be afraid of slowing down as long as you keep going.
Beijing, Forbidden City, bridge, canal
Bridge in the Forbidden City

A slap in the face

Kuà xià zhī rǔ
Forced to crawl under someone's crotch
An act of great humiliation. It was considered unseemly to have to crawl between someone's legs.

A sponger

[傍人門戶]
Bàng rén mén
Hanging on another's door
Someone dependent on a household without making much contribution. A hanger-on.

A stitch in time saves nine

补, [小洞不補大洞吃苦]
Xiǎo dòng bù bǔ, dòng chī kǔ
A small hole not mended in time will soon become a larger hole more difficult to mend
Do not put off taking action to put things right.

A thorn in the flesh

[眼中之釘]
Yǎn zhōng zhī dīng
A nail in the eye
Real adversity. The story is of Zhao Zaili of the Later Jin dynasty [936-946] who was a cruel and unjust governor. When it was rumored that he would be moved to another region the people rejoiced about their nail in their eyes being removed. However the jubilation was premature, as when Zhao heard about it he determined to stay on and what is more charge the people of Songzhou a new 'nail removal tax'.

A trouble shared is a trouble halved

[風雨同舟]
Fēng tóng zhōu
In the same boat in a storm
Facing troubles together.

A turn for the worse

况愈 [每況愈下]
Měi kuàng yù xià
Steadily deteriorate
Getting gradually worse each time. Life in a decline.

A wild goose chase

[曠日持久]
Kuàng chí jiǔ
Wasting a great deal of time
Spending a protracted length of time on a task. A waste of time.

Absence makes the heart grow fonder

丈叶落[樹高千丈叶落歸根]
Shù gāo qiān zhàng yè luò guī gēn
A tree may grow high, but its leaves always fall on its roots
People living far away will eventually comes back home.
sān qiū
One day seems like three years
To miss somebody very much.

Actions speak louder than words

[事實勝于雄辯]
Shì shí shèng yú xióng biàn
A real victory is better than a great debate
Better to act than just talk about it.
[說到做到]
Shuō daò zuò daò
Say and then make
Do what one says.
[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.

Add insult to injury

加霜
Xuě shàng jiā shuāng
Add frost to snow
To add to misfortunes unnecessarily.
Buddhism , Dali, Yunnan, temple
Chongsheng Temple, Dali, Yunnan

Afraid of your own shadow

[談虎色變]
Tán hǔ sè biàn
Turning pale at the mere mention of a tiger
To be so timid that even mentioning danger causes fear.
Bēi gōng shé yǐng
Seeing a bow's reflection in a cup as a snake
Suspicious and frightened; plagued by fearful imagination. The story is of a man who was terrified by the sight of what he thought was a snake swimming in the cup of tea he was drinking. The experience made him ill and only when it was demonstrated that it was just the reflection of a bow left hanging on the wall did he recover.
[吳牛喘月]
Wú niú chuǎn yuè
The ox from Wu pants at the sight of the moon
Unnecessarily fearful of something. The story is of an ox from Wu that thought the moon was the sun and panted through the assumed heat it expected to experience.
[杞人憂天]
rén yōu tiān
The man from Qi who fears the sky is falling
Unnecessary concern. A person who is over-fearful or credulous. The idiom is based on the story of man from the state of Qi who feared the sky would fall and also that the Earth might cave in.

Afraid of your own shadow

Wèi shǒu wèi wěi
Fearing both the head and the tail
Nervous and afraid. Fearful at both the start and end of some event.

All dressed up and nowhere to go

cái xiǎo yòng
Big ability barely used
Wasting talent on trivial things. Using someone talented for a menial task.

All good things must come to an end

宴席 [天下沒有不散的宴席]
Tiān xià méi yǒu bù sàn de yàn xí
No banquet in the world goes on forever
Good fortune can not last for ever.

All is fair in love and war

厌诈 [兵不厭詐]
Bīng bù yàn zhà
In conflict cheating is permitted
In warfare nothing is too dishonest.

All of a dither

Guǒ zú bù qián
Dithering about
Unable to move forward due to misgivings. To hesitate about getting on and doing something.

All pull together

, [獨木不成林單弦不成音]
Dú mù bù chéng lín, dān xián bù chéng yīn
A single tree does not make a forest; a single string can not make music
Many things require people to work together to achieve an end.

All that glisters is not gold

[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.

All that glitters is not gold

沐猴
Mù hóu ér guàn
A hat-wearing macaque
A worthless person hiding behind imposing looks. Trying to impress too hard.
[華而不實]
Huá ér bù shí
Flowering but not bearing fruit
Said of someone is all show and no substance.
city, nightscape, Shenzhen
Shenzhen at night

All things come to those who wait

[來日方長]
Lái fāng cháng
Long time ahead
There is adequate time to achieve your desires.

All's fair in love and war

奸巨猾
Lǎo jiān jù huá
To be very crafty and cunning
To be tricky, cunning, crafty. Well versed in the ways of the world.

An acquired taste

Qǔ gāo hè guǎ
Highbrow songs find few singers
A performance or speech that can only be appreciated by some of the audience. Something beyond the understanding of ordinary people.

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure

[未雨綢繆]
Wèi chóu móu
Before the rains repair the cloth
Plan ahead, be prepared.

Apples and oranges

[風馬牛不相及]
Fēng mǎ niú bù xiāng jí
Horses and cows keep themselves separate
People moving in different circles, different agendas. Having nothing in common.

Apropos of nothing

[鄭人爭年]
Zhèng rén zhēng nián
Zheng men argue over their age
A futile quarrel over a trifling matter. The story is of two men from the state of Zheng arguing endlessly and furiously as to who was born first.

As bold as brass

[膽大如斗]
Dǎn rú dǒu
A gall bladder as big as a football
Someone who is immensely bold and courageous. In traditional medicine the gall bladder was considered the controller of aggression and courage, so someone with a huge gall bladder was expected to be very courageous.

As bold as brass

[一身是膽]
shēn shì dǎn
Full of courage
Fearless, intrepid. A heroic disposition.

As common as muck

[司空見慣]
Sī kōng jiàn guàn
Sikong is used to it
Sikong was the job title of a minister of works in China. In the Tang dynasty the poet Liu Yuxi was invited by a minister to a feast accompanied by entertainers. This was a common occurrence for the minister but greatly impressed the poet. An everyday occurrence; nothing out of the ordinary.

As cunning as a fox

鹬蚌争, [鷸蚌相爭,漁翁得利]
Yù bàng xiāng zhēng yú wēng dé lì
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.
制勋 [出奇制勛]
Chū qí zhì xūn
Using an ingenious, unexpected ploy
Using a surprise or ingenious scheme to achieve success.

As poor as a church mouse

捉襟[捉襟見肘]
Zhuō jīn jiàn zhǒu
Pulling the lapels only to expose the elbows
In poverty - wearing an old coat so threadbare that pulling it up exposes the elbows through holes. Unable to make ends meet. Up Queer street.

As poor as church mice

Jiā tú
Home with just four bare walls
An empty house with just bare walls. To be very poor. There is a story from the Han dynasty of two rivals for the hand of a young lady. One was rich and the other was very poor, but due to the skill of the poor man on the qin (type of lute) the lady chose the poor man to the astonishment of the rich man.
Sanya, Hainan, beach
Beach scene at Sanya, Hainan. June 2012.
Image by Dounai available under a Creative Commons license

As proud as a peacock

Yè láng zì
Ye Lang thinks highly of himself
Pompous and conceited. The story is of the king of Ye Lang a tiny country in south-western China who in Han dynasty times considered himself the equal of the Emperor of China.

As stubborn as a mule

柱鼓瑟 [膠柱鼓瑟]
Jiāo zhù gǔ sè
Gluing the tuning pegs of a zither
Inflexible and stubborn. Gluing the tuning pegs of a musical instrument so it can not be tuned and brought into harmony.

As stubborn as a mule

Zhì sǐ bù wù
Failing to understand even to death
Stubbornly holding to views. Obstinate and set in ways.

As you make your bed, so you must lie upon it

, [沒做虧心事不怕鬼叫門]
Méi zuò kuī xīn shì, bù pà guǐ jiào mén
Clear conscience does not fear a knock at midnight
If you have done nothing wrong, there is no worry over retribution.

At death's door

苟延残喘 [苟延殘喘]
Gǒu yán cán chuǎn
Lingering at last gasp
In the throes of dying. Making a final desperate action prior to dying.

Avoiding the hot potato

[王顧左右而言他]
Wáng gù zuǒ yòu ér yán tā
The king looked left and right and then talked of other things
Evading making an uncomfortable reply by changing the topic of conversation. The story is of Mencius who asked three questions of the king of Qi, when the last question touched on the king's mismanagement of the kingdom, the king looked left and right to other guests to dodge making a response.

Bad apple; Black sheep

[害群之馬]
Hài qún zhī mǎ
The horse that causes trouble to the herd
The bad person of the family or group.

Be at one's wit's end

黔驴 [黔馿技窮]
Qián lǖ jì qiong
The Guizhou donkey has no more tricks
Even a clever donkey can not solve the problem. The story is that Guizhou province had no donkeys. A man brought a donkey there and having no further use for it set it free. The tiger then spotted the donkey and was scared of the new monster, but seeing it do very little but kick it killed and ate it. So it means being in desperate circumstances with no real options left.

Be in a pickle

[左右為難]
Zuǒ yòu wéi nán
Both alternatives are difficult
In a dilemma.

Be my guest

[賓至如歸]
Bīn zhì rú guī
Guests feel at home
Warmly welcoming guests to your home. Guests treated as part of the family.

Be Prepared!

[有備無患]
Yǒu bèi wú huàn
Preparedness averts misfortune
Be prepared against all eventualities to avoid misfortune. Have fallback plans.

Beaten black and blue

烂额 [焦頭爛頟]
Jiāo tóu làn é
Head bruised and brow burned
In terrible trouble.

Beauty is only skin deep

,败絮 [金玉其外,敗絮其中]
Jīn yù qí wài ? bài xù qí zhōng
Precious on the outside but shabby on the inside
Don't be fooled by outward appearances.
Mongol dynasty, battle
Battle between Mongols and Chinese (1211). Painted 1430. Image by Sayf al-Vâhidî. Hérât. Afghanistan available under a Creative Commons license .

Become all the rage

[洛陽紙貴]
Luò yáng zhǐ guì
To make paper expensive in Luoyang
The story is of a book that initially failed to find any interest, when he came to the then capital of Luoyang several respected scholars found it exceptional. The book then became so popular that printers exhausted the supply of paper to print copies of it. It therefore is used to describe a book that is destined to be a sensation.

Been around the block a few times

识途 [老馬識途]
Lǎo mǎ shí tú
An old horse knows the way
Knowledge born from long experience. The story is of a Duke of Qi of the Spring and Autumn period who became lost on the way home from a campaign because winter had set in. The Duke proposed that the old horses should be allowed to lead their way home which they did successfully.

Beggars can't be choosers

[飢不擇食]
Jī bù zé shí
When hungry don't care what you eat
The starving aren't fussy over their food - take whatever is available.
集腋
Jí yè chéng qiú
A fur coat can be made from poor scraps
Make do with what you have.

Beyond your wildest dreams

[侯門似海]
Hóu mén sì hǎi
A noble's house is as vast as the sea
A very tough task. A nobleman in ancient China would have a courtyard house with high walls and no easy entry. In any case it was also hard to get the required invitation to visit such a noble. And so represents a high physical and social barrier.

Birds of a feather flock together

[同病相憐]
Tóng bìng xiāng lián
People with similar illness empathize with each other
People suffering the same misfortune sympathize with each other.
类聚 [物以類聚]
Wù yǐ lèi jù
Like attracts like
People tends to form groups with like-minded individuals.
qiū zhī hé
Raccoons of the same mound
People of the same bad character. Referring to people of similar ill repute who tend to behave the same way.

Biting the hand that feeds it

[恩將仇報]
Ēn jiāng chóu baò
Repay kindness with hostility
Reject kindness.

Blind ambition

[齊人擢金]
rén zhuó jīn
The gold grabber from Qi
Blinded by lust for gain. Greed. Avarice. Blinded by ambition. The story if of a man from the kingdom of Qi who seeing gold just grabbed it and ran off, oblivious of the consequences.

Blowing hot and cold

shí hán
One day in the sun and then ten days of freezing
The story is that second sage of Confucianism, Mencius (Menzi) said this of the king of Qi. He considered him a person who only showed enthusiasm for Mencius' ideas for a short time while he was around to encourage him to rule well. So it has come to describe the many people who have short bursts of enthusiasm - no staying power.

Book worm

释卷 [手不釋卷]
Shǒu bù shì juàn
Always have a book in hand
A diligent student engrossed in study.

Boon companion

Gāo shān liú shuǐ
High mountains and flowing water
A description of beautiful music and by analogy a deep friendship.
Hainan, Guanyin, Sanya, deity
Statue of Guanyin (Guanshiyin or Avalokitesvara), Goddess of Mercy, Sanya, Hainan

Bossy boots

专横跋扈 [專橫跋扈]
Zhuān hèng bá hù
Imperious and domineering
Someone who likes bossing people around. Arrogant and tyrannical.

Brevity is the soul of wit

[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.

Burned out

[強弩之末]
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.

Burning your boats

破釜沉
Pò fǔ chén zhōu
Smash the pots and sink the boats
A story at the fall of the Qin dynasty 207BCE tells of the general Xiang Yu who refused to accept possibility of retreat at the battle of Julu by burning the boats and smashing the cooking pots. So it means no going back whatever happens. Cutting off all possibility of retreat.

Butter one's bread on both sides

西宿 [東食西宿]
Dōng shí xī sù
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.

Buying a pig in a poke

[掛羊頭賣狗肉]
Guà yáng tóu mài gǒu ròu
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.

By no stretch of the imagination

Bù zì liàng lì
Overrating your own strength
Overreaching yourself, not taking account of true capabilities. Exaggerate level of skill.

Cannon fodder

[殃及池魚]
Yāng jí chí
Calamity has spread to the fish in the pond
Suffering collateral damage. Draining a fish pond to search for some treasure would kill off all the fish as a consequence. An action that creates unintended victims.

Cant see the wood for the trees

窥豹 [管中窺豹]
Guǎn zhōng kuī bào
View a leopard through a tube
A narrow-minded view of something. Not seeing the full picture.

Can't see the wood for the trees

叶障 [一葉障目]
yè zhàng
Covering your eyes with a leaf
Not seeing the full picture and so making a flawed analysis of the situation. A blinkered approach often through prejudice.

Cat's pyjamas

[干將莫邪]
Gān jiāng mò yé
Two famous swords
These are the names of two supreme bronze swords of long ago. Gan Jiang was unable to melt the bronze until he added some hair and nail clippings from his wife Mo Ye. Only then could the swords be made and they were the sharpest swords ever made. Used to honor someone or something as superlative.

Caught like a rabbit in the headlights

[呆若木雞]
Dāi ruò mù jī
As dumb as a wooden chicken
Dumbstruck, unable to move or say anything out of fear.

Caught with your hand in the cookie jar

Liáng shàng jūn zǐ
The gentleman on the roof beam
Euphemism for a thief. As traditional Chinese roof tiles were not tacked down it was very easy to access a house via the roof.
Nanchang, Jiangxi
Daybreak view from the Lakeview Hotel window at in Nanchang, Jiangxi. October 2005.
Image by Venus available under a Creative Commons license

Cheek by jowl

[一衣帶水]
yī dài shuǐ
Separated by a narrow ditch
Close neighbors. Located physically (or emotionally) close together with very little to separate.

Clear and present danger

Rén rén zì wēi
Everybody in danger
All in danger and in fearful panic.

Climbing the greasy poll

[近水樓台先得月]
Jìn shuǐ lóu tái xiān dé yuè
A waterfront pavilion sees the moonlight first
An allusion to the wisdom of having friends in high circles that often results in benefits.

Cloud cuckoo land

[黃粱美夢]
Huáng liáng měi mèng
A golden millet dream
A fanciful day dream. The story is of a man who took a brief nap while his host was cooking a bowl of millet. He dreamed of becoming married to a beautiful wife and immensely rich and living to a great age. When he woke up the millet was cooked but he found he was still poor.

Common ground

休戚 [休戚相關]
Xiū qī xiāng guān
Share both joys and sorrows
People with close ties and shared interests, Mutual dependency.

Couldn't organize a piss-up in a brewery

Zhōu guān fàng huǒ
The magistrate burns down the town
Bewailing pompous and incompetent officials. The story is that an official who did not want his name 'Deng' to be used in any official proclamation. The problem arose when the Lantern or 'Deng' festival was to be announced. Instead of 'Deng' he used the character for Fire instead and so announced the coming of Fire throughout the town - causing widespread alarm.

Count your blessings

[㱃水思源]
Yǐn shuǐ sī yuán
When drinking water remember the origin
Do not forget the source of your good fortune (particularly your parents)

Cracking the whip

Sān lìng shēn
Issuing three orders and five injunctions
Giving order after order. Someone who is officious and over-bearing. The use of three and five is often used to give idea of endless repetition.

Creature of habit

Wèi néng miǎn sú
Bound up by conventions
Unable to do what you want because social conventions forbid it. Doing something just because it is expected.

Crying 'wolf'

贼喊捉贼 [賊喊捉賊]
Zéi hǎn zhuō zéi
A thief cries 'Stop thief!'
Diverting attention to cover misdoing.

Cut your coat to suit your cloth

[失敗是成功之母]
Shī bài shì chéng gōng zhī mǔ
Failure is the mother of success
Learning from mistakes.

Cutting off your nose to spite your face

Gē ròu zì dàn
Eating one's own flesh
A foolish, self defeating stratagem.

Devil take the hindmost

计,[三十六計走為上策]
Sān shí liù jì, zǒu wéi shàng
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
Zhongnanhai, government
Xinhua Gate is the main ceremonial gate into the Zhongnanhai complex of government buildings, Beijing. The sector is located just to the west of the Imperial centre of government the Forbidden City. Image by Bgabel available under a Creative Commons license
[爭先恐後]
Zhēng xiān kǒng hòu
Striving to be first and fearing to be last
Striving for position. Over competitive.

Dog eat dog

[爾虞我詐]
Ěr yú wǒ zhà
Cheating and deceiving each other
Mutual distrust and deception. A relationship without any trust.

Don't bite the hand that feeds you

[得魚忘筌]
wàng quán
After catching a fish forget the trap
Ungrateful behavior, ignoring help given to make things possible.

Don't change horses midstream

[志不可慢旹不可失]
Zhì bù kě màn shí bù kě shī
Do not let your aspirations weaken; do not waste time
Keep hold of your hopes and dreams, waste no time in achieving them.

Don't cut off your nose to spite your face

[㱃鳩止渴]
Yǐn jiū zhǐ kě
To quench one's thirst with poisoned wine. The blood of the dove was considered poisonous
To take reckless action regardless of the consequences.

Don't judge a book by its cover

, [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.
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.
Xiào lǐ cáng dāo
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.
牝牡骊 [牝牡驪黃]
Pìn mǔ lí huáng
Choose a black mare instead of a yellow stallion
Don't judge by outward appearance. The horse's ability is more important than the external appearance. The story is that a Duke of Qin wanted a good horse. He was told a yellow stallion had been selected. On seeing it was in fact a black mare the duke was annoyed but the horse expert stood his ground saying it was the character and ability that was the important thing.
[外強中乾]
Wài qiáng zhōng gān
Outwardly strong but inwardly weak
Looking strong and powerful but actually weak. Flattering appearance that does not represent true worth.

Don't look a gift horse in the mouth

送鹅 [千里送鵝毛]
Qiān lǐ sòng é máo
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 one feather was all that was left from the swan when he eventually arrived. So this is a rejoinder when someone receives a gift that is seemingly of low value.

Don't put off until tomorrow what can be done today

,[今日事今日畢]
Jīn shì, jīn
Today's task, today's job to complete
Finish the current job before starting something new.

Don't put the cart before the horse

[不善始者不善終]
Bù shàn shǐ zhě bù shàn zhōng
A bad beginning leads to a bad ending
Need to plan everything from the beginning.
dragon, peony, vector
Dragon and peonies

Don't stop while you are winning

[勢如破竹]
Shì rú pò zhú
Like splitting bamboo
Continuing a successful series. Once you get the knack of splitting bamboo it's best to keep on going. The story is of a general who was advised to rest his army for the winter after a series of successes. The general disagreed, his army had high morale and went on to complete the victory.

Dotting the 'i's and crossing the 't's

[畫龍點睛]
Huà lóng diǎn jīng
To add eyes to a painted dragon
Make the final vital addition to complete something. Add finishing touches. The story is of a great painter who painted four dragons without completing the eyes. When challenged he claimed that it was to ensure they did not come to life and fly away. When pressured he drew in the eyes of two dragons and they promptly came to life and flew away.

Driving ambition

Zhì zài fāng
Having high ambition
Willing to travel far and wide to achieve aims. Aspiring to achieve great things in life.

Dust yourself off and start all over again

[捲土重來]
Juǎn tǔ chóng lái
Sweeping off the dust and trying again
Making a comeback after a setback - determined to have another go. Like getting back on a horse after being thrown off.

Each to his own

, [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.

Easier said than done

[談何容易]
Tán hé róng yì
Talking makes look easy
Not as easy as it seemed.

Empty vessels make the most noise

, [雷聲大雨點小]
Thunder is loud but little rain falls
Overly portentous. Reality does not match expectations.

Empty words

[空洞無物]
Kōng dòng wú wù
Vacuous
Empty and devoid of worthwhile content. Usually applied to poor writing that is devoid of meaning.

Enough is as good as a feast

[得過且過]
Dé guò qiě guò
Getting by
Muddling through life without great ambitions. Contended to just live from day to day.

Every cloud has a silver lining

塞翁, [塞翁失馬安知非福]
Sài wēng shī mǎ, ān zhī fēi fú
When the old man from the frontier lost his horse; how could he have known that it would not be fortuitous?
The story is that a man lost his horse but actually it went over the Great Wall and brought back several horses with it. A setback may turn out to be a blessing in disguise.

Every trick in the book

[雞鳴狗盜]
Jī míng gǒu dào
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.
[欺世盜名]
Qī shì dào míng
Deceiving the public to gain fame
A con artist. Someone who sets out to become famous by lies and deception.

Everything comes to him who waits

,[留得青山在不怕沒柴燒]
Liú dé qīng shān zài, bù pà méi chái shāo
So long as the green mountains are preserved, there will be no shortage of firewood
Do not despair, there is plenty of time and opportunity.
mahjong, people
Mahjong game

Failing to plan is planning to fail

临渴掘井 [臨渴掘井]
Lín kě jué jǐng
Digging a well only when starting to feel thirsty
Begin taking action when it is far too late.

Fair weather friends

Jiǔ ròu péng yǒu
Friends only for the food and drink
Cupboard love.

Fall on your sword

碎, [宁為玉碎不為瓦全]
Nìng wéi yù suì, bù wéi wǎ quán
Don't be a proud piece of broken jade, be a complete tile
Stand up against enemies do not give in. Keep your integrity and stand firm.

Feed one's mind

[開卷有益]
Kāi juàn yǒu yì
Reading is always beneficial
There is always something new to be learned from books. An admonishment to keep on studying and learning.

Fight the good fight

[嫉惡如仇]
Jí è rú chóu
Treating evil as an enemy
Determined to confront evil. Not letting evil people or things continue.

Fighting to a standstill

输攻墨守 [輸攻墨守]
Shū gōng mò shǒu
Shu attacks and Mo defends
Two opponents of equal skill. Back in the Spring and Autumn period the story goes that Gongshu Ban, a carpenter had developed a new device to attack cities. He was persuaded by the pacifist philosopher Mo Zi not to deploy it. Mo Zi was able to defend against any attack by Gongshu Ban leading to stalemate.

First catch your hare

[滅此朝食]
Miè cǐ zhāo shí
Wipe out the enemy before breakfast
Grasp current opportunity; anxious to do battle. Tackle the important problem first.

Flogging a dead horse

[死馬噹活馬醫]
Sǐ mǎ dāng huó mǎ yī
Treating a dead horse as if it is still alive
Persevering when it is already too late. A lost cause.

Following the flow

[從善如流]
Cóng shàn rú liú
Following good advice just as water flows
Willing to accept other people's advice just as all water in a stream follows the flow. Readily following good leadership.

For the want of a nail .,. the kingdom was lost

俱备, [萬事俱備,只欠東風]
Wàn shì jù bèi, zhǐ qiàn dōng fēng
Everything is ready, except for the east wind
Lacking one small, but crucial item. It refers to the battle of Red Cliff in the Three Kingdoms period when Cao Cao's great army threatened to overcome his adversaries on the Yangzi River. The clever strategy advocated by Zhuge Liang was to send fire boats into Cao Cao's navy to destroy the boats. Everything was prepared but for ages the wind was in the wrong direction. At last it changed to the east, the fire boats were launched and Cao Cao was defeated.

Forewarned is forearmed

[山雨欲來風滿樓]
Shān yù lái fēng mǎn lóu
The wind sweeping through the tower heralds a rising storm in the mountain
A premonition of something significant about to happen.
Xiōng yǒu chéng zhú
Keeping the appearance of bamboo in mind
To be able to paint bamboo (or anything else), you have to have a mental image of how it looks. An admonishment to plan ahead carefully and acquire the skill to carry it out.

Forgive and forget

Jì wǎng bù jiù
It is pointless to blame past events
What is done is done. It is pointless to live a life of regret for things that can't be changed.
Emei Shan, Sichuan
Samantabhadra statue at Golden Summit on Emei Shan, Sichuan. April 2009.
Image by Martin Wettig available under a Creative Commons license

Fortune favors the brave. Nothing ventured, nothing gained

Bù rù hǔ xué yān dé hǔ zǐ
Without entering a tiger's den how can you hope to capture a tiger cub?
Great rewards require a great risk.

Frightened of your own shadow

Guǐ yóu xīn shēng
Ghosts are figments of the mind
Being scared of the paranormal; irrational fear of dark and shadows.

Full of beans

余勇[餘勇可賈]
Yú yǒng kě gǔ
Surplus courage for sale
Enthusiastic to carry on after success. Full of energy.


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.

See also