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.
Lavish and grandiose expenditure on tasteless trifles.
A fool's errand
Tú láo wú gōng
Pointless effort that will achieve nothing.
A forlorn hope
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.
A friend in need is a friend indeed
Huàn nàn jiàn zhēn qíng
In adversity, true feelings are shown
Only in a crisis do you know who your friends really are.
A person or fact known to everybody. Something or somebody well known.
A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step
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
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.
Talking irrelevant nonsense. Ravings of no possible interest.
A Lotus eater
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
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
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.
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'.
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.
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.
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
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.
Chū qí zhì xūn
Using an ingenious, unexpected ploy
Using a surprise or ingenious scheme to achieve success.
As poor as a church mouse
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
Zuǒ yòu wéi nán
Both alternatives are difficult
In a dilemma.
Be my guest
Bīn zhì rú guī
Guests feel at home
Warmly welcoming guests to your home. Guests treated as part of the family.
Yǒu bèi wú huàn
Preparedness averts misfortune
Be prepared against all eventualities to avoid misfortune. Have fallback plans.
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
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
Jī bù zé shí
When hungry don't care what you eat
The starving aren't fussy over their food - take whatever is available.
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
Tóng bìng xiāng lián
People with similar illness empathize with each other
People suffering the same misfortune sympathize with each other.
Wù yǐ lèi jù
Like attracts like
People tends to form groups with like-minded individuals.
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.
To come straight to the point. Avoid procrastination.
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
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
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.
Not seeing the full picture and so making a flawed analysis of the situation. A blinkered approach often through prejudice.
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
Dāi ruò mù jī
As dumb as a wooden chicken
Dumbstruck, unable to move or say anything out of fear.
An allusion to the wisdom of having friends in high circles that often results in benefits.
Cloud cuckoo land
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.
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
Yǐn shuǐ sī yuán
When drinking water remember the origin
Do not forget the source of your good fortune (particularly your parents)
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.
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.
Looking strong and powerful but actually weak. Flattering appearance that does not represent true worth.
Don't look a gift horse in the mouth
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
Finish the current job before starting something new.
Don't put the cart before the horse
Bù shàn shǐ zhě bù shàn zhōng
A bad beginning leads to a bad ending
Need to plan everything from the beginning.
Don't stop while you are winning
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
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.
Overly portentous. Reality does not match expectations.
Kōng dòng wú wù
Empty and devoid of worthwhile content. Usually applied to poor writing that is devoid of meaning.
Enough is as good as a feast
Dé guò qiě guò
Muddling through life without great ambitions. Contended to just live from day to day.
Every cloud has a silver lining
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
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.
Qī shì dào míng
Deceiving the public to gain fame
A con artist. Someone who sets out to become famous by lies and deception.
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.
Failing to plan is planning to fail
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
Fall on your sword
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
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
Jí è rú chóu
Treating evil as an enemy
Determined to confront evil. Not letting evil people or things continue.
Fighting to a standstill
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
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
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
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.
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.
Being scared of the paranormal; irrational fear of dark and shadows.
Full of beans
Yú yǒng kě gǔ
Surplus courage for sale
Enthusiastic to carry on after success. Full of energy.
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.
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