Chinese idioms G to P ordered by English equivalent
A list of Chinese proverbs ordered by the rough English equivalent.
Get fighting fit
Bì ròu fù shēng
The thigh muscles have recovered
To get fit and become reinvigorated. The story is from the end of the Han dynasty after the battle of Guandu Zhi Zhan when Cao Cao beat Liu Bei. Liu Bei then fled to Henan and took things easy. One day he noticed that he had become flabby particularly in his thighs so he realized he had to get fit again. He did so and eventually beat Cao Cao in battle.
Get hold of the wrong end of the stick
Yǐng shū yān shuō
Ying's letter interpreted by Yan
The message has been misunderstood. The story is that someone living in Ying in the Chu kingdom dictated a letter to a friend, the Prime Minister of Yan kingdom. Inadvertently the secretary wrote down 'Raise the lantern' thinking it was part of the letter. The recipient interpreted this to mean he should appoint praiseworthy people to the government. So in this case the misunderstanding gave rise to benefit.
Anything can be achieved with persistence. The famous story ➚ is that an old man wanted to move a mountain that blocked his path. Despite widespread cynicism he and his descendents gradually wore down the mountain. Mao Zedong used this proverb to persuade people that the seemingly impossible was achievable. One version of the story has the gods taking pity on the old man and removing the mountain with their magical powers.
Go weak at the knees
Dào xǐ xiāng yíng
Putting on shoes the wrong way around when greeting a guest
So keen to meet a guest that shoes are put on the wrong way around. Excitement about meeting someone who is loved or idolized.
Grasp the nettle
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.
Willing fish jumping to Duke Jiang?s hookless line
Trying t o ensnare a gullible person. The ancient story from the Zhou dynasty is of Lord Jiang who used to just hang an unbaited and unhooked line in the air not the water. When asked what he was doing said he was not trying to catch fish but a king who he would serve. After many years of pointless fishing he was appointed to be Prime Minister.
Harboring a grudge
Wò xīn cháng dǎn
Lying on straw and tasting gall
Patiently suffering while plotting revenge or recovery. Sleeping rough and eating poor food while preparing for a comeback.
Indecisive saying one thing and then changing mind later and saying another. The story is of a monkey trainer who reduced their chestnut rations from 3 in the morning and 4 in the evenings. The monkeys were most unhappy but when the trainer changed it to 4 in the morning and 3 in the evenings they were delighted. And so the phrase can also mean being foolishly deceived.
Study hard with great determination. An awl is a sharp pointed tool for making holes in wood. The story is from the Three Character classic which tells how Su Qin of the Han dynasty pricked himself in the thigh to keep himself awake and alert for study. Used as a parent or teacher's encouragement for children to study diligently.
Forced to take an undesirable action. The story is of Lin Chong who was hounded down by Chao Gai because he wanted Lin's wife. After being falsely accused of attempted murder Lin was further victimized by Chao Gai until he was left with no choice but to join the rebels. So it means left with no choice at all.
Hope springs eternal
Duō nàn xīng bāng
Many hardships can rejuvenate a nation
A calamity that may prompt a resurgence. An encouragement to continue striving in the hope that things will improve.
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.
Watch the route of the preceding carriage. A carriage that overturned ahead can be a lesson for those to follow.
Take account of what has gone before.
Look out for number one
Yǐ zhèng wèi hè
Building a drain onto neighbor's land
Diverting flood water onto neighbor's land - moving a problem onto others rather than try to solve it. Acting selfishly.
Lost touch with reality
Bù zhī ròu wèi
Not notice the smell of meat
Totally entranced and distracted. The story is from the Analects of Confucius. The great sage was walking in woodland and heard someone performing Shao music. He was so entranced by the blissful sound that he could not be distracted even by the smell of roasting meat (then a rare treat).
Love is blind
Ài wū jí wū
Strong love that encompasses all, including the crow sitting on the roof
Learning how the residents of Handan walk ➚. The story is of a man back in the Warring States period who took on the gait of grand city folk trying to impress but could no longer walk properly. Pompous and pretentious.
Make it snappy
Yuǎn shuǐ jiǔ bù liaǒ huǒ
Distant water will not extinguish the nearby fire
There is no point in waiting for far off help. Get to it and solve the problem now.
Man with a plan
Yùn chóu wéi wò
Formulate plans in a tent
Careful planning for the future - not just a victim of events. An analogy to commanders devising their plans in a tent on the eve of battle.
Chéng fēng pò làng
Ride the winds and break the waves
To have high ambitions. The story is Zong Que who lived in southern China around 450CE. On his wedding day at the age of 14 (as was the tradition then) a group of bandits attacked the village. Zong Que fought them off almost single-handed. He was asked what was his future ambition and he replied that he wanted to 'ride the wind and break the waves'. He went on to be a leading general who helped maintain the peace in the region.
If you persevere, you will eventually achieve your goal.
Monkey see: monkey do
Shēng tūn huó bāo
Swallowing it all
To unthinkingly take on board someone's opinion. Uncritical application. Copying someone else's actions. The story is of Zhang Huaiqing of the Tang dynasty who plagiarized other poet's work by mechanically adding a few characters here and there. The resultant poems were gibberish.
More haste less speed
Yù sù zé bù dá
A desire for speed but unable to reach destination
More interest in working fast than working effectively. Too much interest in the short term rather than the overall strategy.
Mutton dressed as lamb
Dōng shī xiaò pín
Ludicrous self conceit
The story is of Dong Shi, an ugly person imitating the posture of famous beautiful woman Xi Shi ➚ by knitting his eyebrows.
Mutually assured destruction
Liǎng bài jù shāng
Both sides will suffer
Heading towards a Pyrric victory - neither side wins. A conflict neither side can win.
Neither fish nor fowl
Fēi lú: fēi mǎ
Neither a donkey nor a horse
A person or place that is neither one thing nor another. Indeterminate or strange combination.
New lease of life
Fǎn lǎo huán tóng
Return to youthful vigour
Returning to youthful energy. Turning back the years. Often used as a compliment to someone sprightly in old age.
Nipping it in the bud
Fáng wēi dù jiàn
Prevent problems by early action
A stitch in time saves nine. Tackle problems when they are small and can be dealt with before they get out of hand.
No man is an island
Pí zhī bù cún maó jiāng yān fù
If the skin is missing hair can not grow
Everything needs its proper environment for nurture.
No smoke without fire
Kōng xuè lái féng wèi bì wú yīn
If wind comes from an empty cave it did not come from nowhere
There are always clues that something is about to happen.
Wú fēng bù qǐ làng
No wind, no waves
There must have been signs that it was going to happen.
No space to swing a cat
Lì zhuī zhī dì
A place to stick an awl
A very small piece of property. Often said of someone who has fallen on hard times and has only a very small place to live or just to describe a very small space.
Seeing only part of the situation. A Buddhist tale of how a group of blind men each felt a different part of an elephant and came to very different ideas of what it was. One felt a tusk (a huge carrot?), one a ear (a flat dish?), one a leg (a column?) and the fourth the tail (a rope?). None could agree as to what it was.
Not the ghost of a chance
Bìng rù gāo huāng
The disease has penetrated the vitals
Beyond hope and cure. A hopeless situation.
Nothing ventured nothing gained
Shǒu zhū dài tù
Watching a tree waiting for rabbits
Do not just count on luck, need action to reach your goals.
Off you own bat
Xiān zhǎn hòu zòu
Execute first, report later
Taking the initiative; acting without orders. The story is of a newly appointed magistrate who was seeking a murderer. When she was found, the magistrate had her executed on the spot in spite of she being a servant to the Emperor's sister. An execution requires the Emperor's sanction and so the magistrate was in deep trouble,. In this case the magistrate managed to escape with his life.
Old soldiers never die, they just fade away
Lǎo jì fú lì, zhì zài qiān lǐ
The old horse in the stable still yearns to gallop 1,000 miles
Ambitions never fade. An old person still has high hopes.
A perceptive and sharp-sighted person who is able to grasp all the detail. In autumn some animals grow new, fine fur to keep themselves warm in winter.
Once bitten, twice shy
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.
Making a friend is an open road; making an enemy builds a wall
It is better to make friends than enemies.
Gǎn ēn tú bào
Gratefully returning kindness
Repaying a debt of kindness. The story is from the Zhou dynasty when the state of Wu was mounting a war against the state of Zheng. A Zheng fisherman offered to try to stop the conflict. He boldly went to the enemy general Wu Zixu and reminded him that his father had saved Wu's life a long time ago. The general then recalled the incident and in repayment of the kindness called off his attack on Zheng.
One is just as bad as the other
Nàn xiōng nàn dì
Brothers of the same ilk
Two brothers showing similar personalities. Two people hard to tell apart.
Wasting your time on pointless efforts. The 'lute' in this case is the qin, a traditional musical instrument. To address an inappropriate and unappreciative audience. A story from the Han dynasty when Mouzi Lihuolun, a Confucian scholar, tried to describe Buddhist teaching to an audience but failed because his audience had no basic understanding of the concepts.
Penny wise, pound foolish
Mǎi dú huán zhū
Buy the box yet return the pearls inside
To make a foolish action - the pearls were worth far more than the box. Missing the main opportunity.
Pride leading to attempting the impossible. Over confidence in skills. Over-arching ambition. The story is of a giant called Kua Fu who was immensely strong and swift. He attempted to chase the sun but in so doing became so hot he died from thirst that could not be quenched. A similar tale to Icarus flying too close to the sun.
Pulling a fast one
Làn yú chōng shù
Passing oneself off as a proficient Yu pipe player
Pretending to be well qualified for a job. The story is that the king of Qi loved to hear an ensemble of yu players. A lazy sponger Nanguo wanted the plum job as a yu player. He faked playing the yu in the large ensemble. It came to an end with the next king of Qi who preferred soloists rather than an ensemble and so, expecting exposure, quickly fled away.
A new arrival outperforms everyone present. A youngster outstrips the older generation.
Put on the back-burner
Shù zhī gāo gé
Store away in the attic
Dismiss someone or something for the moment as currently unimportant. Designate something as low priority.
Putting on a brave face
Yè gōng hào lóng
Duke Ye's love of dragons
Pretending to be fond of something which is actually greatly feared. The story is of Duke Ye who decorated whole his house and clothes with dragon motifs. However when a real dragon flew over and landed near his house he trembled in fear. Said of someone hiding their true feelings.
Putting the cart before the horse
Shě běn zhú mò
Pursuing trivia while neglecting essentials
Concentrating on the little details rather than the important stuff.
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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