Chinese idioms keeping bad things at bay

A set of proverbs that warn of evil and demonstrate how it can be withstood or avoided.

, [沒做虧心事不怕鬼叫門]
Méi zuò kuī xīn shì, bù pà guǐ jiào mén [mei zuo kui xin shi, bu pa gui jiao men]
haven't made damage heart affair, no fear devil call gate
Clear conscience does not fear a knock at midnight
If you have done nothing wrong, there is no worry over retribution
As you make your bed, so you must lie upon it
[噁貫滿盈]
È guàn mǎn yíng [e guan man ying]
evil string of cash everywhere full
If evil was placed like discs on a string it would be always be full.
Evil is all around. Traditionally coins had holes in them and they were strung together.
, [學好三年學壞三天]
Xué hǎo sān nián, xué huài sān tiān [xue hao san nian, xue huai san tian]
study well three year, study bad three days
It takes three years to learn well; it takes only three days to degrade
Falling into bad ways is far easier than keeping to the good
The road to hell is paved with good intentions
落井
Luò jǐng xià shí [luo jing xia shi]
fall well throw stone
After someone falls into a well throw in a stone
To add needlessly to someone's misfortunes
Hit a man when he is down
蜜腹剑 [口蜜腹劍]
Kǒu mì fù jiàn [kou mi fu jian]
mouth honey belly sword
Mouth of honey, heart of daggers
Disguising ill intent with honeyed words. Deceitful and dangerous
Xīn ruò sǐ huī [xin ruo si hui]
heart like dead ash
Heart reduced to ashes
Desperately unhappy
尺,魔[道高一尺魔高一丈]
Dào gāo chǐ, mó gāo zhàng [dao gao yi chi, mo gao yi zhang]
virtue tall one foot, devil tall ten foot
Where good flourishes, evil can flourish even more
There is always opportunity for evil to take root
陶醉
Zì wǒ táo zuì [zi wo tao zui]
self I drunk
Drunk with oneself. Narcissistic
Conceited and arrogant
苛政猛 [苛政猛於虎]
Kē zhèng měng yú hǔ [ke zheng meng yu hu]
severe government fierce tiger
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.
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
Gǒu měng jiǔ suān [gou meng jiu suan]
dog fierce wine acid
A fierce dog bankrupts a liquor store. A story of a shopkeeper who lost all his customers due to his ferocious dog
Bad company discourages true friends
[天下烏鴉一般黑]
Tiān xià wū yā bān hēi [tian xia wu ya yi ban hei]
world black crow one kind black
Crows everywhere are all black
Bad people are all the same. You find bad people everywhere
[東窗事發]
Dōng chuāng shì fā [dong chuang shi fa]
east window matter expose
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.
The chickens havee come home to roost
[臭不可噹]
Chòu bù kě dāng [chou bu ke dang]
smelly not can equal
Worst ever smell
To give off an unbearable stink
[恩將仇報]
Ēn jiāng chóu baò [en jiang chou bao]
kindness will enemy repay
Repay kindness with hostility
Reject kindness
Biting the hand that feeds it
[假公濟私]
Jiǎ gōng jì sī [jia gong ji si]
false public aid self
Swindle public to help yourself
Use public office for personal gain
Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely
曹操,曹操 [說曹操曹操到]
Shuō Cáo Cāo, Cáo Cāo dào [shuo Cao Cao, Cao Cao dao]
speak Cao Cao, Cao Cao arrives
Speak of Cao Cao and he arrives
'Cao Cao of the Three Kingdoms is the embodiment of evil. Someone who you are talking about happens to appear unexpectedly
Speak of the devil and he is sure to appear
[兔子不吃窩邊草]
Tù zi bù chī wō biān cǎo [tu zi bu chi wo bian cao]
rabbit no eat burrow side grass
Rabbits do not eat the grass around their burrows
Thieves do not steal from neighbors
[請君入甕]
Qǐng jūn rù wèng [qing jun ru weng]
invite lord enter vat
Please step into the vat
To fall victim to a punishment that you yourself devised. The story is from the reign of Empress Wuzetian 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 to apply the torture on Zhou Ying himself. He then confessed to all his crimes.
To give someone a taste of their own medicine
Beijing, Beihai Park
The Beihai Park, imperial garden in Beijing. December 2007. Image by storyvillegirl available under a Creative Commons License
改邪 [改邪歸正]
Gǎi xié guī zhèng [gai xie gui zheng]
change evil return correct
Abandon evil and turn to good
Reject bad ways and turn to the good
Turn over a new leaf
[賠了夫人又折兵]
Péi le fū rén yòu zhé bīng [pei le fu ren you zhe bing]
Lose lady also lose soldiers
Losing the lady and the soldiers
Hatching an evil plot that backfires spectacularly. The story is that Sun Quan in the Three Kingdoms period wanted to take territory from the Shu kingdom. He offered his sister's hand in marriage but secretly plotted to attack Liu Bei's troops at the ceremony. Master strategist Zhuge Liang saw through the trap and Liu Bei managed to marry Sun's sister as well as defeat Sun's troops.
芒刺
Máng cì zài bèi [mang ci zai bei]
tip thorn exist back
A thorn in one?s flesh
Someone or something is causing continuous irritation.
Zì gāo zì [zi gao zi da]
self tall self big
Think oneself tall and great
Full of conceit and ego
碎, [逢奸宁可玉碎氣正不求瓦全]
Féng jiān nìng kě yù suì, qì zhèng bù qiú wǎ quán [feng jian ning ke yu sui, qi zheng bu qiu wa quan]
come upon traitor stand approve jade, spirit straight no beg tile complete
In face of evil, rather be a broken jade than an intact brick
It is better to die with honor than surrender
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
,谎 [泥人怕雨謊言怕理]
rén yǔ, huǎng yán pà lǐ [ni ren pa yu, huang yan pa li]
clay figure fear rain, lie speech fear logic
A mud figure fears rain; a lie fears truth
Over time lies will eventually be laid bare
Truth will out
[打草驚蛇]
Dǎ cǎo jīng shé [da cao jing she]
strike grass startled snake
Striking the grass alerts the snake
It is unwise to alert an enemy of your presence
Let sleeping dogs lie
[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
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'
Láng xīn gǒu fèi [lang xin gou fei]
wolf feeling dog lungs
Wolves are aggressive, dog bark. Ungrateful; cruel and unscrupulous
Ungrateful and unscrupulous
豪夺 [巧取豪奪]
Qiǎo qǔ háo duó [qiao qu hao duo]
opportunely take grand seize
Grab by trick or by force
Cheat others of their valuables by trickery or force.
Rip off
[一正壓百邪]
zhèng yā bǎi xié [yi zheng ya bai xie]
one correct flatten hundred evil
Justice can overpower a hundred evils
Justice is the main defense against evil
Liáng shàng jūn zǐ [liang shang jun zi]
beam of roof upon gentleman
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.
Caught with your hand in the cookie jar
[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
[眼中之釘]
Yǎn zhōng zhī dīng [yan zhong zhi ding]
eye center 's nail
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 thorn in the flesh
[罄竹難書]
Qìng zhú nán shū [qing zhu nan shu]
to exhaust bamboo distress book
So many crimes that there is not enough bamboo to record them all
So evil that there is not enough paper to record all the misdemeanors. Records used to be made on bamboo strips before paper was invented.
[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
加霜
Xuě shàng jiā shuāng [xue shang jia shuang]
snow up add frost
Add frost to snow
To add to misfortunes unnecessarily
Add insult to injury
Qufu, temple, Confucius, Shandong
Lingxing Gate of Qufu Confucian Temple, Qufu, Shandong. January 2009.
Image by Sean Shih available under a Creative Commons license
,[人噁人怕天不怕人善人欺天不欺]
Rén è rén tiān bù pà, rén shàn rén tiān bù qī [ren e ren pa tian bu pa, ren shan ren qi tian bu qi]
person evil person fear heaven no fear, person good person cheat heaven no deceive
Evil people are dreaded by other people not by heaven; good people may be cheated by people but not by heaven
Even though evil works may go unpunished on earth, good works do not go unnoticed in heaven. Reward for good may not be immediately received.
[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'
[害群之馬]
Hài qún zhī mǎ [hai qun zhi ma]
injure crowd this horse
The horse that causes trouble to the herd
The bad person of the family or group
Bad apple; Black sheep
视眈眈 [虎眎眈眈]
Hǔ shì dān dān [hu shi dan dan]
tiger look at stare stare
A tiger's stare. To look covetously
To eye enviously
[百足之蟲死而不僵]
Bǎi zú zhī chóng sǐ ér bù jiāng [bai zu zhi chong si er bu jiang]
hundred foot insect dead but not motionless
A centipede with a hundred legs does not lose its life after one blow
An evil is not easily disposed of; old institutions take a long time to renew
[邪門歪道]
Xié mén wāi daò [xie men wai dao]
evil people crooked way
Evil people in crooked ways
Dishonesty and deceit
助桀[助桀爲虐]
Zhù jié wéi nu:è [zhu jie wei nu:e]
assist Jie to become oppressive
Aiding King Jie in his cruelty
An admonishment not to turn to the dark side. King Jie was the last ruler of the Xia dynasty and a byword for cruelty and depravity.
Supping with the Devil
[煽風點火]
Shān fēng diǎn huǒ [shan feng dian huo]
incite wind spot fire
Create wind and fire
Create a lot of trouble
含沙
Hán shā shè yǐng [han sha she ying]
keep sand shoot shadow
Making insinuations
To spit sand at someone's shadow, in other words to attack someone indirectly by innuendo. There is a legend of a three-legged turtle that would spit out sand at anyone who passed. Its spittle was so noxious that it would infect someone even if it only hit their shadow.
[不寒而慄]
Bù hán ér lì [bu han er li]
not cold but trembling
Shivering yet not cold
Shudder with fear and dread. There is a story of a sadistic official of the Han dynasty who arbitrarily sentenced 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.
Shake like a leaf
[欺世盜名]
Qī shì dào míng [qi shi dao ming]
deceive world steal fame
Deceiving the public to gain fame
A con artist. Someone who sets out to become famous by lies and deception.
Every trick in the book
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.
[多行不義必自斃]
Duō xíng bù yì bì zì bì [duo xing bu yi bi zi bi]
much series not justice must self destroy
Persisting in evil leads to self-destruction
Turning to bad deeds will ultimately bring ruin. This is a form of Karma - divine justice which catch up with you one day
[幸災樂禍]
Xìng zāi lè huò [xing zai le huo]
lucky calamity laugh misfortune
Delighting in the misfortune of others
The story is of a king who delighted in the plight of the neighboring kingdom that was suffering from famine and would not help them even though he had received help when his people were suffering. So it means sadistic glee.
Schadenfreude
[言而無信]
Yán ér wú xìn [yan er wu xin]
word but nothing true
Speak but not mean it
To go back on one's word
怀叵测 [心懷叵測]
Xīn huái pǒ cè [xin huai po ce]
mind heart not conjecture
Harbouring evil designs
Concealing malicious plans. Harbor evil designs.
[包藏禍心]
Bāo cáng huò xīn [bao cang huo xin]
cover conceal misfortune mind
Harboring evil intentions
Having evil intent; concealing malice.
In league with the devil
眨眼 [殺人不眨眼]
Shā rén bù zhǎ yǎn [sha ren bu zha yan]
kill person not blink eye
Killing without blinking an eye
Ruthless; cold-blooded.
Daǒ gē xiāng xiàng [dao ge xiang xiang]
fall spear mutual direction
Attack own party
Betray one's own side
Beijing, sacred way, elephant
A carved elephant on the Sacred Way to an Imperial Tomb
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.

Copyright © Chinasage 2012 to 2020