Chinese idioms about foolishness
Sayings that show the pitfalls of foolishness.
both damage entirely injure
Both sides will suffer
Heading towards a Pyrric victory - neither side wins. A conflict neither side can win.
Mutually assured destruction
raise tiger bequeath misfortune
Helping a tiger invites misfortune
Being too softhearted with an enemy who is bound at some time later to bite the hand that fed it.
Rearing a nest of vipers
well bottom's frog
A blinkered approach to life. Living in a fantasy world.
A frog in a well. The story is of a frog that only knows of the water in the well and knew nothing of the sea, and can only see a small portion of the sky.
Little knowledge is a dangerous thing
approach thirsty dig well
Digging a well only when starting to feel thirsty
Begin taking action when it is far too late.
Failing to plan is planning to fail
evade pit drop well
Avoid falling into a pit to fall into a well
Avoid one obstacle only to hit another
also want horse good, also want horse not eat grass
Want the horse to prosper, but not want the horse to eat grass
To prosper you must make compromises, you can not have it all your own way
You can't have your cake and eat it
change residence forget wife
Move house but overlook wife
Foolish and forgetful. Move to a new house and take everything - except your partner.
Soft in the head
tiger mouth pull up tooth
To extract a tooth from a tiger's mouth
To be very daring and/or to take unnecessary risks
affair real victory goto mighty debate
A real victory is better than a great debate
Better to act than just talk about it
Actions speak louder than words
meat wrap child hit dog
Hitting a dog with a meat bun
To use a self defeating method to solve a problem
thunder sound big, rain drop small
Thunder is loud but little rain falls
Overly portentous. Reality does not match expectations
Empty vessels make the most noise
phoenix hair unicorn horn
As rare as phoenix feathers and unicorn horns
Seeking the unobtainable
Dong Shi imitate knit eyebrows
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
Mutton dressed as lamb
use egg strike stone
Try to smash a stone with an egg
Overrating strength and being defeated. Defeat guaranteed.
Kicking a brick wall
shrimp soldier crab general
Shrimp soldiers led by a crab general. An ineffective army
A laughably ineffective solution to a problem
gaze plum stop thirst
Gaze at a plum to quench thirst
Offering hope by thinking of something currently out of reach
strike grass startled snake
Striking the grass alerts the snake
It is unwise to alert an enemy of your presence
Let sleeping dogs lie
notch boat seek sword
Marking the boat to locate a sunken sword
A venture made pointless by changing circumstances. The story is of a man who accidentally dropped a sword in the lake while being ferried across it. He reasoned that if he made a notch in the side of the boat that would let him find the sword again,
Wild goose chase
Traditional Tang Dynasty style roof figures at the Forbidden City, Beijing. Figures include a man riding a hen.
hold firewood rescue fire
Using wood to put out a fire
Not choosing an appropriate solution to a problem. Making matters worse
draw snake add foot
Drawing a foot on a snake
Ruin by over working something. Add superfluous detail. Too meticulous
Gilding the lily
goat character tiger skin
A goat in a tiger's skin
Someone not living up to outward appearance. Looking fierce but actually timid.
All that glisters is not gold
with fox seek skin
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
The leopard does not change his spots
sky middle storied pavilion
A pavilion in the air
A fanciful and impossible scheme. An impractical idea with a streak of vanity.
A flight of fancy
one dog bark shadow, one hundred dog bark noise
One dog snarls at a shadow; a hundred howl at each other's barking
Blindly follow a trend without even knowing its origin
drink turtledove stop thirst
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 cut off your nose to spite your face
separate boot scratch itch
Scratching an itch from outside of the shoe
An ineffective solution to a problem
cause tree seek fish
To catch fish in a tree
To look at a tree hoping it will somehow catch fish. Waste time doing something pointless and bound to fail. The tale goes back 2,300 years to the life of Mengciuswho advised the King of Qi against pointless further conquests.
To carry water in a sieve
no source water, no root tree
A river without a source, a tree without roots
Something without a proper foundation. Not properly planned
donkey lips no match horse mouth
Donkey's lips do not fit a horse's mouth
Something that is out of place and inappropriate
paper on chat weapon
Fighting war on paper
An armchair general. Making plans without knowledge of the actualité
A little knowledge is a dangerous thing
self mutual spear shield
Hit your shield with your own spear
To speak in contradictions. The story ➚ is about the man who said he had a spear that could pierce anything in the world, but also a shield that was impenetrable to any spear. Both claims could not be true
mouse eye inch bright
A mouse's vision is only one inch long
Looking ahead for only a short time. Only planning for the immediate future
nine ox one hair
Nine cows are missing just one hair
An insignificant amount. A trivial matter
A drop in the ocean
change hot water no change medicine
Change the soup but not the medicine
Not getting to the root of a problem, making superficial changes
Rearranging the deckchairs while the ship is sinking
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
conceal ear steal bell
Covering your ears while stealing the bell
Failing to think things through. Taking a rash action without applying logic. A foolish plan
Stupid is as stupid does
compose law self harm
Making laws that harm yourself
To fall foul of rules of your own making.
A wide selection of different types of Chinese coins. Image provided by David Hartill ➚
chat tiger look transform
Turning pale at the mere mention of a tiger
To be so timid that even mentioning danger causes fear.
Afraid of your own shadow
calamity reach pond fish
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.
face ox play musical qin
To play a lute to a cow
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, who failed to describe Buddhist teaching because his audience had no basic understanding of it
Pearls before swine
sit well watch sky
To sit at the bottom of a well and view the sky
A blinkered or limited view of the world
guard trunk wait for hare
Watching a tree waiting for rabbits
Do not just count on luck, need action to reach your goals
Nothing ventured nothing gained
broken pot sink boat
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
Burning your boats
gold jade outside withered cotton wadding middle
Precious on the outside but shabby on the inside
Don't be fooled by outward appearances
Beauty is only skin deep
eat words and so fat
Getting fat by eating one?s words
Someone is forever retracting what was previously said. Someone with poor judgment and a big mouth. The story is of a minister Meng Wubo of the kingdom of Lu who often pontificated only to contradict himself. A snide commentator suggested that Meng was growing fat because he ate so many of his own words.
Shoot your mouth off
burn forest but cultivate, exhaust pool but fishing
Burn a forest to farm; drain a pond to fish
Ignoring the consequences
Marry in haste, repent at leisure
lose sheep mend pen
Mend the pen after the sheep are lost
Can mean taking action too late or else taking action to protect against a future repeat of misfortune
Mending the stable door after the horse has bolted
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.
prefecture to be set on fire
The magistrate burns down the town
Bewailing pompous and incompetent officials. The story is that an official refused that his name 'Deng' should be used in any official proclamation. A problem arose when the Lantern or 'Deng' festival was to be announced. Instead of 'Deng' he used the character for Fire instead announcing the coming of Fire throughout the town
Couldn't organize a piss-up in a brewey
plant melon get melon, plant beans get beans
Plant melons and you will harvest melons; plant beans and you will harvest beans
Live with the consequences of your actions
Reap what you sow
mouth OK feeling wrong
Say yes when mean no
To say the opposite of what you really think
draw biscuit fill hunger
Drawing a biscuit to satisfy hunger
To act foolishly and ineffectively. Wasting time on fruitless projects
Soft in the head
fly moth hurl fire
A moth throws itself into a flame
Heading for self destruction
Like a moth to a flame
trim foot fit shoe
Reshape feet to fit new shoes
Take the wrong decision. Apply an inappropriate solution
cup bow snake image
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.
Afraid of your own shadow
buy casket return pearl
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.
Penny wise, pound foolish
Chinese abacus. Photo by Loadmaster ➚ (David R. Tribble), available under a Creative Commons license ➚.This image was modified from its original form.
ox cauldron boil chicken
Cooking a chicken in a pot designed for an ox
An in appropriate tool or scale of preparation for a job. Also refers to when a person of great skill is given a menial job
morning three evening four
Say three in the morning, four in the evening
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.
Hemming and hahing
raw swallow alive skin
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.
Monkey see: monkey do
praying mantis arm obstruct vehicle
Mantis obstructing a chariot
Overrate abilities and attempt the impossible. A mantis is a fearsome insect that does not back down even if faced with a much larger predator. So it means someone full of pride making an idle threat.
summer insect doubt ice
The summer insect doubts the existence of ice
An ignorant person doesn't understand the wider truth
ride donkey look for donkey
Looking for a donkey while sitting on its back
Ignoring the obvious. Absent mindedness
Not looking beyond your nose
cup water vehicle firewood
A glass of water won't put out a car on fire
Not putting in enough effort to solve a problem
look wind steer rudder
Steer the boat wherever the winds lead
Not sticking to the big plan. A fickle mind
die horse equal live horse doctor
Treating a dead horse as if it is still alive
Persevering when it is already too late. A lost cause
Flogging a dead horse
leak hole hundred get out
Leaking through one hundred holes
Full of mistakes and errors
big hand big foot
Large hands and feet
Lavish and grandiose expenditure on tasteless trifles
A fool and his money are soon parted
do live no reason master pile up die also no merit
Working without obeying the boss will bring only hard work and no merit
Only work on what is needed to be done
use Zheng as gully
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.
Look out for number one
kill chicken where use ox cleaver
Using an ox-cleaver to kill a chicken
Taking unnecessary effort to tackle a small problem. Using an inappropriately large tool for the job.
Using a sledgehammer to crack a nut
words excessively that's true
To embellish the facts
Overstate the facts or exaggerate skills. Someone who is a bit of a windbag.
invert bind child
Wrap up a baby upside down
Accidentally wrapping a new-born baby the wrong way round. Said of someone who though skilled can sometimes make mistakes. An occasional error out of character.
toe high energy raise
Putting on airs and graces
An arrogant person who may well face a comeuppance due to complacency and self-conceit.
Pride cometh before a fall
taste as if chicken rib
As tasteless as chicken ribs
A humdrum, boring activity and by extension a person lacking character. Insipid, bland.
each person act as government
Each following his own policy
Acting selfishly. Following own plans and ideas with no regard for others.
Taiping rebels are chased out of Yuzhuang, March 8 1854. The Taiping arrived the previous day but had to retire the next day when the Manchus arrived in hot pursuit. From Ten scenes recording the retreat and defeat of the Taiping Northern Expeditionary Forces, February 1854-March 1855. Source : web site ➚ Available under a Creative Commons license ➚.
Zheng person buy shoe
The man from Zheng buys shoes
Stubbornly sticking to a silly plan; inflexible and stupid. The story is of a man from Zheng who measured his own feet in readiness to buying new shoes. When he reached the shop in a distant town he found he had forgotten the paper on which the measurement was recorded. So he walked all the way home to fetch it rather than just try on shoes in the shop.
Stupid is as stupid does
absurd self respect great
Having an inflated opinion of oneself
Full of inflated pride. There are many examples throughout history of people thinking rather too highly of themselves.
Pride cometh before a fall
provoke agitation cross market
Parading through the busy streets
Boastful behavior; to be puffed up with pride . Walking the streets seeking the adulation of the crowds.
Pride comes before a fall
cut flesh oneself eat
Eating one's own flesh
A foolish, self defeating stratagem.
Cutting off your nose to spite your face
Qi man grab gold
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.
this ground not silver 3 hundred tael
Three hundred silver taels are not buried here
Accidentally giving away the hidden truth in an explanation. The story is of a man who buried 300 pieces of stolen silver. Strangely he put up a sign to say that the 300 pieces were not buried on top of his horde. Someone a little more clever dug up the cash and replaced the sign to say he had not dug up the cash buried there.
rely on person nose breath
Depend on someone, even for breathe
To be totally dependent on others, as if unable to breathe without their help. Showing great weakness.
incite wind spot fire
Create wind and fire
Create a lot of trouble
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
all orifice not linked up
All parts of the body are not working together
Incoherent action, not making any sense
want enter wrong wrong
Indulge in fantasy
Let imagination run wild
Head in the clouds
tears rescued not fire
Tears do not put out the fire
Decisive action is needed in a crisis not regrets
small topic large work
To talk a lot about very little
Procrastination and exaggeration
Make a mountain out of a molehill
hear news lose courage
Panic on hearing news
Panic stricken; terrified by news
has eye common observe
Seen by everyone. There for all to see
Obvious to everybody
Plain for all to see
before fear wolf behind fear tiger
To fear wolves ahead and tigers behind
To be obsessed by fears of attack from all sides
single stake one toss
Stake all on a single throw
Taking desperate measures to try to save a situation. Gambling everything on a change of fortune.
Last throw of the dice
abandon foundation pursue end
Pursuing trivia while neglecting essentials
Concentrating on the little details rather than the important stuff
Putting the cart before the horse
dog tail to replace sable
Use a dog?s tail to replace a sable
A poor substitute for the original. Said of poor follow-up to promising earlier work. The story is of a usurper to the Jin dynasty throne who gave honors and titles to his whole family and household. There was insufficient sable tails to make the formal robes for all these people so dog tails were used instead.
Photo by Anonymous, Chinese plate, Ming dynasty, Yongle period 1403-1424, porcelain with under-glaze blue, 23 inches [58 cms] diameter, Honolulu Academy of Arts. Available under a Creative Commons license ➚.
know its right but not know its right place
To know the how but not the why
Having a limited understanding of something. Only seeing half the problem.
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.
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