Chinese idioms to discourage procrastination
Proverbs aimed at encouraging people to snap out of idleness and laziness.
far water rescued not near fire
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
Make it snappy
walk horse look flower
Looking at the flowers while riding a horse
To take a cursory look at something. Smug
east food west night
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.
Butter one's bread on both sides
repose content poisoned wine
Comfortable living is like drinking poisoned wine
Lulled into laziness and indifference by comfortable living.
happy not consider Shu
So happy that the kingdom of Shu is forgotten
Lost in present pleasures so as to forget home and duties. Said of Liu Chan ruler of the Shu kingdom (Sichuan province) who when defeated and in exile heard songs of his old kingdom but did not become melancholy like his other guests. So it refers to someone living in the present and not caring about the past. Lost in the moment
thick branch big leaf
A large branch with large leaves. Unable to draw in fine detail
Lack of attention to detail
one stride reach heaven
Approach heaven with a single stride
An attempt to achieve a goal all in one go without hard work
Rome was not built in a day
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
flower but not fruit
Flowering but not bearing fruit
Said of someone is all show and no substance
All that glitters is not gold
sleeve hand side observe
To look on with folded arms
To look on without offering any help or showing concern
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
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
50 pace smile 100 pace
Fifty steps laugh at a hundred steps
Being complacent about the future. Believing a job is all but done when only half done.
Pride cometh before a fall
content walk replace vehicle
Choosing to walk rather than take the limousine
Turn down luxury and high office for a simpler life. The story is of a scholar from the Warring States period who was offered great wealth and his own carriage to serve the King of Qi.
waste day protracted
Wasting a great deal of time
Spending a protracted length of time on a task. A waste of time.
A wild goose chase
precipice rein in horse
Rein in the horse at the cliff edge
Realize danger at the last moment
bind foot not ahead
Unable to move forward due to misgivings. To hesitate about getting on and doing something.
All of a dither
good good mister
Someone who agrees with everything said. More likely to be so as to not give any offense rather than ingratiating
disobey arrive obey receive
Do not block but welcome arrival
Deal with things as they happen; do not put them off
A stone statue of Guan Yin. Image by nlamore from USA ➚ available under a Creative Commons license ➚
one sunning ten cold
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 ruling well. So it has come to describe the many people who have short bursts of enthusiasm - no staying power.
Blowing hot and cold
aspiration not can slow, time not can lose
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 change horses midstream
difference slightly better person idea
Just about good enough an effort. Someone showing minimum of commitment to meet a goal. Barely satisfactory.
Swinging the lead
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
this day task, this day complete
Today's task, today's job to complete
Finish the current job before starting something new
Don't put off until tomorrow what can be done today
road listen road speak
Paying heed to gossip
Listening to roadside gossip or tittle-tattle.
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
heart content lose ambition
A contented life saps the will
Living a life of idleness and contentment can lead to idleness and laziness.
A Lotus eater
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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