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.
Ān jū lè yè
Live and work in peace and contentment
Wishing you well in a new home.
Ài bù shì shǒu
Locked in love's clutches.
Ài wū jí wū
Strong love that encompasses all, including the crow sitting on the roof
In love with everything in the world.
Roughly equivalent to: Love is blind.
Àn tú suǒ jì
Choosing a fine horse using only a picture
Following a rigid framework to carry out a task. Using standard rules to achieve something or discover something. Knowing and following the basic principles.
Àn dù chén cāng
Secretly cross at the Chencang Road
A feigned maneuver designed to outwit. After the fall of the Qin dynasty Liu Bei sent out troops to repair a plank road presumably to mount an attack, but he actually moved his troops across the Wei River at Chencang and so surprised his enemy.
Lu Ban (c. 500BCE) was a master engineer inventor and carpenter. So trying to show off your skills with an axe (or adze in those days) at Lu Ban's door is behaving rather pretentiously. So the phrase means to stupidly show off your feeble skills in front of a real expert.
Roughly equivalent to: Teaching your grandmother to suck eggs.
Hearing a hundred times is not as good as seeing once
Delighted to meet you in person at last. Seeing at first hand gives valuable information. The story is of a Han dynasty veteran general Zhao Chongguo who went to see the situation for himself at the frontier rather than relying on secondhand reports. His wise analysis quickly solved the problem with the incursions of northern tribes.
Someone dependent on a household without making much contribution. A hanger-on.
Roughly equivalent to: A sponger.
Bào xīn jiù huǒ
Using wood to put out a fire
Not choosing an appropriate solution to a problem. Making matters worse.
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.
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.
Roughly equivalent to: Hobson's choice.
Bīn zhì rú guī
Guests feel at home
Warmly welcoming guests to your home. Guests treated as part of the family.
Roughly equivalent to: Be my guest.
Bīng bù yàn zhà
In conflict cheating is permitted
In warfare nothing is too dishonest.
Roughly equivalent to: All is fair in love and war.
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.
Roughly equivalent to: Get fighting fit.
Bìng rù gāo huāng
The disease has penetrated the vitals
Beyond hope and cure. A hopeless situation.
Roughly equivalent to: Not the ghost of a chance.
Bó Lè shí mǎ
Bo Le, the horse expert
A person of good judgment. Someone who can quickly appreciate skill. The idiom refers to Bo Le from the Warring States period who was an acclaimed judge of horses. It is said that he came upon an old horse trudging along. Only Bo Le could see that this was once a great horse of strength and stamina.
Keep going until you hit an insurmountable obstacle.
Roughly equivalent to: He who hesitates is lost.
Bù gaò ér bié
No words spoken when leave
Leave without saying goodbye.
Bù hán ér lì
Shivering yet not cold
Shudder with fear and dread. There is a story of a sadistic official of the Han dynasty who arbitrarily sentenced people 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.
Roughly equivalent to: Shake like a leaf.
Bù jué jì yǎng
Itching to show off a skill
Eagerness to impress people with a skill.
Bù pà lù cháng zhǐ pà zhì duǎn
Not fear a long road; fear aspiration to start
Do not be afraid of a long road to success only be afraid of a shortage of ambition.
Roughly equivalent to: Rome was not built in a day.
Bù pà màn jiù pà zhàn
Not fear slowing down; fear coming to a halt
Do not be afraid of slowing down as long as you keep going.
Roughly equivalent to: A rolling stone gathers no moss.
Bù pò bù lì
If do not destroy will not stand
The old needs to be demolished before building the new.
Roughly equivalent to: Starting again from scratch.
Bù rù hǔ xué yān dé hǔ zǐ
Without entering a tiger's den how can you hope to capture a tiger cub?
Great rewards require a great risk.
Roughly equivalent to: Fortune favors the brave. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.
Refuse to bow for the sake of five measures of rice
Refusing inducements to betray a principles. Incorruptible. The story is of a man who refused to work for a corrupt and arrogant official even though he lost out on a generous salary.
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).
Roughly equivalent to: Lost touch with reality.
Bù zì liàng lì
Overrating your own strength
Overreaching yourself, not taking account of true capabilities. Exaggerate level of skill.
Roughly equivalent to: By no stretch of the imagination.
Bù bù gāo shēng
Step by step promotion
Congratulation on promotion or a new job.
Cáng lóng wò hǔ
Hidden dragon, crouching tiger
There are often people around with great power and skill.
Cǎo mù jiē bīng
Every bush harbors an enemy
Being paranoid - believing everyone is out to get you. To be beleaguered.
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.
It literally means an embittered agreement at a city wall when a city has surrendered to besieging forces. So it is a reluctant and bitter deal forced by circumstance.
Chéng yě Xiāo Hé; bài yě xiāo hé
Accomplished by Xiao He but also lost by Xiao He
Success and failure of your own making. The story is of Liu Bang before he became Emperor had Xiao He as Prime Minister. Xiao recommended Han Xin for a military command. However Han Xin fell from favor and then plotted a revolt. Xiao He lured him to a meeting at the place and killed him. So Xiao He both launched the career and ended the career of Han Xin,
Talking irrelevant nonsense. Ravings of no possible interest.
Roughly equivalent to: A load of codswallop.
Chí kāi de huā wèi bì bú xiāng
A late-blooming flower is not necessarily lacking in fragrance
It's never too late to try something new.
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.
Roughly equivalent to: Once bitten, twice shy.
Chòu bù kě dāng
Worst ever smell
To give off an unbearable stink.
Chuān xīn xié, zǒu lǎo lù
Wear new shoes but follow old paths
Stick to the old ways while appearing to follow the latest trends.
Chū ěr fǎn ěr
Getting just reward
Do as you would be done to. Repay past behavior appropriately. In modern times this has changed meaning to be more to with inconsistency and self contradictory behavior than justice.
Roughly equivalent to: What you sow, so shall you reap.
Chū qí zhì xūn
Using an ingenious, unexpected ploy
Using a surprise or ingenious scheme to achieve success.
Roughly equivalent to: As cunning as a fox.
Chū shēng rù sǐ
To risk one's life
Offer unquestioning support.
Roughly equivalent to: Through thick and thin.
Chū shēng zhī dú bù pà hǔ
A baby calf does not fear a tiger
Innocence about the dangers involved.
Chún wáng chǐ hán
Without lips the teeth feel the cold
Two interdependent things or people. The story of is of an attack on two kingdoms, as they were so mutually dependent the fall of one led directly to the fall of the other.
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 on top of his horde to say that the 300 pieces were not buried there. Someone a little smarter dug up the cash and replaced the sign to say he had not dug up the silver buried there.
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.
Prepared to kill one's own family to keep to the law. Back in the Spring and Autumn Period a father, Shi Que, uncovered the murder of the king of Wei was done by a treasonous group which included his own son Shi Hou. Believing he could not show him special treatment he had him executed.
Lure a tiger down from its mountain. This is one of the age old strategms of war.
Lure an enemy out of its home territory in order to attack it.
Dī shuǐ chuān shí
Dripping water can bore into stone
Long perseverance will win in the end, even stone wears away. Nothing is permanent.
Roughly equivalent to: Keep on keeping on.
Dōng bēn xī zǒu
Be busy; bustling about.
Dōng chuāng shì fā
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.
Roughly equivalent to: The chickens have come home to roost.
Coming back after voluntary retirement into public life. Particularly for taking on high office after a long break away from all the action.
Roughly equivalent to: To make a comeback.
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.
Roughly equivalent to: Mutton dressed as lamb.
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.
Roughly equivalent to: Butter one's bread on both sides.
Duì niú tán qín
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, tried to describe Buddhist teaching to an audience but failed because his audience had no basic understanding of the concepts.
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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