Chinese idioms A to D
grief weapons certainly victory
A vengeful army will certainly win
Strong emotion galvanizes effort
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.
peace reside happy enterprise
Live and work in peace and contentment
Wishing you well in a new home
love not let go hand
Locked in love's clutches
love house reach crow
Strong love that encompasses all, including the crow sitting on the roof
In love with everything in the world
Love is blind
according to picture search thoroughbred horse
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.
secret pass through Chencang
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.
eight immortal past sea each show god knowledge
The Eight Immortals crossing the sea all have there own particular skills
Everyone has their own special skills to contribute
eight character not one neglect
The character for eight takes two strokes to write not just one
You can't do everything on your own
It takes two to Tango
Ban door use hatchet
Demonstrating the axe at Ban?s door
Lu Ban (c. 500BCE) was a master engineer inventor and carpenter. So trying to show off you skills with an axe (or adze in those days) at his door was being rather pretentious. So the phrase means to show off your feeble skills in front of a real expert.
Teaching your grandmother to suck eggs
cover conceal misfortune mind
Harboring evil intentions
Having evil intent; concealing malice.
In league with the devil
clear hand make house
Empty hand make house
To build up something from nothing
hundred arrows hundred middles
One hundred arrows, one hundred bullseyes
A superb marksman; showing great skill. Yang Youji and Houyi were archers of great renown.
A dab hand
hundred hear not like one see
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
Seeing is believing
hundred bend not scratch
Not to falter despite many setbacks
Persistence pays off in the end
Patience is a virtue
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
half catty eight taels
Two equivalent measures
Nothing to choose between two alternatives
Six of one, and half a dozen of the other
half way but give-up
Give up half way through
To abandon work half done. Lacking determination to see the job through
Stick to your guns
near person door
Hanging on another?s door
Someone dependent on a household without making much contribution. A hanger-on.
Fisherman with cormorants trained to fish at Yangshuo, Guangxi
hold firewood rescue fire
Using wood to put out a fire
Not choosing an appropriate solution to a problem. Making matters worse
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
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
stupid bird first fly early enter forest
A clumsy bird that flies first will get to the forest earlier
Starting early helps achieve success
The tortoise beats the hare. The early bird catches the worm
whip length not reach
Beyond the reach of the whip
Too far away to be able to help or beyond one's skill or influence.
classify tool one pattern
Possessing a unique style
Doing things your own way
leave nothing surplus
Having nothing to spare
In great poverty, possessing nothing other than the bare essentials.
The cupboard is bare
compel get into Liang mountain
Compelled to become a Liangshan rebel
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.
guest arrive as if belong
Guests feel at home
Warmly welcoming guests to your home. Guests treated as part of the family.
Be my guest
weapon not detest cheat
In conflict cheating is permitted
In warfare nothing is too dishonest
All is fair in love and war
ice freeze three foot, wrong one day single cold
Three feet of ice is not formed in a single day
It takes time to achieve satisfactory results
Rome was not built in a day
ice sky snow ground
Ice in the sky and snow on the ground
Encountering adverse conditions
evade pit drop well
Avoid falling into a pit to fall into a well
Avoid one obstacle only to hit another
thigh flesh return life
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 t o 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 fighting fit
disease enter moisten vitals
The disease has penetrated the vitals
Beyond hope and cure. A hopeless situation.
Not the ghost of a chance
Bo Le know horse
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.
not shame under question
There is no shame in asking help from those less fortunate or senior than yourself.
A cat may look at a king
not arrive Yellow River not die heart
Not giving up until one reaches the Yellow River
Keep going until you hit an insurmountable obstacle
He who hesitates is lost
not tell but leave
No words spoken when leave
Leave without saying goodbye
Great Hall of the People, Beijing where the National People’s Congress (NPC) of China convenes. January 18, 2003 Photo by Allen Timothy Chang, available under a Creative Commons license ➚.
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
no sleep skill itch
Itching to show off a skill
Eagerness to impress people with a skill.
not fear road long only fear aspire short
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
Rome was not built in a day
not fear slow come-near fear halt
Not fear slowing down; fear coming to a halt
Do not be afraid of slowing down as long as you keep going
A rolling stone gathers no moss
not destroy not stand
If do not destroy will not stand
The old needs to be demolished before building the new
Starting again from scratch
not enter tiger den how get tiger cub
Without entering a tiger's den how can you hope to capture a tiger cub?
Great rewards require a great risk.
Fortune favors the brave. Nothing ventured, nothing gained
not cast large net not get large fish
Without casting a big net how can a big fish be caught
Need to think big if to succeed
not good beginning not good end
A bad beginning leads to a bad ending
Need to plan everything from the beginning
Don't put the cart before the horse
not act five peck rice bend waist
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.
not know meat smell
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).
Lost touch with reality
not self capacity strength
Overrating your own strength
Overreaching yourself, not taking account of true capabilities. Exaggerate level of skill.
By no stretch of the imagination
step step tall ascend
Step by step promotion
Congratulation on promotion or a new job
hide dragon lie tiger
Hidden dragon, crouching tiger
There are often people around with great power and skill
vegetation all warlike
Every bush harbors an enemy
Being paranoid - believing everyone is out to get you. To be beleaguered
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
normal support has day think nothing day, noone support nothing time think has time
When rich there is time to think all day, when poor there is no time to think
When rich, you have time to dream, but do not dream of riches when you are poor
normal located river side walk, there can not wet shoes
You cannot routinely walk along a river without sometimes getting your shoes wet
You can't ignore the local conditions
vehicle carry peck capacity
Cartloads and sackfuls
Huge quantity. A very large number. Overabundant.
ride wind break wave
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.
Man with a plan
The famous Huangguoshu Falls in Guizhou
city gate destroy fire , calamity reach moat fish
Burning a city gate kills the fish in the moat
A drastic action may unintentionally affect other people. Show consideration for all
city walls down oath
Only under duress
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.
complete also Xiao He defeat also Xiao He
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,
Cheng door stand snow
Standing at Cheng?s door in the snow
Showing great respect for someone - usually a teacher or scholar. The story is that a great scholar accidentally left two students waiting for him for hours out in the snow.
eat soft not eat hard
Only able to chew tender food, not the tough
Unable to withstand harsh criticism
eat one chasm long one wise
Fall into a pit but learn from the experience
Gain wisdom from experience of set backs
Learn from your mistakes
stupid man speak dream
A fool describing his dream
Talking irrelevant nonsense. Ravings of no possible interest.
A load of codswallop
slow opening flower did not certainly not smell
A late-blooming flower is not necessarily lacking in fragrance
It's never too late to try something new
repeat tread overturn rut
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.
Once bitten, twice shy
smelly not can equal
Worst ever smell
To give off an unbearable stink
put on new shoes, walk old road
Wear new shoes but follow old paths
Stick to the old ways while appearing to follow the latest trends
go out thus return thus
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.
What you sow, so shall you reap
extraordinary system medal
Using an ingenious, unexpected ploy
Using a surprise or ingenious scheme to achieve success.
As cunning as a fox
be born enter death
To risk one's life
Offer unquestioning support
Through thick and thin
early bear this calf not fear tiger
A baby calf does not fear a tiger
Innocence about the dangers involved
lips gone tooth cold
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.
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.
grant child thousand cash not like teach child one skill
Better to teach a child a skill than give money
Learning a new skill will pay dividends in the future
unhurried not urgent
Calm and unhurried
Taking life calmly and in your stride. Untroubled.
Without a care in the world
Overlooking Fancheng District from Xiangcheng District on the other side of the Han River, which is a tributary of the Yangtze River. October 2011.
Image by Zihanzor ➚ available under a Creative Commons license ➚
follow well-disposed as flow
Following good advice just as water flows
Willing to accept other people's advice just as all water in a stream follows the flow. Readily following good leadership.
Following the flow
coarse tea bland food
On a starvation diet
Eat simple home-made food and yet be healthy
thick branch big leaf
A large branch with large leaves. Unable to draw in fine detail
Lack of attention to detail
gall big as peck
A gall bladder as big as a football
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.
As bold as brass
large utensil late complete
Large vessels take longer to complete
It takes a long time and great care to make something worthwhile. An admonishment to persevere in studies or work. Often used to describe late developing talent.
Rome wasn't built in a day
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.
fall spear mutual direction
Attack own party
Betray one's own side
stupid like wood chicken
As dumb as a wooden chicken
Dumbstruck, unable to move or say anything out of fear.
Caught like a rabbit in the headlights
single spear horse
A single spear and a single horse
Taking on a difficult task on your own
equal game other be confused, side observe other clear
Spectators get a better appreciation of the game than the players
If too closely involved may not see all the issues involved
knife mountain fire sea
A mountain of knives; a sea of fires
An extremely difficult and dangerous situation
strike grass startled snake
Striking the grass alerts the snake
It is unwise to alert an enemy of your presence
Let sleeping dogs lie
strike person not strike 'face'
Better to hit a person than their reputation. Losing 'face' is a major consideration for Chinese people
Be diplomatic and tactful when being critical
To err is human; to forgive divine
big ability tiny use
Big ability barely used
Wasting talent on trivial things. Using someone talented for a menial task
All dressed up and nowhere to go
big develop thunder
Develop large thunderstorm
Fly into a furious rage
To spit nails
large just not selfish
Helping everyone else. Not motivated by self-interest.
big hand big foot
Large hands and feet
Lavish and grandiose expenditure on tasteless trifles
A fool and his money are soon parted
great justice wipe out relative
Uphold justice by killing one?s own family
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.
big wisdom seem foolish
A wise person may seem silent as often remains silent
A wise person holds his counsel
Still waters run deep
Old fishing boat on Ru Shan Shi beach, Shandong
backwards slippers mutually welcome
Putting on shoes the wrong way aroung when greeting a guest
So keen to meet a guest that shoes are put on the wrong way around. Excitement about meeting someone idolized.
Go weak at the knees
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
road listen road speak
Paying heed to gossip
Listening to roadside gossip or tittle-tattle.
contented get along yet live
Muddling through life without great ambitions. Contended to just live from day to day.
Enough is as good as a feast
permit mind/heart respond hand
Hand and mind in harmony
Things moving smoothly and naturally. Heart and mind working together with hands to achieve a task.
Smug and self-satisfied
To be very pleased with oneself. Giving an air of sublime complacency.
I'm all right Jack
catch fish forget trap
After catching a fish forget the trap
Ungrateful behavior, ignoring help given to make things possible
Don't bite the hand that feeds you
touch stone accomplish gold
Turn stone into gold
To turn something of little worth into something of great value
Improve beyond recognition
move tiger leave mountain
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
drip water penetrate stone
Dripping water can bore into stone
Long perseverance will win in the end, even stone wears away. Nothing is permanent
Keep on keeping on
east hasten west walk
Be busy; bustling about
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
east mountain again rise
To rise again from the east mountain
Coming back after voluntary retirement into public life. Particularly for taking on high office after a long break away from all the action.
To make a comeback
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
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
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
answer illness down medicine
Suiting the right medicine for an illness
Take the right measures to solve a problem to achieve the desired result
tut-tut odd matter
A matter or incident that is absurd, extraordinary or strange.
many many benefit improve
The more, the better
Safety in numbers. Wanting to invite as many people as possible to improve chances of success
Many hands make light work
Macau skyline, 2013
many difficulty flourish nation
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.
Hope springs eternal
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
only tree no accomplish forest , single string no accomplish sound
A single tree does not make a forest; a single string can not make music
Many things require people to work together to achieve an end
All pull together
only timber difficult prop up
A single stick will not prop up a whole building
It often requires more than one person to resolve problems
Two heads are better than one
read 10000 roll up book no like walk 10000 mile road
Reading ten thousand books is not the same as walking a thousand miles
Learn from practical experience not from books
pass day as year
Each day passes as a year
Time seems to pass very slowly
Time drags on
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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