Chinese idioms E to I

A list of Chinese proverbs ordered by pinyin spelling.

Ēn jiāng chóu baò
Repay kindness with hostility
Reject kindness.
Roughly equivalent to: Biting the hand that feeds it.
Ér xíng qiān lǐ mǔ dān yōu
When children travel far away the mother worries
Mothers will always worry about their children.
Ěr yú wǒ zhà
Cheating and deceiving each other
Mutual distrust and deception. A relationship without any trust.
Roughly equivalent to: Dog eat dog.
Ěr xīn
New sights and sounds
A change of place, everything fresh and new.
È guàn mǎn yíng
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.
È rén xiān gàozhuàng
The offender is the first to complain
The perpetrator diverts attention by being the first to complain.
Roughly equivalent to: To cry 'wolf'
Fā fèn wàng shí
Working so hard as to forget to eat
Concentrating on work so much that appetite is forgotten. Implication that work is interesting rather than drudgery.
Fān yún fù
Conjuring clouds with one hand and rain with the other
Trying too hard to impress.
, [凡人不可貌相海水不可斗量]
Fán rén bù kě mào xiàng, hǎi shuǐ bù kě dòu liàng
Neither a person can be judged by his looks nor can the sea be fathomed
Judging by appearance is dangerous.
Roughly equivalent to: Don't judge a book by its cover.
微杜渐 [防微杜漸]
Fáng wēi dù jiàn
Prevent problems by early action
A stitch in time saves nine. Tackle problems when they are small and can be dealt with before they get out of hand.
Roughly equivalent to: Nipping it in the bud.
Fǎn fù tuī qiāo
Carefully considering the words push and knock
Spending considerable time to get the words just right. Showing excessive concern on minor details. Based on the story of an Tang dynasty official who spent ages deciding whether 'knock' or 'push' was the appropriate word in a poem.
Roughly equivalent to: Slow but sure.
Fǎn lǎo huán tóng
Return to youthful vigour
Returning to youthful energy. Turning back the years. Often used as a compliment to someone sprightly in old age.
Roughly equivalent to: New lease of life.
Fēi lú: fēi mǎ
Neither a donkey nor a horse
A person or place that is neither one thing nor another. Indeterminate or strange combination.
Roughly equivalent to: Neither fish nor fowl.
Beijing, skyscraper, congestion
Modern highway and buildings, Beijing, 2013
蛾投 [飛蛾投火]
Fēi é tóu huǒ
A moth throws itself into a flame
Heading for self destruction.
Roughly equivalent to: Like a moth to a flame.
腾达 [飛黃騰達]
Fēi huáng téng dá
To fly in the sky like the legendary horse Fei Huang (flying yellow)
A meteoric rise to success and honour.
Fēi qín zǒu shòu
Birds and beasts
扬镳 [分道揚鑣]
Fēn dào yáng biāo
Go separate ways and urge on the horses
Choosing to go separate ways due to different plans and ambitions.
Fēng chuī cǎo dòng
The wind causes the grass to move
A minor repercussion of a larger action. A trifling consequence.
Fēng chuī cǎo dòng
The wind causes the grass to move
A minor repercussion of a larger action. A trifling consequence.
Fēng mǎ niú bù xiāng jí
Horses and cows keep themselves separate
People moving in different circles, different agendas. Having nothing in common.
Roughly equivalent to: Apples and oranges.
Fēng tóng zhōu
In the same boat in a storm
Facing troubles together.
Roughly equivalent to: A trouble shared is a trouble halved.
畋,竭 [焚林而畋竭澤而漁]
Fén lín ěr tián, jié zé ěr yú
Burn a forest to farm; drain a pond to fish
Ignoring the consequences.
Roughly equivalent to: Marry in haste, repent at leisure.
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
In face of evil, rather be a broken jade than an intact brick
It is better to die with honor than surrender.
废寝 [廢寑忘食]
Fèi qǐn wàng shí
To forget to sleep and eat
To be engrossed in work and study.
Fèng máo lín jiǎo
As rare as phoenix feathers and unicorn horns
Seeking the unobtainable.
,祸 [福無重至旤不單行]
Fú wú chóng zhì, huò bú dān xíng
Blessings come along alone; troubles often come together
Bad fortune is more frequent than good.
Roughly equivalent to: Ill fortune comes in threes.
Qing dynasty, Qing tombs, Hebei, building
Eastern Royal Tombs of the Qing dynasty, Zunhua, Hebei
Fǔ kuài bú pà mù chái yìng
A sharp axe does not fear hard wood
A talented person is not afraid of a difficult task.
Fù lì táng huáng
Prosperous and beautiful
To have the best of good fortune.
覆巢完卵 [覆巢無完卵]
Fù cháo wú wán luǎn
When the nest is overturned, no egg is left unbroken
In a disaster everyone will feel the consequences. Failure will affect everyone involved.
Fù shuǐ nán shōu
Spilled water can not be recovered
What is done is done. The situation can not be restored to how it once was.
Roughly equivalent to: There's no use crying over spilt milk.
Fù jīng qǐng zuì
To carry a cane and ask to be punished
Admit a fault and offer an apology. The story is from the Zhou dynasty when Lin Xiangru of the Zhao kingdom had an adversity in Lian Po. Lian Po used every opportunity to dis his boss Lin Xiangru. Lian Po was then shown that solidarity was key to the state's survival and offered a humble apology. Lian Po carried brambles on his back for some distance to show his contrition.
Roughly equivalent to: Swallowing your pride.
赴汤蹈 [赴湯蹈火]
Fù tāng dǎo huǒ
Wade through scolding water and burning flame
Showing great courage and valour.
Gān jiāng mò yé
Two famous swords
These are the names of two supreme bronze swords of long ago. Gan Jiang was unable to melt the bronze until he added some hair and nail clippings from his wife Mo Ye. Only then could the swords be made and they were the sharpest swords ever made. Used to honor someone or something as superlative.
Roughly equivalent to: Cat's pyjamas.
Gāo bù chéng dī bù jiù
Although not qualified for high office will not accept a lower position
Exaggerating one's skills.
Gāo shān liú shuǐ
High mountains and flowing water
A description of beautiful music and by analogy a deep friendship.
Roughly equivalent to: Boon companion.
Gāo wū jiàn líng
Pouring water from the roof of a tall building
Being in a good position to repel attackers. Holding a commanding position.
改邪 [改邪歸正]
Gǎi xié guī zhèng
Abandon evil and turn to good
Reject bad ways and turn to the good.
Roughly equivalent to: Turn over a new leaf.
感恩图 [感恩圖報]
Gǎn ēn tú bào
Gratefully returning kindness
Repaying a debt of kindness. The story is from the Zhou dynasty when the state of Wu was mounting a war against the state of Zheng. A Zheng fisherman offered to try to stop the conflict. He boldly went to the enemy general Wu Zixu and reminded him that his father had saved Wu's life a long time ago. The general then recalled the incident and in repayment of the kindness called off his attack on Zheng.
Roughly equivalent to: One good turn deserves another.
Gàn huó bú yóu dōng lèi sǐ yě wú gōng
Working without obeying the boss will bring only hard work and no merit
Only work on what is needed to be done.
Great Hall of the People, Beijing, Tiananmen Square, NPC
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 .
Gē ròu zì dàn
Eating one's own flesh
A foolish, self defeating stratagem.
Roughly equivalent to: Cutting off your nose to spite your face.
Gé àn guān huǒ
Watch the fire burn from the other side of the river
Refusing to help others when it is needed.
Gé xuē sāo yǎng
Scratching an itch from outside of the shoe
An ineffective solution to a problem.
Gè zì wéi zhèng
Each following his own policy
Acting selfishly. Following own plans and ideas with no regard for others.
Gōng kuī kuì
A new dam is left incomplete due to the lack of one basket of earth
See things through to the end.
急跳墙 [狗急跳墻]
Gǒu jí tiaò qiáng
A cornered dog will leap over a wall
Extreme circumstances require extreme measures.
Roughly equivalent to: The end justifies the means.
Gǒu měng jiǔ suān
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.
续貂 [狗尾續貂]
Gǒu wěi xù diāo
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.
苟延残喘 [苟延殘喘]
Gǒu yán cán chuǎn
Lingering at last gasp
In the throes of dying. Making a final desperate action prior to dying.
Roughly equivalent to: At death's door.
Guā xiāng kàn
Rubbing one's eyes when seeing someone
Noticing that someone has changed for the better. Show respect for improvement and progress. Changing a view of someone's abilities.
Roughly equivalent to: Seeing someone in a new light.
Guā tián xià
In a melon field and under a plum tree
Avoid circumstances that give rise to false suspicion, If someone is seen near ripe melons or under a plum tree they are open to suspicion of theft. A longer form of the saying makes it clear that you should not tie up your shoes in a melon field or out on a hat under a plum tree as these actions are suspicious.
窥豹 [管中窺豹]
Guǎn zhōng kuī bào
View a leopard through a tube
A narrow-minded view of something. Not seeing the full picture.
Roughly equivalent to: Cant see the wood for the trees.
Guà yáng tóu mài gǒu ròu
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.
Roughly equivalent to: Buying a pig in a poke.
Qufu, temple, Confucius, Shandong
Lingxing Gate of Qufu Confucian Temple, Qufu, Shandong. January 2009.
Image by Sean Shih available under a Creative Commons license
Guǐ yóu xīn shēng
Ghosts are figments of the mind
Being scared of the paranormal; irrational fear of dark and shadows.
Roughly equivalent to: Frightened of your own shadow.
Guǒ zú bù qián
Dithering about
Unable to move forward due to misgivings. To hesitate about getting on and doing something.
Roughly equivalent to: All of a dither.
拆桥 [過河拆橋]
Guò hé chāi qiáo
Dismantling the bridge after crossing it
Not showing due consideration for others.
Gū zhǎng nán míng
You can not clap with just one hand
It is difficult to achieve anything on your own.
Roughly equivalent to: It takes two to Tango.
Gū zhù zhì
Stake all on a single throw
Taking desperate measures to try to save a situation. Gambling everything on a change of fortune.
Roughly equivalent to: Last throw of the dice.
wéi jīn yòng
Applying ancient ways to the present day
Learning from history. Applying past history to the current situation.
Gǔ shòu rú chái
Nothing but skin and bones
Gù zuǒ yòu ér yán tā
Looking both ways and changing the subject
Avoiding talking about something; taking a long digression.
Hán shā shè yǐng
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.
邯郸 [邯鄲學步]
Hán dān xué bù
Trying too hard to impress
Learning how the residents of Handan walk . The story is of a man back in the Warring States period who took on the gait of grand city folk trying to impress but could no longer walk properly. Pompous and pretentious.
Roughly equivalent to: Make an ass of yourself.
Hǎi nà bǎi chuān
All rivers run to the sea
We all share a common destiny.
Hǎo hǎo xiān shēng
Someone who agrees with everything said. More likely to be so as to not give any offense rather than ingratiating.
Hǎo mǎ bù chī huí tóu cǎo
A good horse will not eat the grass behind it
Pride may forbid a person going back to his home town after failure. Do not dwell on past actions, progress forward.
Gansu, lake, desert
The famous crescent lake near Dunhuang, Gansu
Hǎo rén hǎo shì
Good personality good deeds
Pleasant person who behaves well.
Roughly equivalent to: A good man is hard to find.
Hài qún zhī mǎ
The horse that causes trouble to the herd
The bad person of the family or group.
Roughly equivalent to: Bad apple; Black sheep.
浦珠 [合浦珠還]
Hé pǔ zhū huán
The Hepu pearls return home
Something or someone returns to its original source. Often said of someone returning to their original home district after years of wandering. The story is from the Han dynasty of Hepu, Gunagxi which was a leading center for pearl fishing until a local official over exploited the beds of pearls leading to Vietnam taking over as the leading procedure. Only when the pearl beds were left for years to recover did the pearl industry return.
Roughly equivalent to: The wheel has come full circle.
Hé yán yuè sè
Having a happy face looking contented
Amiable appearance.
Hé dōng shī hǒu
The lioness from Hedong roars
A husband under the control of a domineering wife. The story is of Chen Zao of the Song dynasty who often had guests around in the evening. If his wife got to hear that there were other women with him she would knock on the wall and roar. A hen-pecked man.
Roughly equivalent to: She who must be obeyed.
Hé zhé zhī fù
A carp in a dry rut
In a desperate situation. A fish stuck in a rut in the road will soon die if not moved. In need of immediate assistance.
Roughly equivalent to: In dire straits.
Héng xíng bà dào
Walking sidewise to block the way
Being deliberately obstructive.
Hè lì jī qún
A crane standing amidst a flock of chickens
Being conspicuously different (often superior)
Roughly equivalent to: Standing head and shoulders above the opposition.
鸿鹄 [鴻鵠之志]
Hóng hú zhī zhì
The aspirations of a great swan
Having unrealistic ambitions.
Roughly equivalent to: Wish for the moon.
Hóu mén sì hǎi
A noble's house is as vast as the sea
A very tough task. A nobleman in ancient China would have a courtyard house with high walls and no easy entry. In any case it was also hard to get the required invitation to visit such a noble. And so represents a high physical and social barrier.
Roughly equivalent to: Beyond your wildest dreams.
Hòu gù zhī yōu
Looking after troubles behind you
Worried about events back at home. Said of someone concerned about goings on at home rather than things immediately to hand.
Hòu lái jū shàng
A later-comer surpasses everyone
A new arrival outperforms everyone present. A youngster outstrips the older generation.
Roughly equivalent to: Put everyone in the shade.
Hòu qǐ zhī xiù
Promising young talent
Said of someone showing talent at an early age.
Roughly equivalent to: He/she will go far.
Great Wall
Photo by Georgio , available under a Creative Commons license .
Huā huā shì jiè
Life full of experience. Dazzling world of excitement
World seething with life.
Huá ér bù shí
Flowering but not bearing fruit
Said of someone is all show and no substance.
Roughly equivalent to: All that glitters is not gold.
怀 [懷安喪志]
Huái ān sàng zhì
A contented life saps the will
Living a life of idleness and contentment can lead to idleness and laziness.
Roughly equivalent to: A Lotus eater.
Huáng liáng měi mèng
A golden millet dream
A fanciful day dream. The story is of a man who took a brief nap while his host was cooking a bowl of millet. He dreamed of becoming married to a beautiful wife and immensely rich and living to a great age. When he woke up the millet was cooked but he found he was still poor.
Roughly equivalent to: Cloud cuckoo land.
饼充饥 [畫餅充飢]
Huà bǐng chōng jī
Drawing a biscuit to satisfy hunger
To act foolishly and ineffectively. Wasting time on fruitless projects.
Roughly equivalent to: Soft in the head.
Huà hǔ lèi quǎn
A drawing of a tiger that looks like a dog
Foolishly undertaking something over-ambitious and coming a cropper. Taking on something beyond your ability. Puffed up with self-conceit.
Roughly equivalent to: The pride of the peacock.
Huà lóng diǎn jīng
To add eyes to a painted dragon
Make the final vital addition to complete something. Add finishing touches. The story is of a great painter who painted four dragons without completing the eyes. When challenged he claimed that it was to ensure they did not come to life and fly away. When pressured he drew in the eyes of two dragons and they promptly came to life and flew away.
Roughly equivalent to: Dotting the 'i's and crossing the 't's.
Huà shě tiān zú
Drawing a foot on a snake
Ruin by over working something. Add superfluous detail. Too meticulous.
Roughly equivalent to: Gilding the lily.
Huà lǐ yǒu huà
Within the talk there is more meaning
There is more in what was said than is obvious.
Huàn nàn jiàn zhēn qíng
In adversity, true feelings are shown
Only in a crisis do you know who your friends really are.
Roughly equivalent to: A friend in need is a friend indeed.
换汤 [換湯不換葯]
Huàn tāng bú huàn yaò
Change the soup but not the medicine
Not getting to the root of a problem, making superficial changes.
Roughly equivalent to: Rearranging the deckchairs while the ship is sinking.
,比肩继踵 [揮汗成雨,比肩繼踵]
Huī hàn chéng bǐ jiān jì zhǒng
Sweat dripping like rain?shoulder to shoulder and toes touching heels
Stuck in a very large crowd of people with no space to move.
讳疾忌 [諱疾忌醫]
Huì jí jì yī
Hiding sickness for fear of treatment
Keeping mistakes and shortcomings to yourself. Refuse to listen to advice.
Roughly equivalent to: Sweep it under the carpet.
Gobi desert, Inner Mongolia
Gobi Desert stretches into Inner Mongolia. August 2008
Image by Fir0002 available under a Creative Commons license
Huò bù dān xíng
Disasters do not walk alone
Misfortunes tend to come all at once.
Roughly equivalent to: When it rains, it pours.
Huò cóng kǒu chū
The wrong words can bring disaster
Be careful what you say.
囫囵吞枣 [囫圇吞棗]
Hú lún tūn zǎo
Swallow a date along with its stone
To read something without fully understanding it.
Roughly equivalent to: None the wiser.
Hǔ jiǎ hǔ wēi
A trick of cunning to exaggerate self importance
A fox will pretend to have the power of a tiger. The story is that a fox followed a tiger in a parade. The animals panicked and the fox claimed that this was because they were frightened of the fox not the tiger. It goes back to the Warring States Period.
Hǔ fù wú quǎn zǐ
A tiger does not father a dog
A son is similar to his father.
Roughly equivalent to: Like father, like son.
kǒu bá yá
To extract a tooth from a tiger's mouth
To be very daring and/or to take unnecessary risks.
kǒu yú shēng
Saved from the tiger's den
A narrow escape from a dangerous situation.
视眈眈 [虎眎眈眈]
Hǔ shì dān dān
A tiger's stare. To look covetously
To eye enviously.
Hǔ tóu shé wěi
Tiger's head; snake's tail
Begins promisingly but ends badly.

China motif

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 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.

See also