An empty house with just bare walls. To be very poor. There is a story from the Han dynasty of two rivals for the hand of a young lady. One was rich and the other was very poor, but due to the skill of the poor man on the qin (type of lute) the lady chose the poor man to the astonishment of the rich man.
Roughly equivalent to: As poor as church mice.
Jiā yù hù xiǎo
Known in every household
A person or fact known to everybody. Something or somebody well known.
A strategy to maintain possession. By giving up something in the hope that it will be rewarded. The story is of a dispute with a greedy neighboring kingdom. Rather than oppose a kingdom volunteered to give up land. When the greed y neighbor continued to take advantage all the neighbors united against it and all the lands were returned.
Jiāng láng cái jìn
Master Jiang has exhausted his talent
Losing your creative spark. Jiang Yan was an official in the Southern Liang dynasty [502-557] achieved early repute as a poet and writer but in later years struggled to write anything of value. He dreamed that he owed his talent to the pen of Guo Pu who then reclaimed it.
Once the arrow is on the bow string, it must be shot
Things have reached a point when its necessary for something to be done. No choice.
Roughly equivalent to: Lights, camera, action.
Jiàn guài bù guài
Calm at the sight of the unknown
Face the unexpected and disturbing with calmness and fortitude.
Roughly equivalent to: Keep a cool head.
Jiàn yì yǒng wéi
See the just cause and act on it
To see what is right and act with courage.
Jiē lái zhī shí
Rejecting charity food handed out with contempt
Food given to the starving with such a contemptuous swagger that the starved reject it and would rather starve.
Jié zú xiān dēng
The winning foot is the first to climb
To succeed need to start off first.
Roughly equivalent to: The early bird catches the worm.
Jié zé ér yú
Drain the pond to harvest the fish
Choose short-term gain for long-term sorrow. Not planning for the long term. Short-termism. Similar to burning down a forest to capture wild animals - unsustainable.
Roughly equivalent to: Kill the goose that lays the golden eggs.
Jié cǎo xián huán
Tying grass and delivering rings
Generously repaying a debt of gratitude. The story is of Yang Bao who nursed a sick bird back to health. After he had released the siskin into the wild he dreamed of the bird carrying grass tied in rings in its beak which transformed into a boy with precious jade rings . The boy gave Yang Bao enduring good fortune in gratitude.
Jié āi shùn biàn
Hold back on grief and accept the mishap
Often said as a token of condolence on a death.
Jié wài shēng zhī
Leaves emerge from where they should not
New problems pop up unexpectedly.
Jiě yī tuī shí
Sharing garments and food
Sharing clothes and food with someone in need. To treat with great kindness and consideration.
It is difficult to shake off a deeply rooted habit.
Roughly equivalent to: The leopard does not change his spots.
Jī bù zé shí
When hungry don't care what you eat
The starving aren't fussy over their food - take whatever is available.
Roughly equivalent to: Beggars can't be choosers.
Jī fēi dàn dǎ
The hen has flown and the eggs destroyed. All is lost.
Jī míng gǒu dào
Able to crow like a cockerel and steal like a dog
A person with a range of useful tricks. The story is of someone back in the Warring States period who helped a prince out of difficulty by imitating a dog to distract prison guards and to crow like a cockerel to trick them into thinking it was already morning.
Roughly equivalent to: Every trick in the book.
Jī quǎn bù ning
Even the chicken and dog are disturbed. General commotion
Finish the current job before starting something new.
Roughly equivalent to: Don't put off until tomorrow what can be done today.
Jīn zhāo yǒu jiǔ jīn zhāo zuì
When have some wine, all will get drunk
Take advantage of good fortune while it is around.
Jīn chéng tāng chí
A city of metal with a moat of boiling water
An impregnable city with highly effective defenses. Someone/something not worth trying to attack.
Jīn shí wéi kāi
Even metal and stone can be pierced
Any difficulty can be overcome given time and commitment. The story is of the famous archer Xiong Quzi of the Zhou dynasty. At dusk he mistook a stone for a tiger and shot an arrow at it. In the morning he found his arrow had penetrated deep into the stone. This led to the idiom that with great skill and determination the apparently impossible can be achieved.
Roughly equivalent to: The difficult we do immediately; the impossible takes a little longer.
Someone who is easily frightened especially if triggered by a previous bad experience. The story is of a great archer who claimed he could shoot a goose out of the sky without releasing an arrow. He then twanged the bow and a goose did fall to the ground. The goose showed signs of a previous arrow injury and had died of fright.
Jīng wèi tián hǎi
Jingwei tries to fill up the ocean
Even the mythical bird Jing Wei will be unable to fill the oceans with pebbles. Facing a Herculean task. Determined against impossible odds. The story is of Jing Wei who was the daughter of Emperor Yan. A great typhoon came and killed her and she was then transformed into a bird. In revenge for her early death she determined to fill up the ocean by filling it with pebbles one by one.
Roughly equivalent to: A forlorn hope.
Jí è rú chóu
Treating evil as an enemy
Determined to confront evil. Not letting evil people or things continue.
Roughly equivalent to: Fight the good fight.
Jí fēng zhī jìng cǎo
A storm tests the strength of a blade of grass
Being put to the test in harsh circumstances. To show resolution under extreme stress. Remaining loyal to a cause when the going gets tough.
Roughly equivalent to: If you cant stand the heat get out of the kitchen.
The beginning of a great task. In one creation myth Pangu set about his momentous work by first separating heaven (yang) from earth (yin). An epic undertaking.
Roughly equivalent to: To boldly go.
Kàn fēng shǐ duò
Steer the boat wherever the winds lead
Not sticking to the big plan. A fickle mind.
Kē zhèng měng yú hǔ
Tyranny is more terrible than tigers
The story is that Confucius met a woman near mount Taishan who was weeping bitterly. When asked, she said she had lost father-in-law, husband and son to marauding tigers. When Confucius asked why then she did not move to a safer village she replied that she was sheltering from a despotic government and would rather risk tigers than oppression. Evil government is the worst of evils.
Kè zhōu qiú jiàn
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,
Roughly equivalent to: Wild goose chase.
Kōng dòng wú wù
Empty and devoid of worthwhile content. Usually applied to poor writing that is devoid of meaning.
Roughly equivalent to: Empty words.
Kōng qián jué hòu
Neither seen in the future nor in the past
Something that is genuinely new.
Kōng xuè lái féng wèi bì wú yīn
If wind comes from an empty cave it did not come from nowhere
There are always clues that something is about to happen.
Pride leading to attempting the impossible. Over confidence in skills. Over-arching ambition. The story is of a giant called Kua Fu who was immensely strong and swift. He attempted to chase the sun but in so doing became so hot he died from thirst that could not be quenched. A similar tale to Icarus flying too close to the sun.
Wolves are aggressive, dog bark. Ungrateful; cruel and unscrupulous
Ungrateful and unscrupulous.
Lǎo bàng shēng zhū
An old oyster yields pearls
Remaining fit and healthy into old age, specifically can mean fathering children in advanced years.
Roughly equivalent to: There's many a good tune played on an old fiddle.
Lǎo dāng yì zhuàng
Old but still vigorous
Remaining vigorous, skillful and healthy in old age.
Lǎo jiān jù huá
To be very crafty and cunning
To be tricky, cunning, crafty. Well versed in the ways of the world.
Roughly equivalent to: All's fair in love and war.
Lǎo jì fú lì, zhì zài qiān lǐ
The old horse in the stable still yearns to gallop 1,000 miles
Ambitions never fade. An old person still has high hopes.
Roughly equivalent to: Old soldiers never die, they just fade away.
Lǎo mǎ shí tú
An old horse knows the way
Knowledge born from long experience. The story is of a Duke of Qi of the Spring and Autumn period who became lost on the way home from a campaign because winter had set in. The Duke proposed that the old horses should be allowed to lead their way home which they did successfully.
Roughly equivalent to: Been around the block a few times.
A candle illuminates others at the cost of burning itself up
Helping others at the cost of not looking after yourself.
Roughly equivalent to: Love thy neighbor as thyself.
Làn yú chōng shù
Passing oneself off as a proficient Yu pipe player
Pretending to be well qualified for a job. The story is that the king of Qi loved to hear an ensemble of yu players. A lazy sponger Nanguo wanted the plum job as a yu player. He faked playing the yu in the large ensemble. It came to an end with the next king of Qi who preferred soloists rather than an ensemble and so, expecting exposure, quickly fled away.
Overly portentous. Reality does not match expectations.
Roughly equivalent to: Empty vessels make the most noise.
Lè bù sī Shǔ
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.
Lè cǐ bù pí
Pleasure takes away the fatigue
Said of a task that is enjoyable and so does not seem to be tiring. Can also be applied to a pleasurable task that you never get tired of doing.
Lè jí shēng bēi
After pleasure comes sorrow
Wallowing in pleasure will lead to regrets afterwards. Restrain yourself or you'll regret it.
The story is of a book that initially failed to find any interest, when he came to the then capital of Luoyang several respected scholars found it exceptional. The book then became so popular that printers exhausted the supply of paper to print copies of it. It therefore is used to describe a book that is destined to be a sensation.
Roughly equivalent to: There's no place like home.
Lǖ chún bù duì mǎ zuǐ
Donkey's lips do not fit a horse's mouth
Something that is out of place and inappropriate.
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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