Chinese idioms M to Q
A list of Chinese proverbs ordered by pinyin spelling.
rough sparrow although small, five innards all complete
Small as it is, the sparrow has all the vital organs
A person is a person regardless of size. Complete in every detail
blind person touch elephant
Blind people touch an elephant
Seeing only part of the situation. A Buddhist tale of how a group of blind men each felt a different part of an elephant and came to very different ideas of what it was. One felt a tusk (a huge carrot?), one a ear (a flat dish?), one a leg (a column?) and the fourth the tail (a rope?). None could agree as to what it was.
Not seeing the full picture
tip thorn exist back
A thorn in one?s flesh
Someone or something is causing continuous irritation.
hair bone fearful promise
Hair standing on end
Petrified with fright
Mao Sui self recommend
Mao Sui recommends himself
Volunteering your services for a difficult task. The story is of a servant named Mao Sui to negotiate with the king of Chu over a Qin attack on the kingdom of Zhao (Warring States era). Not enough people volunteered to go on the mission so Mao Sui volunteered against the wishes of his lord. When reluctantly allowed to go Mao Sui proved an able negotiator.
ant gnaw bone
Like ants gnawing at a bone
Dogged perseverance to achieve a long term end
horse arrive accomplish merit
Horse win easy victory
Gain immediate victory
horse hide wrap corpse
Wrapping the body in horsehide
A wish to die in action on the battlefield. A heroic wish to serve until death.
With all guns blazing
horse horse tiger tiger
So so; average; careless
Some people say it comes from an old story in which a horse and a tiger get into a fight. Neither animal could defeat the other. In time, mentioning the two animals together came to mean a fight with no definite winner - and ma ma hu hu came to mean 'so so.'. There is also a story that, a long time ago, an artist drew an animal. He asked other people what the animal he drew was. Some said it looked like a horse while others said it was a tiger. They said, 'ma ma hu hu' because the drawing was just 'so-so'.
buy casket return pearl
Buy the box yet return the pearls inside
To make a foolish action - the pearls were worth far more than the box. Missing the main opportunity.
Penny wise, pound foolish
full town wind rain
Everywhere is lashed by wind and rain
The whole community is awash with scandal or a sensational story.
On everyone's lips
haven't made damage heart affair, no fear devil call gate
Clear conscience does not fear a knock at midnight
If you have done nothing wrong, there is no worry over retribution
As you make your bed, so you must lie upon it
gate can net bird
The gate can catch birds
There are so few visitors that the door could be used to catch birds. Having very few visitors
Roadside snacks at Chengdu, Sichuan
door hall like market
Front yard is like a market
The house is thronged with visitors. The place is all astir
Hive of industry
each situation more decline
Getting gradually worse each time. Life in a decline.
A turn for the worse
Meng mother three moves
Mencius? mother moved house three times
It's important to spend time getting things just right for your children's education. The famous story is of Mencius (Mengzi) the second sage of Confucian philosophy. To ensure she had chosen the best possible location for her son's education she is reputed to have moved house three times. The legend is mentioned in the three character classic.
wipe out this morning eat
Wipe out the enemy before breakfast
Grasp current opportunity; anxious to do battle. Tackle the important problem first.
First catch your hare
place behind Sun Shan
Placed below Sun Shan
A euphemism for failing an examination. The story is that Sun Shan and an fellow townsman went to take the Imperial examinations. Sun Shan passed but was bottom of the list. When he went home he was asked by the father of his fellow townsman how his son had done in the exams. He replied that Sun Shan was bottom of the list and your son was below Sun Shan.
clear observe autumn hair
Able to see an animal?s autumn fur
A perceptive and sharp-sighted person who is able to grasp all the detail. In autumn some animals grow new, fine fur to keep themselves warm in winter.
On the ball
bright spear easy hide, dark arrow difficult defend
It is easy to dodge a spear from in front; but hard to avoid an arrow from behind
It is difficult to guard against furtive attacks
bright know incident ask
Already knowing the answer
To ask a question when already knowing the answer
beat gong start road
Beating the gong to clear the way for dignitaries
To publicize an event
pattern edge both permit
Position is unclear or uncertain. Failing to make up your mind.
Sitting on the fence
grind pestle accomplish needle
Grinding an iron pestle down to a needle
Patiently setting about a great, lengthy task step by step. Anything can be achieved with a firm resolve,
Little strokes fell great oaks
cannot measure high deep
Too high or deep to measure
Enigmatic, unfathomable. Too profound to be readily understood
Still waters run deep
wood person rock heart
Body of wood, heart of stone
A heartless person or also someone who is unwaveringly determined to carry out a task and will not be distracted
Heart of stone
Qian King Temple on the West Lake in Hangzhou, Zhejiang. October 2008.
Image by kanegen ➚ available under a Creative Commons license ➚
tree cease make boat
The tree has been made into a boat
Too late to change anything
What's done is done
tree monkey but wear hat
A hat-wearing macaque
A worthless person hiding behind imposing looks. Trying to impress too hard
All that glitters is not gold
eye stare mouth blank
Staring eyes and mouth open
catalogue not whole ox
See an ox as a set of joints of meat
A skilled butcher who can see an ox as a collection of joints rather than a whole animal. A person of great practical skill
difficult achieve bewildered
Too hard to understand
Where ignorance is bliss, it is folly to be wise
Nan Ke one dream
A dream of Nanke
An absurdly ambitious plan divorced from reality. A dream of grandeur and splendor.
A pipe dream
south shafts of cart north rut
South-pointing carriage shaft and north-pointing track
Doing the opposite of what was intended. The carriage points one way but the ruts in the road force it to go the other way. A foolish and futile plan.
man woman equal wait
Equality between the sexes
Treating men and women the same
What's sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander
problem elder brother problem younger brother
Brothers of the same ilk
Two brothers showing similar personalities. Two people hard to tell apart.
One is just as bad as the other
capable those who many work
The talented are kept busy
Busy people are busy because they are capable
If you want something done ask a busy man
bird exhausted bow store
When the birds have all been killed, the bow is stored away
Having completed a job and then being out of employment. To get rid of someone once they have served their purpose. To have served your purpose.
study study not neglect
Do not neglect your studies. Ponder on problems
Study hard. Keep thinking about a problem
Where there's a will, there's a way
ox cauldron boil chicken
Cooking a chicken in a pot designed for an ox
An in appropriate tool or scale of preparation for a job. Also refers to when a person of great skill is given a menial job
Sunset view over Chongqing City
ox clothes pair sob
A couple sobbing in ox's capes
A couple who are destitute and miserable. They have no money for clothes so use a straw cape made for oxen. Usually used as an admonishment to get a grip and battle with difficulties rather than giving in to self pity.
clay figure fear rain, lie speech fear logic
A mud figure fears rain; a lie fears truth
Over time lies will eventually be laid bare
Truth will out
you die I live
Fight to the death
To fight to the bitter end
disobey border go out person ability
Rebellion creates capability
Hardship and adversity foster talent
If life deals you lemons, make lemonade
disobey arrive obey receive
Do not block but welcome arrival
Deal with things as they happen; do not put them off
stand pride jade broken, no pride tile complete
Don't be a proud piece of broken jade, be a complete tile
Stand up against enemies do not give in. Keep your integrity and stand firm
Fall on your sword
serene make chicken head, no equal phoenix tail
Rather be a chicken's head than a phoenix's tail
Better to be leader of a humble organization than the stooge of a grand one
A big fish in a small pond
lotus root break silken thread links
Although the lotus root may be cut, its fibered threads are still connected
Friendship survives adversity
throw brick draw jade
Cast out a brick to invite jade
Stimulate others to contribute to conversation by making a silly or superficial remark that sparks off debate.
Lose lady also lose soldiers
Losing the lady and the soldiers
Hatching an evil plot that backfires spectacularly. The story is that Sun Quan in the Three Kingdoms period wanted to take territory from the Shu kingdom. He offered his sister's hand in marriage but secretly plotted to attack Liu Bei's troops at the ceremony. Master strategist Zhuge Liang saw through the trap and Liu Bei managed to marry Sun's sister as well as defeat Sun's troops.
Peng journey ten thousand li
Peng Niao flies ten thousand miles
Emergence of great talent. The Peng Niao is a mythical bird of huge size and power that could fly huge distance with little effort. Said of someone of immense potential.
skin no exist hair support how add
If the skin is missing hair can not grow
Everything needs its proper environment for nurture
No man is an island
evil extreme good arrive
At the extreme point of misfortune, good will surely arrive
Things at the worst will mend
The darkest hour is just before the dawn
Looking up in a bamboo forest
female male black horse yellow
Choose a black mare instead of a yellow stallion
Don't judge by outward appearance. The horse's ability is more important than the external appearance. The story is that a Duke of Qin wanted a good horse. He was told a yellow stallion had been selected. On seeing it was in fact a black mare the duke was annoyed but the horse expert stood his ground saying it was the character and ability that was the important thing.
Don't judge a book by its cover
broken pot sink boat
Smash the pots and sink the boats
A story ➚ at the fall of the Qin dynasty 207BCE tells of the general Xiang Yu who refused to accept possibility of retreat at the battle of Julu by burning the boats and smashing the cooking pots. So it means no going back whatever happens. Cutting off all possibility of retreat
Burning your boats
broken mirror again round
A broken mirror remade
A reunion after a couple are separated or patching up after a quarrel. There are several legends in China about a couple who on separation each took one half of a mirror (which used to be of bronze) and when they eventually they are reunited they found each other by matching up the two pieces of mirror.
universal heaven together celebrate
Everyone in celebration
The whole nation is rejoicing at some happy event
thousand gold buy smile
A smile costing a thousand ounces of gold
A target that is very hard to attain. Spending lavishly to attract an alluring woman, A variant of the proverb uses ''horses bones' 买骨 instead of a smile but the meaning is the same - needless extravagance.
千军易得, 一将难求 [千軍易得一將難求]
thousand troops easy get , one general difficult beg
It is easy to find a thousand soldiers, but hard to find a good general
It is hard to find an outstanding leader
thousand Chinese mile deliver swan feather
A swan feather from a thousand miles away
Showing appreciation on receiving a gift that shows the sender has taken time and trouble to choose it. Traveling a very long way to deliver what seems to be a trifle. The tale is from the Tang dynasty, when Mian Bogai sent a gift of a special swan to the Emperor. However the feather was all that was left from a swan when he arrived. So this is a rejoinder when someone receives a gift that is seemingly of low value.
Don't look a gift horse in the mouth
thousand mile's dyke, river goto ant hole
An ant may destroy an entire dam
Take full attention to detail to avoid catastrophe
Spoil the ship for a ha'pworth of tar
thousand mile's walk begin goto foot down
A long march starts from a single step
Perseverance will lead to eventual success
Mighty oaks from little acorns grow
thousand tries one completed
Thousand tries, one success
An expression of modesty when accounting for success. Discounting skill and perseverance as just a lucky break.
thousand mountain ten thousand rivers
Many mountains and many rivers
A long and arduous journey
preceding vehicle's reflect
Watch the route of the preceding carriage. A carriage that overturned ahead can be a lesson for those to follow.
Take account of what has gone before
Look before you leap
first stubborn after respectful
First scornful then respectful
Treating people in a two-faced manner according to people's perceived power and influence. A snobbish person who changes their manner according to who they are dealing with.
Longtan Park, Taiyuan, Shanxi
before fear wolf behind fear tiger
To fear wolves ahead and tigers behind
To be obsessed by fears of attack from all sides
black donkey skill poor
The Guizhou donkey has no more tricks
Even a clever donkey can not solve the problem. The story is that Guizhou province had no donkeys. A man brought a donkey there and having no further use for it set it free. The tiger then spotted the donkey and was scared of the new monster, but seeing it do very little but kick it killed and ate it. So it means being in desperate circumstances with no real options left
Be at one's wit's end
strong dragon difficult press soil head snake
Even a dragon finds it difficult to conquer a snake in its lair
Knowledge of local area and people gives them a distinct advantage even against a strong enemy
energetic seize melon not sweet
A melon taken off its vine is not sweet
Coercion never ends up satisfactorily. Leave things to develop naturally
strong cross-bow's end
An arrow at the end of its flight
A spent force. An person or impulse that has now lost all its initial energy just as a bolt from a cross-bow gradually loses its power with distance.
skilful woman difficult pride nothing rice's cook
Even the cleverest cook cannot prepare rice without rice
You need to assemble the right materials for a job
opportunely take grand seize
Grab by trick or by force
Cheat others of their valuables by trickery or force.
wife leave child break-up
Wife left; children scattered
A broken family
deceive world steal fame
Deceiving the public to gain fame
A con artist. Someone who sets out to become famous by lies and deception.
Every trick in the book
cheat according to its ability
Knowing the approptiate way to cheat
To skilfully deceive. Invent a lie that fools the audience. Playing a clever trick.
Having an ace up the sleeve
collapse city overturn country
Triumph over city and country
Overwhelm the entire area. Usually applied to a woman of outstanding beauty.
The face that launched a thousand ships
indigo blue comes out foremost blue but excel foremost blue
Indigo is obtained from the indigo plant, but such color is bluer than the plant itself
Wise schooling has produced excellence beyond the teacher. The follower has surpassed the master.
its appearance not raised
Undistinguished in appearance
Dispensing traditional medicine prescriptions. Graham Street Market, Hong Kong. 2010 Image by deror_avi ➚ available under a Creative Commons license ➚.
strange goods suit storage
Scarce goods worth hoarding
Something that people pay good money for in future. A market opportunity.
divergent road lose sheep
The sheep goes astray at the fork of a road
Taking a wrong decision and now hopelessly lost. Unable to work out a way forward because the true situation has not been appreciated,
ride tiger difficult down
When on a tiger's back, it is hard to dismount
When taking risks you have to live with the consequences, it is difficult to back out
He who sups with the Devil should have a long spoon
ride donkey look for donkey
Looking for a donkey while sitting on its back
Ignoring the obvious. Absent mindedness
Not looking beyond your nose
Qi man grab gold
The gold grabber from Qi
Blinded by lust for gain. Greed. Avarice. Blinded by ambition. The story if of a man from the kingdom of Qi who seeing gold just grabbed it and ran off, oblivious of the consequences.
guqin harp harmony song
Qin and harp in harmony
In blissful harmony. The story is from the Song dynasty when Zhao Mingcheng and Li Qingzhao fell in love and lived a life of bliss. They collected ancient inscriptions and played the guqin (type of zither) and harp together. Tragedy struck when the Jurchen invaded Shandong. The couple fled south to Hangzhou but Zhao died and Li spent 25 years as a mournful widow.
A match made in heaven
lover eye inside produce Xi Shi
The lover's eye sees the legendary beauty of Xi Shi in his plain mistress
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder
Love is blind
Qi man worried sky
The from Qi who fears the sky is falling
Unnecessary concern. A person who is over-fearful or credulous. The idiom is based on the story of man from the state of Qi who feared the sky would fall and also that the Earth might cave in.
Afraid of your own shadow
raise death return life
Can bring the dead back to life
Amazing recovery from illness. Said of a doctor who has brought someone back from a terminal condition.
invite lord enter vat
Please step into the vat
To fall victim to a punishment that you yourself devised. The story is from the reign of Empress Wuzetian when two cruel ministers vied to create the vilest tortures. Zhou Ying suggested a large vat should be heated and the victim placed in it. His fellow minister threatened to apply the torture on Zhou Ying himself. He then confessed to all his crimes.
To give someone a taste of their own medicine
Qing Fu not extremely Lu problem have not stopped
The troubles of the state of Lu will continue until Qing Fu is removed
Take action to remove someone/something obstructing progress, In the Spring and Autumn period of Chinese history Qing Fu rose to power in the state of Lu and ruled as a complete despot killing any opponents. Peace did not come until he had been removed from power.
Grasp the nettle
to exhaust bamboo distress book
So many crimes that there is not enough bamboo to record them all
So evil that there is not enough paper to record all the misdemeanors. Records used to be made on bamboo strips before paper was invented.
dog tooth deliver interlock
Locked together like dog's teeth
Closely locked together like the two sets of teeth, Said of two opponents who are closely matched in skill who are locked in complex conflict.
take yet substitute person
Taking another person?s place
To act as a substitute or replacement for someone.
Step into someone's shoes
song high with few
Highbrow songs find few singers
A performance or speech that can only be appreciated by some of the audience. Something beyond the understanding of ordinary people.
An acquired taste
bent protrude move fuel
Bend the chimney and move the firewood
A warning to avoid danger. The story of a man who was advised that his chimney was too straight and the stack of firewood too close to the fire as these could easily cause a fire to take hold. The advice was ignored and sure enough a serious fire damaged the house,
Shot across the bows
take long mend short
Learn from other's good points to offset your own shortcomings
Take notice of other people's admirable qualities
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 of the characters have been simplified the phrase is shown in brackets and gray text. . 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 shown.
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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