Chinese idioms M to Q

A list of Chinese proverbs ordered by pinyin spelling.

麻雀,脏俱 [麻雀雖小五臟俱全]
Má què suī xiǎo, zàng jù quán
Small as it is, the sparrow has all the vital organs
A person is a person regardless of size. Complete in every detail.
Máng rén xiàng
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.
Roughly equivalent to: Not seeing the full picture.
Máng cì zài bèi
A thorn in one's flesh
Someone or something is causing continuous irritation.
Máo gǔ sǒng rán
Hair standing on end
Petrified with fright.
Máo Suì zì jiàn
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.
蚂蚁啃骨 [螞蟻啃骨頭]
Mǎ yǐ kěn gǔ tou
Like ants gnawing at a bone
Dogged perseverance to achieve a long term end.
Mǎ daò chéng gōng
Horse win easy victory
Gain immediate victory.
革裹 [馬革裹屍]
Mǎ gé guǒ shī
Wrapping the body in horsehide
A wish to die in action on the battlefield. A heroic wish to serve until death.
Roughly equivalent to: With all guns blazing.
Mǎ mǎ hǔ hǔ
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'.
Mǎi dú huán zhū
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.
Roughly equivalent to: Penny wise, pound foolish.
Mǎn chéng fēng
Everywhere is lashed by wind and rain
The whole community is awash with scandal or a sensational story.
Roughly equivalent to: On everyone's lips.
, [沒做虧心事不怕鬼叫門]
Méi zuò kuī xīn shì, bù pà guǐ jiào mén
Clear conscience does not fear a knock at midnight
If you have done nothing wrong, there is no worry over retribution.
Roughly equivalent to: As you make your bed, so you must lie upon it.
Mén kě luó què
The gate can catch birds
There are so few visitors that the door could be used to catch birds. Having very few visitors.
Manchu, Shenyang, Liaoning
Shenyang Imperial Palace
Mén tíng ruò shì
Front yard is like a market
The house is thronged with visitors. The place is all astir.
Roughly equivalent to: Hive of industry.
况愈 [每況愈下]
Měi kuàng yù xià
Steadily deteriorate
Getting gradually worse each time. Life in a decline.
Roughly equivalent to: A turn for the worse.
Mèng mǔ sān qiān
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.
Miè cǐ zhāo shí
Wipe out the enemy before breakfast
Grasp current opportunity; anxious to do battle. Tackle the important problem first.
Roughly equivalent to: First catch your hare.
Míng luò sūn shān
Placed below Sun Shan
A euphemism for failing an examination. The story is that Sun Shan and a 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.
Míng chá qiū háo
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.
Roughly equivalent to: On the ball.
躲,暗 [明槍易躲暗箭難防]
Míng qiāng yì duǒ, àn jiàn nán fáng
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.
Míng zhī gù wèn
Already knowing the answer
To ask a question when already knowing the answer.
Míng luó kāi dao
Beating the gong to clear the way for dignitaries
To publicize an event.
模棱 [模棱兩可]
Mó léng liǎng kě
To equivocate
Position is unclear or uncertain. Failing to make up your mind.
Roughly equivalent to: Sitting on the fence.
Mó chǔ chéng zhēn
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,
Roughly equivalent to: Little strokes fell great oaks.
Mò cè gāo shēn
Too high or deep to measure
Enigmatic, unfathomable. Too profound to be readily understood.
Roughly equivalent to: Still waters run deep.
rén shí xīn
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.
Roughly equivalent to: Heart of stone.
Beijing, Forbidden City, bridge, canal
Bridge in the Forbidden City
Mù yǐ chéng zhōu
The tree has been made into a boat
Too late to change anything.
Roughly equivalent to: What's done is done.
Mù hóu ér guàn
A hat-wearing macaque
A worthless person hiding behind imposing looks. Trying to impress too hard.
Roughly equivalent to: All that glitters is not gold.
dèng kǒu dāi
Staring eyes and mouth open
Dumb struck.
wú quán niú
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.
糊涂 [難得糊涂]
Nan dé hú tu
Too hard to understand
Where ignorance is bliss, it is folly to be wise.
Nán kē mèng
A dream of Nanke
An absurdly ambitious plan divorced from reality. A dream of grandeur and splendor.
Roughly equivalent to: A pipe dream.
Nán yuán běi zhé
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.
Nán nǔ píng děng
Equality between the sexes
Treating men and women the same.
Roughly equivalent to: What's sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.
Nàn xiōng nàn dì
Brothers of the same ilk
Two brothers showing similar personalities. Two people hard to tell apart.
Roughly equivalent to: One is just as bad as the other.
Néng zhě duō láo
The talented are kept busy
Busy people are busy because they are capable.
Roughly equivalent to: If you want something done ask a busy man.
Niǎo jìn gōng cáng
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.
Niàn niàn bù wàng
Do not neglect your studies. Ponder on problems
Study hard. Keep thinking about a problem.
Roughly equivalent to: Where there's a will, there's a way.
鼎烹 [牛鼎烹雞]
Niú dǐng pēng jī
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.
Shanxi, Mount Wutai, temple
Longquan temple Buddhist gate on Mount Wutai, Shanxi
Niú yī duì qì
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.
,谎 [泥人怕雨謊言怕理]
rén yǔ, huǎng yán pà lǐ
A mud figure fears rain; a lie fears truth
Over time lies will eventually be laid bare.
Roughly equivalent to: Truth will out.
Nǐ sǐ wǒ huó
Fight to the death
To fight to the bitter end.
Nì jìng chū rén cái
Rebellion creates capability
Hardship and adversity foster talent.
Roughly equivalent to: If life deals you lemons, make lemonade.
Nì lái shùn shòu
Do not block but welcome arrival
Deal with things as they happen; do not put them off.
碎, [宁為玉碎不為瓦全]
Nìng wéi yù suì, bù wéi wǎ quán
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.
Roughly equivalent to: Fall on your sword.
, [宁做雞頭不噹鳳尾]
Nìng zuò jītóu, bù dāng fèng wěi
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.
Roughly equivalent to: A big fish in a small pond.
藕断 [藕斷絲連]
Oǔ duàn sī lián
Although the lotus root may be cut, its fibered threads are still connected
Friendship survives adversity.
抛砖引 [拋塼引玉]
Pāo zhuān yǐn yù
Cast out a brick to invite jade
Stimulate others to contribute to conversation by making a silly or superficial remark that sparks off debate.
Péi le fū rén yòu zhé bīng
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.
Péng chéng wàn
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.
焉附 [皮之不存毛將焉附]
Pí zhī bù cún maó jiāng yān fù
If the skin is missing hair can not grow
Everything needs its proper environment for nurture.
Roughly equivalent to: No man is an island.
否极泰 [否極泰來]
Pǐ jí tài lái
At the extreme point of misfortune, good will surely arrive
When the situation reaches its lowest point it will then begin to improve.
Roughly equivalent to: The darkest hour is just before the dawn.
Inner Mongolia, landscape, horse, rider
A horseman riding over the grasslands of Inner Mongolia
牝牡骊 [牝牡驪黃]
Pìn mǔ lí huáng
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.
Roughly equivalent to: Don't judge a book by its cover.
Pò fǔ chén zhōu
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.
Roughly equivalent to: Burning your boats.
Pò jìng chóng yuán
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 halves of the mirror.
tiān tóng qìng
Everyone in celebration
The whole nation is rejoicing at some happy event.
Qiān jīn mǎi xiào
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'’ instead of a smile but the meaning is the same - needless extravagance.
, [千軍易得一將難求]
Qiān jūn yì dé, yī jiang nán qiú
It is easy to find a thousand soldiers, but hard to find a good general
It is hard to find an outstanding leader.
送鹅 [千里送鵝毛]
Qiān lǐ sòng é máo
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 one feather was all that was left from the swan when he eventually arrived. So this is a rejoinder when someone receives a gift that is seemingly of low value.
Roughly equivalent to: Don't look a gift horse in the mouth.
堤,溃 [千里之堤潰于蟻穴]
Qiān lǐ zhī dī, kuì yú yǐ xué
An ant may destroy an entire dam
Take full attention to detail to avoid catastrophe.
Roughly equivalent to: Spoil the ship for a ha'pworth of tar.
Qiān lǐ zhī xíng shǐ yú zú xià
A long march starts from a single step
Perseverance will lead to eventual success.
Roughly equivalent to: Mighty oaks from little acorns grow.
Qiān lù:
Thousand tries, one success
An expression of modesty when accounting for success. Discounting skill and perseverance as just a lucky break.
Roughly equivalent to: Lucky chance.
Qiān shān wàn shuǐ
Many mountains and many rivers
A long and arduous journey.
Qián chē zhī jiàn
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.
Roughly equivalent to: Look before you leap.
Qián jù hòu gōng
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.
Roughly equivalent to: Two faced.
Wuhan, Hubei, Yangzi River, river
Wuhan, from the Yellow Crane Tower. October 2005.
Image by CraigTheBrit available under a Creative Commons license
Qián pà láng hòu pà hǔ
To fear wolves ahead and tigers behind
To be obsessed by fears of attack from all sides.
黔驴 [黔馿技窮]
Qián lǖ jì qiong
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.
Roughly equivalent to: Be at one's wit's end.
Qiáng lóng nán yā dì tóu shé
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.
Qiáng niǔ de guā bù tián
A melon taken off its vine is not sweet
Coercion never ends up satisfactorily. Leave things to develop naturally.
Qiáng nǔ zhī mò
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.
Roughly equivalent to: Burned out.
Qiǎo fù nán wéi wú mǐ zhī chuī
Even the cleverest cook cannot prepare rice without rice
You need to assemble the right materials for a job.
豪夺 [巧取豪奪]
Qiǎo qǔ háo duó
Grab by trick or by force
Cheat others of their valuables by trickery or force.
Roughly equivalent to: Rip off.
Qī lí zǐ sàn
Wife left; children scattered
A broken family.
Qī shì dào míng
Deceiving the public to gain fame
A con artist. Someone who sets out to become famous by lies and deception.
Roughly equivalent to: Every trick in the book.
Qī yǐ qí lì
Knowing the approptiate way to cheat
To skilfully deceive. Invent a lie that fools the audience. Playing a clever trick.
Roughly equivalent to: Having an ace up the sleeve.
Qīng chéng qīng guó
Triumph over city and country
Overwhelm the entire area. Usually applied to a woman of outstanding beauty.
Roughly equivalent to: The face that launched a thousand ships.
Qīng chū yú lán ér shèng yú lán
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.
Qí mào bù yáng
Undistinguished in appearance
Unappealing appearance.
Roughly equivalent to: Plain Jane.
Guangxi, Liuhou, gateway
Liuhou Park, Guangxi was constructed in 1906 to commemorate the scholar Liu Zongyuan of the Tang Dynasty
Qí huò kě jū
Scarce goods worth hoarding
Something that people pay good money for in future. A market opportunity.
Qí lù wáng yáng
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.
Qí hǔ nán xià
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.
Roughly equivalent to: He who sups with the Devil should have a long spoon.
Qí lǖ zhǎo lǖ
Looking for a donkey while sitting on its back
Ignoring the obvious. Absent mindedness.
Roughly equivalent to: Not looking beyond your nose.
rén zhuó jīn
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.
Roughly equivalent to: Blind ambition.
琴瑟 [琴瑟咊鳴]
Qín sè hé míng
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.
Roughly equivalent to: A match made in heaven.
Qíng ren yǎn lǐ chū xī shī
The lover's eye sees the legendary beauty of Xi Shi in his plain mistress
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
Roughly equivalent to: Love is blind.
rén yōu tiān
The man 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.
Roughly equivalent to: Afraid of your own shadow.
Qǐ sǐ huí shēng
Can bring the dead back to life
Amazing recovery from illness. Said of a doctor who has brought someone back from a terminal condition.
Qǐng jūn rù wèng
Please step into the vat
To fall victim to a punishment that you yourself devised. The story is from the reign of Empress Wu Zetian 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 Zhou Ying with his own torture. Zhou then rapidly confessed to all his crimes!
Roughly equivalent to: To give someone a taste of their own medicine.
,鲁 [慶父不死,魯難未已]
Qìng fù bù sǐ Lǔ nàn wèi yǐ
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.
Roughly equivalent to: Grasp the nettle.
Qìng zhú nán shū
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.
Quǎn yá jiāo cuò
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.
Qinghai, lake, mountains
Mirror lake in Qinghai
Qǔ ér dài zhī
Taking another person?s place
To act as a substitute or replacement for someone.
Roughly equivalent to: Step into someone's shoes.
Qǔ gāo hè guǎ
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.
Roughly equivalent to: An acquired taste.
Qū tū xǐ xīn
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,
Roughly equivalent to: Shot across the bows.
补短 [取長補短]
Qǔ cháng bǔ duǎn
Learn from other's good points to offset your own shortcomings
Take notice of other people's admirable qualities.

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