Deep mourning for a close friend. Seeing something that reminds you of someone who has died. The story is of two brothers, when one of them died after a serious illness the other was two heart-broken to play the lute anymore as it reminded him too much of his brother.
Glad to be back in familiar surroundings. Applied to people returning home after a long absence or someone who has at last found their proper place in life.
Roughly equivalent to: In one's element.
Rú zuò zhēn zhān
Like sitting on a carpet of needles
To feel tense and uneasy.
Rú zǐ kě jiào
A student worth teaching
A promising youngster who is open to learning. The story is of Zhang Liang who had failed in an attempt to assassinate the first Qin Emperor and went into hiding. He came across a mysterious old man who set him a series of tests to judge his keenness to learn from him. After passing all the tests with flying colors the old man gave him a book on military strategy and Zhang became a leading military strategist.
Rǔ chòu wèi gān
Still suckling and in nappies. Still an infant. Young and inexperienced
To write with such confidence that the wood is etched away to a good depth. So this means to write with a profound and forceful hand. The story is of the great calligrapher who produced some calligraphy so confidently written that the characters were etched by 3/10th of an inch.
Rù xiāng suí sú
When entering a village, follow its customs
Take account of local people and opinions.
Roughly equivalent to: When in Rome do as the Romans do.
Sān gè chòu pí jiàng, còu gè Zhūgě Liàng
Three humble shoemakers brainstorming make a great statesman like Zhuge Liang ➚
Joint effort can help solve big problems.
Roughly equivalent to: Two heads are better than one.
Sān gù máo lú
Calling three times at the thatched cottage
Committed to get best possible advice. The story is of Liu Bei in the Three Kingdoms Period who wanted the help of the master strategist Zhuge Liang. Zhuge Liang refused to answer the door on Liu's first two visits. When Liu made a third visit Zhuge was sufficiently convinced that Liu was genuinely desperate for his help.
Kill a chicken before a monkey. The monkey can then take the message as a warning
To punish somebody as a lesson and warning to others.
Shā jī yān yòng niú dāo
Using an ox-cleaver to kill a chicken
Taking unnecessary effort to tackle a small problem. Using an inappropriately large tool for the job.
Roughly equivalent to: Using a sledgehammer to crack a nut.
Shā qī qiú jiàng
Killing your wife to become a general
Ruthless action to further one's ambition. The story is of Wu Qi who served the state of Lu. His wife originally came from the enemy state of Qi; seeing this as an obstacle to his ambition to become a general, he killed his wife. He got the promotion so it is about ruthless but effective action.
A conspiracy is at work. A deft gesture signaling important information. The story is that back in the Spring and Autumn period two soldiers both claimed to have captured a prince and demanded their reward. When Bo Zhouli arbitrated he used a hand gesture to signal who he wished to receive the money.
Shēn lín qí jìng
Present and observing
An eye witness to an event.
Shēn tǐ lì xíng
To maintain health by strenuous walk
Following the advice given oneself.
Roughly equivalent to: Practise what you preach.
Shēng huó yǒu ài xìngfú, wèi ài shēng huó yú chǔn
A life of love is happy; a life for love is foolish
Love is not the most important thing.
Shēng mǐ zhǔ chéng shú fàn
The rice has already been cooked
What has been done can not be undone.
Roughly equivalent to: What's done is done.
Shēng tūn huó bāo
Swallowing it all
To unthinkingly take on board someone's opinion. Uncritical application. Copying someone else's actions. The story is of Zhang Huaiqing of the Tang dynasty who plagiarized other poet's work by mechanically adding a few characters here and there. The resultant poems were gibberish.
Roughly equivalent to: Monkey see: monkey do.
Shén gōng guǐ fǔ
God's work and spirit's axe
So skilled that workmanship presumed to be the work of a god not a human. Fantastic, superb artistry.
Shě běn zhú mò
Pursuing trivia while neglecting essentials
Concentrating on the little details rather than the important stuff.
Roughly equivalent to: Putting the cart before the horse.
Base judgment on the true facts of the situation and not rumor or custom.
Roughly equivalent to: Know for a fact.
Shí tú laǒ mǎ
An old horse who knows the way
Age brings experience and wisdom.
Shí yán ér féi
Getting fat by eating one's words
Someone is forever retracting what was previously said. Someone with poor judgment and a big mouth. The story is of the minister Meng Wubo of the kingdom of Lu who often pontificated only to contradict himself. A snide commentator suggested that Meng was growing fat because he ate so many of his own words.
Shì shàng méi yǒu wú yuán wú gù de ài, yě méi yǒu wú yuán wú gù de hèn
There is no love without a reason there is no hate without a cause
There is a reason behind all strong emotions.
Shì wài táo yuán
The land of peach blossoms
A mythical land of peace and harmony. The story is of a hidden land that a fisherman found while trying to escape turmoil and war in the Qin dynasty. Try as he might he never found the land again.
Roughly equivalent to: Land of milk and honey.
Shì bèi gōng bàn
Work very hard for half the result
Work with care rather than speed.
Roughly equivalent to: Less haste more speed.
Shì shí shèng yú xióng biàn
A real victory is better than a great debate
Better to act than just talk about it.
Roughly equivalent to: Actions speak louder than words.
Shì rú pò zhú
Like splitting bamboo
Continuing a successful series. Once you get the knack of splitting bamboo it's best to keep on going. The story is of a general who was advised to rest his army for the winter after a series of successes. The general disagreed, his army had high morale and went on to complete the victory.
Roughly equivalent to: Don't stop while you are winning.
Shì dú zhī ài
The love of a cow licking her calf
An example of parental love and devotion. A biased assessment due to family ties - caring for one's own relatives.
Roughly equivalent to: The fruit does not fall far from the tree.
To be able to do two things at once. The story is of a painter who was so skilled he could paint two pictures at the same time with a brush in either hand.
Roughly equivalent to: A dab hand.
Shuǐ dī shí chuān
Dripping water eventually wears away stone
If you persevere, you will eventually achieve your goal.
Roughly equivalent to: Mighty oaks from little acorns grow.
Shuǐ mǎn zé yì
Water rises only to overflow
At the point of a crisis. Things are about to turn around.
Roughly equivalent to: The tide is on the turn.
Shuǐ néng zài zhōu, yì néng fù zhōu
Not only does water float a boat, it can sink it too
Events and people can have both positive and negative influences.
Shuǐ shēn huǒ rè
In deep water and fierce fire
In very deep trouble. A desperate situation with nowhere to turn.
Roughly equivalent to: In dire straits.
Shuō Cáo Cāo, Cáo Cāo dào
Speak of Cao Cao and he arrives
'Cao Cao ➚ of the Three Kingdoms is the embodiment of evil. Someone who you are talking about happens to appear unexpectedly.
Roughly equivalent to: Speak of the devil and he is sure to appear.
Shuō daò zuò daò
Say and then make
Do what one says.
Roughly equivalent to: Actions speak louder than words.
Shū gōng mò shǒu
Shu attacks and Mo defends
Two opponents of equal skill. Back in the Spring and Autumn period the story goes that Gongshu Ban, a carpenter had developed a new device to attack cities. He was persuaded by the pacifist philosopher Mo Zi not to deploy it. Mo Zi was able to defend against any attack by Gongshu Ban leading to stalemate.
Roughly equivalent to: Fighting to a standstill.
Shú néng shēng qiǎo
Learning a skill from long experience
With long practice one can learn any skill. Sometimes used disparagingly of a skill anyone can learn given enough time.
Roughly equivalent to: Practice makes perfect.
Shǔ diǎn wàng zǔ
Recounting history but forgeting ancestors
Lose connection with ancestors - lose one's roots. Ignorance of own origins or country.
Looking ahead for only a short time. Only planning for the immediate future.
Shù zhī gāo gé
Store away in the attic
Dismiss someone or something for the moment as currently unimportant. Designate something as low priority.
Roughly equivalent to: Put on the back-burner.
Shù daǒ hú sūn sàn
When the tree falls, the monkeys scatter
When a leader loses power, his followers are disorganized and also lose power. Often said to warn someone that they hold their position only so long as their patron is in power.
Shù gāo qiān zhàng yè luò guī gēn
A tree may grow high, but its leaves always fall on its roots
People living far away will eventually comes back home.
Roughly equivalent to: Absence makes the heart grow fonder.
Shù yù jìng ěr fēng bù zhǐ
The trees prefer calm, but the wind does not stop
In spite of a wish for peace, trouble is brewing. Things develop regardless of how you might wish. Powerless to influence outcome.
Sī kōng jiàn guàn
Sikong is used to it
Sikong was the job title of a minister of works in China. In the Tang dynasty the poet Liu Yuxi was invited by a minister to a feast accompanied by entertainers. This was a common occurrence for the minister but greatly impressed the poet. An everyday occurrence; nothing out of the ordinary.
Roughly equivalent to: As common as muck.
Sǐ huī fù rán
Ashes burn again
Resuming work after a long break. Taking up a previously held position of authority. Another flush of youthful energy in later life.
Sǐ mǎ dāng huó mǎ yī
Treating a dead horse as if it is still alive
Persevering when it is already too late. A lost cause.
Ambushed from all sides. Hopeless situation. In the battle of Gaixia ➚ troops surrounding the enemy sang songs of home, breaking their spirit. From the classic Shi Ji from 2,200 years ago. After the end of the Qin dynasty the Han general used this tactic against of the Chu kingdom. The Chu songs persuaded the surrounded Chu forces that the Han must have overrun much of the Chu kingdom already.
Sòng Xiāng zhī rén
Kindness like Song Duke Xianggong
Showing mercy and consideration to opponents. The story is from the Spring and Autumn period when Duke Xianggong of the kingdom of Song confronted an army from the kingdom of Chu. His officers pleaded with the duke to attack while they were still crossing the river, the duke refused considering this an unfair tactic.
Suǒ xiàng wú qián
No obstacle in any direction
To be able to conquer anyone on all fronts. Invincible against all opponents. An irresistible force.
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.
Please wait... Downloading information about character