Chinese idioms T to X

A list of Chinese proverbs ordered by pinyin spelling.

Tān tiān zhī gōng
Appropriate the achievements of others
Cheating others of their just reward. The story is of an official who was swindled out of his just reward for good service. Eventually the ruler worked out what had happened and he was given an even greater reward.
Roughly equivalent to: Rough justice.
Tān xiǎo shī
Coveting small gains and incurring great losses
Paying attention to the unimportant details not the big picture. Concentration on trivia.
Roughly equivalent to: Penny wise, pound foolish.
养晦 [韜光養晦]
Tāo guāng yǎng huì
Conceal your strength
Bide your time before showing your strength.
Roughly equivalent to: Hiding your light under a bushel.
弹冠 [彈冠相慶]
Tán guān xiāng qìng
Knocking the dust off your hat and congratulating each other
Presumptively celebrate promotion/appointment to a job ahead of time. Arrogantly assume a job is already in the bag. The story is of two officials Wang Ji and Gong Yu of the Han dynasty, Both were dismissed but on Emperor Yuan's enthronement Wang Ji was re-appointed, on hearing the news Gong Yu flicked the dust off his official hat assuming he would follow his friend into office.
Tán hé róng yì
Talking makes look easy
Not as easy as it seemed.
Roughly equivalent to: Easier said than done.
Tán hǔ sè biàn
Turning pale at the mere mention of a tiger
To be so timid that even mentioning danger causes fear.
Roughly equivalent to: Afraid of your own shadow.
螳臂 [螳臂當車]
Táng bì dāng chē
Mantis obstructing a chariot
Overrate abilities and attempt the impossible. A mantis is a fearsome insect that does not back down even if faced with a much larger predator. So it means someone full of pride making an idle threat.
螳螂捕蝉 [螳螂捕蟬]
Táng láng bǔ chán
The mantis stalks the cicada
Seeking one target unaware of the bigger picture, in this case the mantis was being stalked by a bird. An appeal to heed advice against taking an easy target that would result in greater jeopardy.
Tài gōng diào yuàn zhě shàng gōu
Willing fish jumping to Duke Jiang?s hookless line
Trying t o ensnare a gullible person. The ancient story from the Zhou dynasty is of Lord Jiang who used to just hang an unbaited and unhooked line in the air not the water. When asked what he was doing said he was not trying to catch fish but a king who he would serve. After many years of pointless fishing he was appointed to be Prime Minister.
Roughly equivalent to: Green around the gills.
Tiān nán dì běi
As distant as the heavens
Places or opinions that are very far apart.
宴席 [天下沒有不散的宴席]
Tiān xià méi yǒu bù sàn de yàn xí
No banquet in the world goes on forever
Good fortune can not last for ever.
Roughly equivalent to: All good things must come to an end.
Tiān xià wū yā bān hēi
Crows everywhere are all black
Bad people are all the same. You find bad people everywhere.
Tiān xià wú shuāng
Unequalled under heaven
Something or someone with superlative skills.
Beijing, skyscraper, congestion
Modern highway and buildings, Beijing, 2013
Tiān yī wú fèng
Heavenly robe without seams
A perfect result, clothes so well made that the seams cannot be seen. Used to describe an excellent piece of work - especially an essay or speech.
Roughly equivalent to: Ticks all the boxes.
Tiān zuò zhī hé
Heaven made intimacy
Blissful affection.
Roughly equivalent to: Marriage made in heaven.
挑肥拣瘦 [挑肥揀瘦]
Tiāo féi jiǎn shòu
To separate out the fat and pick only the lean meat
A very picky person. Over zealous attention to detail.
Tiě chǔ chéng zhēn
Grind an iron rod down to a needle
Perseverance can achieve anything.
Tīng qí yán guān qí xíng
Listen to what a person says and then watch what is done
Judge people by their actions, not by their words.
Roughly equivalent to: Actions speak louder than words.
偷梁换柱 [偷梁換柱]
Tōu liáng huàn zhù
Steal beams replaced with wooden poles
To carry out a crafty deception.
Tóng bìng xiāng lián
People with similar illness empathize with each other
People suffering the same misfortune sympathize with each other.
Roughly equivalent to: Birds of a feather flock together.
Tóng chuáng yì mèng
Dream different dreams on the same bed
Not everyone thinks the same.
Roughly equivalent to: It takes all sorts to make a world.
Tóu tóu shì daò
Thinking carefully about the way to proceed
Logically and rigorously argued.
Roughly equivalent to: There's many a slip 'twixt cup and lip.
投鞭断流 [投鞭斷流]
Tóu biān duàn liú
Throwing in whips to stop the river
An immense number of people. If all the people carried whips that were thrown into the river Yangzi then they would be so numerous as to block its flow. Overwhelming odds.
Tóu bǐ cóng róng
Throwing down the pen and joining the army
A scholar choosing to join the army. To choose a more active life mid career.
Tuī jǐ jí rén
Imagine being in someone's position
To understand a situation from someone else's perspective.
Roughly equivalent to: Get the bigger picture.
Tuī xīn zhì fù
Having full confidence
Put give someone your full support - body and soul. To trust someone implicitly.
Mongol dynasty, battle
Battle between Mongols and Chinese (1211). Painted 1430. Image by Sayf al-Vâhidî. Hérât. Afghanistan available under a Creative Commons license .
Tuì bì sān shè
Withdrawing three leagues
To retreat ahead of superior force, a tactical withdrawal. A 'she' is an ancient term for three day's march or 30 li. To sensibly avoid conflict.
脱颖 [脫穎而出]
Tuō yǐng ér chū
A sharp stick protrudes
A talented person can't help but be noticed.
Tú qióng bǐ xiàn
When the map is unrolled the dagger is revealed
A secret plan is revealed, a conspiracy unmasked. The story is of an assassination attempt on the King of Qin back in the Warring States Period. Pretending to cede territory Prince Dan concealed a dagger in a scrolled up map.
Roughly equivalent to: The secret is out.
Tú lóng zhī jì
Skilled in killing dragons
Possessing a useless skill. Pointless training to achieve something of no value. Wasting time and effort.
Tú láo wú gōng
Futile effort
Pointless effort that will achieve nothing.
Roughly equivalent to: A fool's errand.
Tù sǐ gǒu pēng
Trusted helpers are dispensable once their job is done
Watch your back. Once the mission is accomplished you may be sacked.
Roughly equivalent to: Outliving your usefulness.
Tù sǐ hú bēi
A fox mourns the death of a rabbit
Feigning concern to conceal true feeling.
Roughly equivalent to: To weep crocodile tears.
Tù zi bù chī wō biān cǎo
Rabbits do not eat the grass around their burrows
Thieves do not steal from neighbors.
Wán bì guī zhào
Returning the jade bi to Zhao
A jade bi is a large round piece with a hole in the middle. The story is of an ancient Imperial 'crown jewel' the 'He shi bi' that was stolen by the king of Qin. The ruler of the state of Zhao then managed to get it back. It has come to mean returning something (in good condition) to its rightful owner.
Wán wù sàng zhì
Obsessional play ruins the will
Spending too much time on trivia. Excessive attention to detail. Losing the big picture.
Roughly equivalent to: Little things please little minds.
Wáng jǐ dé máo
Losing a halberd but gaining a spear
Losing something but gaining something of similar value. A halberd is rather similar to a spear - having a different blade on the end of a pole. No overall impact - both losses and gains.
Roughly equivalent to: Swings and roundabounts.
补牢 [亡羊補牢]
Wáng yáng bǔ láo
Mend the pen after the sheep are lost
Can mean taking action too late or else taking action to protect against a future repeat of misfortune.
Roughly equivalent to: Mending the stable door after the horse has bolted.
Wáng gù zuǒ yòu ér yán tā
The king looked left and right and then talked of other things
Evading making an uncomfortable reply by changing the topic of conversation. The story is of Mencius who asked three questions of the king of Qi, when the last question touched on the king's mismanagement of the kingdom, the king looked left and right to other guests to dodge making a response.
Roughly equivalent to: Avoiding the hot potato.
Chinatown, Liverpool, gateway, archway
Liverpool Chinatown
Wǎng kāi miàn
To leave one side of the net open
To give someone a chance of escape.
Roughly equivalent to: To let someone off the hook.
Wài qiáng zhōng gān
Outwardly strong but inwardly weak
Looking strong and powerful but actually weak. Flattering appearance that does not represent true worth.
Roughly equivalent to: Don't judge a book by its cover.
俱备, [萬事俱備,只欠東風]
Wàn shì jù bèi, zhǐ qiàn dōng fēng
Everything is ready, except for the east wind
Lacking one small, but crucial item. It refers to the battle of Red Cliff in the Three Kingdoms period when Cao Cao's great army threatened to overcome his adversaries on the Yangzi River. The clever strategy advocated by Zhuge Liang was to send fire boats into Cao Cao's navy to destroy the boats. Everything was prepared but for ages the wind was in the wrong direction. At last it changed to the east, the fire boats were launched and Cao Cao was defeated.
Roughly equivalent to: For the want of a nail .,. the kingdom was lost.
Wàng zì zūn
Having an inflated opinion of oneself
Full of inflated pride. There are many examples throughout history of people thinking rather too highly of themselves.
Roughly equivalent to: Pride comes before a fall.
恩负 [忘恩負義]
Wàng ēn fù yì
Forget a previous favor
Ungratefully forget to acknowledge a favor.
Wàng méi zhǐ kě
Gaze at a plum to quench thirst
Offering hope by thinking of something currently out of reach.
Wàng yáng xīng tàn
Consider one's competence before the ocean
To feel inadequate to perform a great task. Feel misgivings before a big endeavor. The story is of the river god of the Huanghe (Yellow River) caused a great flood that made the river a mile wide but when he met the sea he was overcome with his relative inadequacy.
Wēi rú lěi luǎn
As precarious as a pile of eggs
In a dangerous state - about to collapse. Just about to fall and break apart.
Roughly equivalent to: The brink of disaster.
Wēn gù ér zhī xīn
Study the past and yet know the present
Studying the past helps to understand the present.
Wéi fù bù rén
Have riches but not be generous
Be rich but heartless.
围魏救赵 [圍魏救趙]
Wéi wèi jiù zhào
Besiege Wei to rescue Zhao
To aid a friend by attacking a mutual enemy. During the Warring States period the state of Wei was attacking the state of Zhao. Handan, the capital of Zhao was besieged. The state of Qi wished to help its ally Zhao, rather than intervene to try to lift the siege of Handan, the Qi general launched an attack on the Wei's capital Daliang, forcing the Wei troops to lift the siege.
Wéi miaò wéi xiaò
Weave skillfully life like images
Produce an image remarkably true to life; highly skilled.
Wén fēng sàng dǎn
Panic on hearing news
Panic stricken; terrified by news.
calligraphy, children
Child practising calligraphy
Wén jī qǐ wǔ
Begin at cock's crow
Keen to begin a task even at daybreak. Diligent in action, losing no time.
Roughly equivalent to: The early bird catches the worm.
Wèi rú jī lèi
As tasteless as chicken ribs
A humdrum, boring activity and by extension a person lacking character. Insipid, bland.
Wèi néng miǎn sú
Bound up by conventions
Unable to do what you want because social conventions forbid it. Doing something just because it is expected.
Roughly equivalent to: Creature of habit.
Wèi chóu móu
Before the rains repair the cloth
Plan ahead, be prepared.
Roughly equivalent to: An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
Wèi shǒu wèi wěi
Fearing both the head and the tail
Nervous and afraid. Fearful at both the start and end of some event.
Roughly equivalent to: Afraid of your own shadow.
Wǒ kàn jiàn wǒ wàng jì, wǒ tīng jiàn wǒ jì zhù, wǒ zuò wǒ liǎo jiě
When I see, I forget; when I hear, I remember but when I do, I understand.
You learn only by trying it, not by just observing or talking about it.
Roughly equivalent to: Practise what you preach.
Wǒ xíng wǒ sù
To continue in habitual ways
Stuck following old ways.
薪尝 [臥薪甞膽]
Wò xīn cháng dǎn
Lying on straw and tasting gall
Patiently suffering while plotting revenge or recovery. Sleeping rough and eating poor food while preparing for a comeback.
Roughly equivalent to: Harboring a grudge.
漏偏 [屋漏偏逢連夜雨]
Wū lòu piān féng lián yè
When the roof is leaking, there will be continuous nights of rain
Misfortunes tend to come all at once.
Roughly equivalent to: When it rains, it pours.
Wú niú chuǎn yuè
The ox from Wu pants at the sight of the moon
Unnecessarily fearful of something. The story is of an ox from Wu that thought the moon was the sun and panted through the assumed heat it expected to experience.
Roughly equivalent to: Afraid of your own shadow.
Wú fēng bù qǐ làng
No wind, no waves
There must have been signs that it was going to happen.
Roughly equivalent to: No smoke without fire.
殿 [無事不登三寳殿]
Wú shì bū dēng sān bǎo diàn
No-one comes to pray at the Temple of Three Treasures unless in trouble
Often it is obvious when somebody is after something.
, [無源之水無本之木]
Wú yuán zhī shuǐ, wú běn zhī mù
A river without a source, a tree without roots
Something without a proper foundation. Not properly planned.
Sanya, Hainan, beach
Beach scene at Sanya, Hainan. June 2012.
Image by Dounai available under a Creative Commons license
shí bù xiào bǎi
Fifty steps laugh at a hundred steps
Being complacent about the future. Believing a job is all but done when only half done.
Roughly equivalent to: Pride comes before a fall.
Wù jí bì fǎn
Extreme conditions will surely calm down
Things will turn around in the opposite direction when they reach the highest point.
Roughly equivalent to: The tide is on the turn.
类聚 [物以類聚]
Wù yǐ lèi jù
Like attracts like
People tends to form groups with like-minded individuals.
Roughly equivalent to: Birds of a feather flock together.
Xiā bīng xiè jiàng
Shrimp soldiers led by a crab general. An ineffective army
A laughably ineffective solution to a problem.
Xiān fā zhì rén
Strike first to gain the upper hand
The first side to attack/move often has the advantage. An admonishment to act now and not dither about.
Roughly equivalent to: The early bird catches the worm.
Xiān xià shǒu wéi qiáng
Striking first to demonstrate strength
To gain the upper hand by striking first.
Roughly equivalent to: Strike while the iron is hot.
Xiān zhǎn hòu zòu
Execute first, report later
Taking the initiative; acting without orders. The story is of a newly appointed magistrate who was seeking a murderer. When she was found, the magistrate had her executed on the spot in spite of she being a servant to the Emperor's sister. An execution requires the Emperor's sanction and so the magistrate was in deep trouble,. In this case the magistrate managed to escape with his life.
Roughly equivalent to: Off you own bat.
Xiāng xiāo yù sǔn
Fragrance is dissipated; jade is broken
Spoken of on the death of a beautiful young woman.
Roughly equivalent to: Whom the Gods love die young.
Xiá bù yǎn yú
A speck on a jade stone can't obscure its brilliance
One small fault won't spoil the impression of an overall exceptional person.
Xiǎng rù fēi fēi
Indulge in fantasy
Let imagination run wild.
Roughly equivalent to: Head in the clouds.
补, [小洞不補大洞吃苦]
Xiǎo dòng bù bǔ, dòng chī kǔ
A small hole not mended in time will soon become a larger hole more difficult to mend
Do not put off taking action to put things right.
Roughly equivalent to: A stitch in time saves nine.
Xiǎo zuò
To talk a lot about very little
Procrastination and exaggeration.
Roughly equivalent to: Make a mountain out of a molehill.
Xià chóng yí bīng
The summer insect doubts the existence of ice
An ignorant person doesn't understand the wider truth.
Wu Daozi, painter, Tang dynasty, sculpture
Statue of the Tang dynasty painter Wu Daozi
项庄舞剑, [項莊舞劍,意在沛公]
Xiàng zhuāng wǔ jiàn yì zài pèi gōng
Xiang Zhuang performs the sword dance but his intention was to kill Liu Bang
An elaborate evil deception. The Duke of Pei was one of the titles of the first Han Emperor (r. 202-195BCE) Liu Bang. Xiang Zuang was a sword-fighter who intended to murder Liu Bang. In order to get close to Liu he performed a sword dance in front of him. fortunately for Liu the plot was unmasked by Fan Kuai and Liu escaped unharmed. Refers to a hidden malicious agenda.
Xiào lǐ cáng dāo
A dagger concealed in a smile
Malice concealed by apparent friendliness. There is a story of Li Yifu who was a great flatterer of the early Tang dynasty. He was always smiles but sought to blackmail and deceive. Eventually Emperor Gaozong discovered his duplicity and he was banished.
Roughly equivalent to: Don't judge a book by its cover.
, [笑一笑十年少]
Just one smile makes you ten years younger
Happiness is the best cosmetic.
Xié mén wāi daò
Evil people in crooked ways
Dishonesty and deceit.
Xiōng yǒu chéng zhú
Keeping the appearance of bamboo in mind
To be able to paint bamboo (or anything else), you have to have a mental image of how it looks. An admonishment to plan ahead carefully and acquire the skill to carry it out.
Roughly equivalent to: Forewarned is forearmed.
休戚 [休戚相關]
Xiū qī xiāng guān
Share both joys and sorrows
People with close ties and shared interests, Mutual dependency.
Roughly equivalent to: Common ground.
Xiù sè kě cān
A lovely sight to feast the eyes on
A beautiful woman.
Roughly equivalent to: A feast for the eyes.
旁观 [袖手旁觀]
Xiù shǒu páng guān
To look on with folded arms
To look on without offering any help or showing concern.
Xīn fù zhī huàn
Major internal problems
Internal disorder causing crisis. Internal division preventing proper action.
Xīn gān qíng yuàn
Delighted and helpful
Delighted to be able to help.
Xīn huā nù fàng
The flower of the heart in full bloom
Full flowering of joy.
怀叵测 [心懷叵測]
Xīn huái pǒ cè
Harbouring evil designs
Concealing malicious plans. Harbor evil designs.
怡, [心曠神怡事事順利]
Xīn kuàng shén yí, shì shì shùn lì
Heart joyful, work profitable
Feeling happy and relaxed.
Tibet, deer
Golden deer and dharma wheel at the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa, Tibet
Xīn ruò sǐ huī
Heart reduced to ashes
Desperately unhappy.
Xīng xīng zhī huǒ kě yǐ liáo yuán
One spark can burn a whole grassland
Need for great care and meticulous planning.
Xí guàn chéng zì rán
Become habitual, normal
Habit becomes engrained.
Xíng shī zǒu ròu
A walking zombie
An unworthy person. Someone bereft of value - just a walking body with no active mind.
Xǐ zhái wàng qī
Move house but overlook wife
Foolish and forgetful. Move to a new house and take everything - except your partner.
Roughly equivalent to: Soft in the head.
Xìng zāi lè huò
Delighting in the misfortune of others
The story is of a king who delighted in the plight of the neighboring kingdom that was suffering from famine and would not help them even though he had received help when his people were suffering. So it means sadistic glee.
Roughly equivalent to: Schadenfreude.
悬崖勒 [懸崖勒馬]
Xuán yá lè mǎ
Rein in the horse at the cliff edge
Realize danger at the last moment.
Xuē zú shì lǚ
Reshape feet to fit new shoes
Take the wrong decision. Apply an inappropriate solution.
Xué ér bù sī zé wǎng, sī ér bù xué zé dài
Learning without thinking means wasted work; thinking without learning is dangerous
Studying hard is important and gives rewards.
, [學好三年學壞三天]
Xué hǎo sān nián, xué huài sān tiān
It takes three years to learn well; it takes only three days to degrade
Falling into bad ways is far easier than keeping to the good.
Roughly equivalent to: The road to hell is paved with good intentions.
Xué wú zhǐ jìng
There is no limit to learning
Knowledge is infinite.
Xuě lǐ sòng tàn
Send charcoal in a snow storm
To offer assistance when it is needed.
Roughly equivalent to: A friend in need is a friend indeed.
Xuě shàng jiā shuāng
Add frost to snow
To add to misfortunes unnecessarily.
Roughly equivalent to: Add insult to injury.
Tibet, lake, mountains
Manasarovar lake and Mount Namunani, Tibet
循序渐 [循序漸進]
Xún xù jiàn jìn
Make gradual progress one step at a time
To make steady step by step progress towards an end.
Roughly equivalent to: A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

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