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.
Paying attention to the unimportant details not the big picture. Concentration on trivia.
Roughly equivalent to: Penny wise, pound foolish.
Tāo guāng yǎng huì
Conceal your strength
Bide your time before showing your strength.
Roughly equivalent to: Hiding your light under a bushel.
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.
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.
Put give someone your full support - body and soul. To trust someone implicitly.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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: 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.
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.
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.
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.
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
To make steady step by step progress towards an end.
Roughly equivalent to: A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.
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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