Chinese idioms Y to Z
calamity reach pond fish
Calamity has spread to the fish in the pond
Suffering collateral damage. Draining a fish pond to search for some treasure would kill off all the fish as a consequence. An action that creates unintended victims.
strict teacher produce high student
Strict teachers produce successful students
Strict discipline is needed to teach effectively
Spare the rod and spoil the child
word but nothing true
Speak but not mean it
To go back on one's word
words excessively that's true
To embellish the facts
Overstate the facts or exaggerate skills. Someone who is a bit of a windbag.
words still exist ear
Words still ringing in one?s ears
Still fresh in the mind. Keeping hold of a recent command or argument. Staying true to purpose.
wool come out at sheep body on
Wool comes from a sheep
Unrealistic expectations. You get what you pay for
goat character tiger skin
A goat in a tiger's skin
Someone not living up to outward appearance. Looking fierce but actually timid.
All that glisters is not gold
mute person eat dumpling, heart inside has count
When a mute person eats dumplings, he knows how many he has eaten, even though he cannot speak
When someone understands the situation without needing to say anything
conceal ear steal bell
Covering your ears while stealing the bell
Failing to think things through. Taking a rash action without applying logic. A foolish plan
Stupid is as stupid does
eye high hand low
Eyes look up but the hands go down
To have high ambitions but possess limited skills
tears rescued not fire
Tears do not put out the fire
Decisive action is needed in a crisis not regrets
eye center 's nail
A nail in the eye
Real adversity. The story is of Zhao Zaili of the Later Jin dynasty [936-946] who was a cruel and unjust governor. When it was rumored that he would be moved to another region the people rejoiced about their nail in their eyes being removed.. However the jubilation was premature, as when Zhao heard about it he determined to stay on and what is more charge the people of Songzhou a new 'nail removal tax'.
A thorn in the flesh
rely on person nose breath
Depend on someone, even for breathe
To be totally dependent on others, as if unable to breathe without their help. Showing great weakness.
raise tiger bequeath misfortune
Helping a tiger invites misfortune
Being too softhearted with an enemy who is bound at some time later to bite the hand that fed it.
Rearing a nest of vipers
pull up seedling help lengthen
Stretching young plants to make them grow
Be patient and let nature run its course
Patience is a virtue. A watched pot never boils
repose content poisoned wine
Comfortable living is like drinking poisoned wine
Lulled into laziness and indifference by comfortable living.
also want horse good, also want horse not eat grass
Want the horse to prosper, but not want the horse to eat grass
To prosper you must make compromises, you can not have it all your own way
You can't have your cake and eat it
Ye Gong fond of dragon
Duke ?e's love of dragons
Pretending to be fond of something which is actually greatly feared. The story is of Duke Ye who decorated whole his house and clothes with dragon motifs. However when a real dragon flew over and landed near his house he trembled in fear. Said of someone hiding their true feelings.
Putting on a brave face
night long dream many
The longer the night, the more dreams there will be
When in hard times it is foolish to merely dream of better things
If wishes were horses, beggars would ride
The beach at Sanya, Hainan island
whole defeat smear ground
A crushing defeat
Defeat so total bodies will litter the ground. Beaten and in a hopeless situation. Suggest the enemy is in such a rage that no mercy will be shown.
one pen strike-out cancel
To dismiss with one stroke of the pen
Taking tough, decisive action to solve a problem. The story is of a statesman who sacked a whole host of incompetent officials working for him with one stroke of the brush.
one stride reach heaven
Approach heaven with a single stride
An attempt to achieve a goal all in one go without hard work
Rome was not built in a day
one stride one footprint
Every step leaves a footprint
Work steadily one step at a time in order to make solid progress
Rome was not built in a day
one inch time one inch gold, inch time difficult buy inch gold
Money spent can be earned again, but time lost is lost for good
An inch of time is an inch of gold, but an inch of time cannot be purchased by an inch of gold.
as soon as ascend dragon gate status tenfold
By crossing the dragon gate, prestige rises ten-fold
Diligent study brings great rewards. The Dragon Gate is a dangerous gorge on the Yellow River. Success in the Imperial examinations was likened to a carp ascending the gorge. Passing the examinations greatly added to prestige.
一分耕耘, 一分收获 [一分耕耘一分收獲]
one part cultivation, one part harvest
Half growing the crop; half harvesting it.
Hard work is needed to achieve a good result. Can't expect a harvest without cultivating the crop.
Hard work never did anyone any harm
one penny, one portion goods
With only a penny you can't buy much
You cant buy something for nothing
You get what you pay for
one yet lift water, two yet carry water, three yet not carry water
One monk shoulders water by himself; two can still share the labor between them. When it comes to three, they all go thirsty.
Sometimes work is best done alone, a group may procrastinate without achieving anything
Too many cooks spoil the broth
single drum grow energy
Gathering courage from a single drum beat
A sudden burst of energy. Easily stimulated into action.
one attend honor
Honored from a single glance
Honored by a visit of someone distinguished who is showing an interest. A passport to getting on in social circles. The story is that a expert of horse was persuaded to give a mere glance at a horse that was for sale and by so doing its price rose enormously in value.
single fox's underfur
The underfur of a fox
The underfur of a fox is so soft that is highly valued. Something of great value to someone
one arrow two eagles
Shooting two hawks with one arrow
Completing two (or more) tasks at the same time. A fortunate coincidence.
Killing two birds with one stone
once see deep affection
Upon first seeing fall madly in love
To fall in love at first sight
one move two gains
Achieving two goals at once
A lucky stroke. There is a story of a two hunters. They saw two tigers feasting on a dead ox. One of them was keen to attack both of them but his friend advised against it. He thought that the tigers were bound to fight each other and whichever won would be weakened and much easier to attack. Following this advice two tigers were killed with one attack.
Killing two birds with one stone
one dragon produce nine sons, grow not same
The dragon has nine sons, each different from the others
Brothers and sisters may not resemble each other
one cry startle people
One chirp surprises everyone
To rise to stardom overnight. Discovering an unknown talent. The story is of an Emperor who kept a bird that did not fly or sing and people wondered why he kept it. One day the Emperor rose to meritorious action surprising everyone
one sunning ten cold
One day in the sun and then ten days of freezing
The story is that second sage of Confucianism, Mencius (Menzi) said this of the king of Qi. He considered him a person who only showed enthusiasm for Mencius' ideas for a short time while he was around to encourage him to ruling well. So it has come to describe the many people who have short bursts of enthusiasm - no staying power.
Blowing hot and cold
all orifice not linked up
All parts of the body are not working together
Incoherent action, not making any sense
Chongqing inner ring expressway around the main city
one poor stupid blank
Both poor and stupid
A disparaging term for backwardness
single mound's raccoon
Raccoons of the same mound
People of the same bad character. Referring to people of similar ill repute who tend to behave the same way.
Birds of a feather flock together
one dog bark shadow, one hundred dog bark noise
One dog snarls at a shadow; a hundred howl at each other's barking
Blindly follow a trend without even knowing its origin
one day three years
One day seems like three years
To miss somebody very much
Absence makes the heart grow fonder
one mountain not hold two tigers
Two tigers cannot share one mountain
Two equally talented or able employees do not work well together
one body is courage
Full of courage
Fearless, intrepid. A heroic disposition.
As bold as brass
one look same benevolence
Everybody treat same kindness
Treat all people the same
one thread not careless
To take care of every thread in a cloth
To be meticulous. To pay atttention to every detail
If a job is worth doing it is worth doing well
one smile separate ten thousand worries
One smile can erase a myriad worries
Keep cheerful against all the odds
Keep your chin up
one speech already go out team of horses difficult chase
A speech made cannot be taken back even by a team of horses
Be careful what you say, it can not be unsaid
one leaf block eye
Covering your eyes with a leaf
Not seeing the full picture and so making a flawed analysis of the situation. A blinkered approach often through prejudice.
Can't see the wood for the trees
one night ten towards
Ten visits in one night
Showing great care and concern. The story comes from the Han dynasty when an official checked the state of a sick relative ten times during the night.
one idea lonely walk
Obstinately clinging to one's course
Acting dogmatically in pursuit of own objectives without regard to others.Dogged determination. Sometimes this approach is honorable and sometimes leads to ruin but it is the single-mindedness that is being admired.
one correct flatten hundred evil
Justice can overpower a hundred evils
Justice is the main defense against evil
only one bee not produce honey, one grain rice cook not complete meal
One bee cannot produce honey; one grain of rice cannot produce a meal
It needs joint effort to achieve anything worthwhile
Many hands make light work
one word thousand gold
One word is worth a thousand gold coins
A literary work of great quality and perfection that can not be improved and more generally applied to very helpful words of advice. The story is of a great writer who offered a reward to anyone who could suggest adding or removing a single character from a work he was very pleased with - the reward went unclaimed.
Worth its weight in gold
one word's teacher
A teacher of one word
Needing only a slight change to become perfect. Praise for work that is nearly perfect but requires an expert to complete. The story is of a poem that was greatly improved by a great poet changing just one character.
A finishing touch
cause influence favorable guide
Helping things along
To encourage something along to its natural fulfillment.
because choke abandon eat
If is foolish to refuse to eat just because of the chance of choking
Life does not come without risks. Risk of failure is not an argument for not trying
Old fishing boat on Ru Shan Shi beach, Shandong
hero powerful not employ military place
A hero having no opportunity to display his talents
A situation where someone's undoubted talents can not be utilized.
use egg strike stone
Try to smash a stone with an egg
Overrating strength and being defeated. Defeat guaranteed.
Kicking a brick wall
use Zheng as gully
Building a drain onto neighbor?s land
Diverting flood water onto neighbor's land - moving a problem onto others rather than try to solve it. Acting selfishly.
Look out for number one
pull awl prick thigh
Pricking your thigh with an awl
Study hard with great determination. An awl is a sharp pointed tool for making holes in wood. The story is from the Three Character classic which tells how Su Qin of the Han dynasty pricked himself in the thigh to keep himself awake and alert for study. Used as a parent or teacher's encouragement for children to study diligently.
Hit the books
drink turtledove stop thirst
To quench one's thirst with poisoned wine. The blood of the dove was considered poisonous
To take reckless action regardless of the consequences
Don't cut off your nose to spite your face
drink water think source
When drinking water remember the origin
Do not forget the source of your good fortune (particularly your parents)
Count your blessings
Ying letter Yan explain
Ying's letter interpreted by Yan
The message has been misunderstood. The story is that someone living in Ying in the Chu kingdom dictated a letter to a friend, the Prime Minister of Yan kingdom. Inadvertently the secretary wrote down 'Raise the lantern' thinking it was part of the letter. The recipient interpreted this to mean he should appoint praiseworthy people to the government. So in this case the misunderstanding gave rise to benefit.
Get hold of the wrong end of the stick
also step also walk fast
To follow in someone's footsteps
To imitate slavishly. The story is of a devoted pupil of Confucius, Yan Hui, who aped everything Confucius did including his walk. Pointless copying
easy as turn over palm
As easy as turning over your hand
Simple. Very easy
have preparation no misfortune
Preparedness averts misfortune
Be prepared against all eventualities to avoid misfortune. Have fallback plans.
have what not can
Anything not possible
Anything may be possible
has eye common observe
Seen by everyone. There for all to see
Obvious to everybody
Plain for all to see
have money can send devil push grindstone
If you have money you can make the devil push a grind stone
Money can buy you anything
have eye not know great mountain
To fail to see the great Taishan mountain
To be too arrogant or ignorant to acknowledge true talent
have aspiration, matter accomplished
If a person has ambition, anything can be accomplished
It requires ambition to succeed in life. The story comes from the Han dynasty when Emperor Guangwu praised Geng Yan for steadfastly completed his task of mopping up opponents in Shandong
Where there is a will, there is a way
cause tree seek fish
To catch fish in a tree
To look at a tree hoping it will somehow catch fish. Waste time doing something pointless and bound to fail. The tale goes back 2,300 years to the life of Mengciuswho advised the King of Qi against pointless further conquests.
To carry water in a sieve
far water rescued not near fire
Distant water will not extinguish the nearby fire
There is no point in waiting for far off help. Get to it and solve the problem now
Make it snappy
月到中秋分外明, 每逢佳节倍思亲 [月到中秋分外明每逢佳節倍思親]
moon arrive mid-autumn divide outside bright every occurrence fetival joyous times think parent
The moon is brightest at the Mid-Autumn Festival, and the feeling of homesickness will be strongest during the festival
Longing to see family from far away
There's no place like home
moon under wise person
The old man under the moon
The deity of matchmakers for marriage . said of someone who is trying to get a couple together. The tradition was that husband and wife had an invisible red thread tying them together from birth.
Ming dynasty village at Chuandixia near Beijing
surpass sacrificial food replace kitchen
Laying down the sacrificial vessels and take over the kitchen
To move beyond current work and meddle in other's duties. To take things into your own hands. A back seat driver.
Poke your nose in someone else's business
surplus courage can buy
Surplus courage for sale
Enthusiastic to carry on after success. Full of energy
Full of beans
foolish man move mountain
The foolish old man who moved mountains
Anything can be achieved with persistence. ?. The old story ➚ is that an old man wanted to move a mountain that blocked his path. Despite widespread cynicism he and his descendents gradually wore down the mountain. Mao Zedong used this proverb to persuade people that the seemingly impossible was achievable. One version of the story has the gods taking pity on the old man and removing the mountain with mighty powers
Go the extra mile
cloud vanish mist disperse
Cloud and mists disperse
All becomes clear again. Troubles are over
with fox seek skin
Asking a fox for its skin
Make an unrealistic request of someone who is bound to refuse. A pointless request requiring someone to act against their normal character
The leopard does not change his spots
feather not yet mature
Not yet grown adult plumage. A fledgling bird - young and inexperienced
Still too young and immature
rain past heaven bright
The rain has gone, the sky brightens
Things are improving. Hope for the future
desire moreover which how misfortune not dismiss
There is always a crime that somebody can be accused of
No-one is spotless and so everyone can be rightly accused of a crime. Nobody's perfect.
desire fast level not extend
A desire for speed but unable to reach destination
More interest in working fast than working effectively. Too much interest in the short term rather than the overall strategy
More haste less speed
jade not polished not accomplish gem
Jade requires fashioning to turn into a gem
Training and discipline are needed to build character
sandpiper clam mutually strive, fisherman elderly obtain benefit
The sandpiper and clam fight each other
The sandpiper (or snipe) is too busy fighting a clam to notice the wily fishermen who snares them both. Taking advantage of situation when other people are too distracted with their own business.
As cunning as a fox
move catty accomplish wind
Swing the axe to create a gust of wind
A very skilled person. The story is that Jiang Shi was so skilled that he knock a spot of paint off the end of someone's nose. he could only hear the ax move like a gust of wind
A wife of chaff-eating days
A loyal wife. Chaff is only eaten when no other food is available and so it means someone who is prepared to share in depredations - sharing the bad times as well as the good.
Through thick and thin
again feel Feng Fu
Becoming Feng Fu again
Returning to old ways and habits. Feng Fu was a renowned tiger hunter from the state of Jin in the Zhou dynasty. After a successful career he vowed never to hurt another living thing. However when he chanced upon a local hunt for a vicious tiger he could not resist temptation to go back to old ways and killed the tiger single handed.
A leopard cannot change its spots
thief shout 'stop thief'
A thief cries 'Stop thief!'
Diverting attention to cover misdoing
provoke agitation cross market
Parading through the busy streets
Boastful behavior; to be puffed up with pride . Walking the streets seeking the adulation of the crowds.
Pride comes before a fall
morning three evening four
Say three in the morning, four in the evening
Indecisive saying one thing and then changing mind later and saying another. The story is of a monkey trainer who reduced their chestnut rations from 3 in the morning and 4 in the evenings. The monkeys were most unhappy but when the trainer changed it to 4 in the morning and 3 in the evenings they were delighted. And so the phrase can also mean being foolishly deceived.
Hemming and hahing
strive for first afraid behind
Striving to be first and fearing to be last
Striving for position. Over competitive.
Devil take the hindmost
Zheng person buy shoe
The man from Zheng buys shoes
Stubbornly sticking to a silly plan; inflexible and stupid. The story is of a man from Zheng who measured his own feet in readiness to buying new shoes. When he reached the shop in a distant town he found he had forgotten the paper on which the measurement was recorded. So he walked all the way home to fetch it rather than just try on shoes in the shop.
Stupid is as stupid does
Li River near Guilin. September 2012.
Image by Mgmoscatello ➚ available under a Creative Commons license ➚
know its right but not know its right place
To know the how but not the why
Having a limited understanding of something. Only seeing half the problem.
finger mulberry blame locust tree
Pointing to the mulberry tree when the locust tree is to blame
Deliberately deflecting criticism to someone or something else - often to protect friends or family
paper wrap not live fire
Paper can not wrap up a fire
The truth can not be concealed
Truth will out
paper on chat weapon
Fighting war on paper
An armchair general. Making plans without knowledge of the actualité
A little knowledge is a dangerous thing
toe high energy raise
Putting on airs and graces
An arrogant person who may well face a comeuppance due to complacency and self-conceit.
Pride cometh before a fall
aspiration not can slow, time not can lose
Do not let your aspirations weaken; do not waste time
Keep hold of your hopes and dreams, waste no time in achieving them
Don't change horses midstream
ambition exist four directions
Having high ambition
Willing to travel far and wide to achieve aims. Aspiring to achieve great things in life.
wisdom that thousand worry about certainly have one mistake
Even the wise can be occasionally wrong
One small mistake does not discredit a wise person
prefecture to be set on fire
The magistrate burns down the town
Bewailing pompous and incompetent officials. The story is that an official refused that his name 'Deng' should be used in any official proclamation. A problem arose when the Lantern or 'Deng' festival was to be announced. Instead of 'Deng' he used the character for Fire instead announcing the coming of Fire throughout the town
Couldn't organize a piss-up in a brewey
many mouth difficult mix
Difficult to make a meal to suit everyone
You can't please everyone all the time. Everyone has different tastes
One man's meat is another man's poison
crowd fury disaster to offend
Avoid incurring the wrath of the crowd
It's a bad idea to stir up the anger of a large crowd
many people pick up firewood fire flames high
Only when all contribute their firewood can they build up a big fire
People need to pull together to achieve something significant
Many hands make light work
plant melon get melon, plant beans get beans
Plant melons and you will harvest melons; plant beans and you will harvest beans
Live with the consequences of your actions
Reap what you sow
concentrate mind devote ambition
Study hard to achieve ambitions
An admonishment to encourage full concentration in order to study effectively and so achieve ambitions.
clutch lapel see elbow
Pulling the lapels only to expose the elbows
In poverty - wearing an old coat so threadbare that pulling it up exposes the elbows through holes. Unable to make ends meet. Up Queer street.
As poor as a church mouse
pull out hair difficult count
As countless as the hairs on the head
Countless. A very large number.
assist Jie to become oppressive
Aiding King Jie in his cruelty
An admonishment not to turn to the dark side. King Jie was the last ruler of the Xia dynasty and a byword for cruelty and depravity.
Supping with the Devil
child no teach father's past
A father is responsible for his son's conduct
Parents are responsible for their children's education
character inside line between
Between the lines
Uncovering the hidden meaning or character
Reading between the lines
Qinghai-Tibet railway near mountains at Golmud, Qinghai
self tall self big
Think oneself tall and great
Full of conceit and ego
self ashamed not like
Ashamed at own inferiority
Ashamed of oneself
self I drunk
Drunk with oneself. Narcissistic
Conceited and arrogant
self mutual spear shield
Hit your shield with your own spear
To speak in contradictions. The story ➚ is about the man who said he had a spear that could pierce anything in the world, but also a shield that was impenetrable to any spear. Both claims could not be true
To be carefree, peaceful and relaxed
self know self understand
Knowing your own strengths and weaknesses is an essential first step in life. being able to judge yourself objectively as others see you is a path to harmony and true friendship.
from government get rich
Become a government official to get rich
Attain riches by working a government career
walk horse look flower
Looking at the flowers while riding a horse
To take a cursory look at something. Smug
left right pride difficult
Both alternatives are difficult
In a dilemma
Be in a pickle
compose law self harm
Making laws that harm yourself
To fall foul of rules of your own making.
bore hole steal light
Borrowing light through a hole in the wall
Using a hole in the wall to get light to be able to read with. Striving hard to study diligently. The story is of a boy from a poor family who could not afford to buy candles to study books with. Instead he bored a hole through to his neighbor's room that was well illuminated so he could then read.
sit lap no disorder
Not to be tempted even when a beautiful woman sits on one's lap
To describe a man who refuses to be tempted by lustful thoughts
sit well watch sky
To sit at the bottom of a well and view the sky
A blinkered or limited view of the world
Our proverbs come with full information. The modern Chinese characters are given first with links that give information on the character. If the phrase uses traditional characters these are shown in brackets and gray text. As proverbs are so old you will often see them written in the old form. 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 included at the end.
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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