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.
Proverbs about the wisdom of making plans to give your ambitions the best chance of success.
Bù pò bù lì
If do not destroy will not stand
The old needs to be demolished before building the new.
Roughly equivalent to: Starting again from scratch.
Bù shàn shǐ zhě bù shàn zhōng
A bad beginning leads to a bad ending
Need to plan everything from the beginning.
Roughly equivalent to: Don't put the cart before the horse.
Dān qiāng pǐ mǎ
A single spear and a single horse
Taking on a difficult task on your own.
Fén lín ěr tián, jié zé ěr yú
Burn a forest to farm; drain a pond to fish
Ignoring the consequences.
Roughly equivalent to: Marry in haste, repent at leisure.
Hǔ jiǎ hǔ wēi
A trick of cunning to exaggerate self importance
A fox will pretend to have the power of a tiger. The story is that a fox followed a tiger in a parade. The animals panicked and the fox claimed that this was because they were frightened of the fox not the tiger. It goes back to the Warring States Period.
Jiāo bīng bì bài
An arrogant army is certain to be defeated
Over-confidence will lead to defeat.
Roughly equivalent to: Pride comes before a fall.
Jiǎo tù sān kū
A crafty rabbit has three burrows
To succeed you must must have alternative options, in particular several ways of escape from danger.
Roughly equivalent to: There's more than one way to skin a cat.
An armchair general. Making plans without knowledge of the actualité
Roughly equivalent to: A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.
Zuǒ yòu wéi nán
Both alternatives are difficult
In a dilemma.
Roughly equivalent to: Be in a pickle.
Yīn shì lì dǎo
Helping things along
To encourage something along to its natural fulfillment.
Dōng chuāng shì fā
The plot at the east window has been exposed
The game is up. Generally said of villains whose evil plans have been thwarted. The story is of Qin Hui of the Song dynasty who hatched a plot under the east window of his house to tell lies about General Yue Fei. Qin Hui and his son died shortly after Yue Fei was executed. Qin's wife Wang used a necromancer who discovered the truth and was told by Qin's spirit that the East window plot had been exposed.
Roughly equivalent to: The chickens have come home to roost.
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.
A fanciful and impossible scheme. An impractical idea with a streak of vanity.
Roughly equivalent to: A flight of fancy.
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.
Àn dù chén cāng
Secretly cross at the Chencang Road
A feigned maneuver designed to outwit. After the fall of the Qin dynasty Liu Bei sent out troops to repair a plank road presumably to mount an attack, but he actually moved his troops across the Wei River at Chencang and so surprised his enemy.
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.
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.
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.
Chóng dǎo fù zhé
Following the track of an overturned cart
To repeat a disastrous strategy. Not learning from previous mistakes - slavishly following previous practice. The story is of a virtuous official who risked Han emperor Huan's displeasure by pointing out that he was repeating the mistakes of the second Qin emperor.
Roughly equivalent to: Once bitten, twice shy.
Jīn chéng tāng chí
A city of metal with a moat of boiling water
An impregnable city with highly effective defenses. Someone/something not worth trying to attack.
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.
Liǎng bài jù shāng
Both sides will suffer
Heading towards a Pyrric victory - neither side wins. A conflict neither side can win.
Roughly equivalent to: Mutually assured destruction.
Liǎng tiáo tuǐ zǒu lù
Need two legs to be able to walk
When alternative methods are needed not just one.
Tāo guāng yǎng huì
Conceal your strength
Bide your time before showing your strength.
Roughly equivalent to: Hiding your light under a bushel.
Coming back after voluntary retirement into public life. Particularly for taking on high office after a long break away from all the action.
Roughly equivalent to: To make a comeback.
Huáng liáng měi mèng
A golden millet dream
A fanciful day dream. The story is of a man who took a brief nap while his host was cooking a bowl of millet. He dreamed of becoming married to a beautiful wife and immensely rich and living to a great age. When he woke up the millet was cooked but he found he was still poor.
Roughly equivalent to: Cloud cuckoo land.
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.