Chinese idioms about carfully laid plans

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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.

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.
[不善始者不善終]
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.
[單槍匹馬]
Dān qiāng pǐ mǎ
A single spear and a single horse
Taking on a difficult task on your own.
畋,竭 [焚林而畋竭澤而漁]
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.
狐假
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.
[驕兵必敗]
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.
[力不從心]
Lì bù cóng xīn
Strong ambition but no motivation
Lacking in motivation to achieve aims.
Roughly equivalent to: If a job is worth doing it is worth doing well.
临渴掘井 [臨渴掘井]
Lín kě jué jǐng
Digging a well only when starting to feel thirsty
Begin taking action when it is far too late.
Roughly equivalent to: Failing to plan is planning to fail.
[鳴鑼開道]
Míng luó kāi dao
Beating the gong to clear the way for dignitaries
To publicize an event.
[強龍難壓地頭蛇]
Qiáng lóng nán yā dì tóu shé
Even a dragon finds it difficult to conquer a snake in its lair
Knowledge of local area and people gives them a distinct advantage even against a strong enemy.
[巧婦難為無米之炊]
Qiǎo fù nán wéi wú mǐ zhī chuī
Even the cleverest cook cannot prepare rice without rice
You need to assemble the right materials for a job.
Ròu bāo zǐ dǎ gǒu
Hitting a dog with a meat bun
To use a self defeating method to solve a problem.
qilin, sculpture, temple
Qilin, Shanghai Temple
[山雨欲來風滿樓]
Shān yù lái fēng mǎn lóu
The wind sweeping through the tower heralds a rising storm in the mountain
A premonition of something significant about to happen.
Roughly equivalent to: Forewarned is forearmed.
[事實勝于雄辯]
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.
Shǔ cùn guāng
A mouse's vision is only one inch long
Looking ahead for only a short time. Only planning for the immediate future.
[說到做到]
Shuō daò zuò daò
Say and then make
Do what one says.
Roughly equivalent to: Actions speak louder than words.
[頭頭是道]
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.
望梅
Wàng méi zhǐ kě
Gaze at a plum to quench thirst
Offering hope by thinking of something currently out of reach.
[未雨綢繆]
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.
, [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.
[蝦兵蟹將]
Xiā bīng xiè jiàng
Shrimp soldiers led by a crab general. An ineffective army
A laughably ineffective solution to a problem.
Xīng xīng zhī huǒ kě yǐ liáo yuán
One spark can burn a whole grassland
Need for great care and meticulous planning.
因噎废 [因噎廢食]
Yīn yè fèi shí
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.
使[有錢能使鬼推磨]
Yǒu qián néng shǐ guǐ tuī mò
If you have money you can make the devil push a grind stone
Money can buy you anything.
, [有志者事竟成]
Yǒu zhì zhe, shì jìng chéng
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.
Roughly equivalent to: Where there's a will, there's a way.
TCM, scales
TCM ingredients
[遠水救不了近火]
Yuǎn shuǐ jiǔ bù liaǒ huǒ
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.
Roughly equivalent to: Make it snappy.
[帋上談兵]
Zhǐ shàng tán bīng
Fighting war on paper
An armchair general. Making plans without knowledge of the actualité
Roughly equivalent to: A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.
[左右為難]
Zuǒ yòu wéi nán
Both alternatives are difficult
In a dilemma.
Roughly equivalent to: Be in a pickle.
因势[因勢利導]
Yīn shì lì dǎo
Helping things along
To encourage something along to its natural fulfillment.
[東窗事發]
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.
[賠了夫人又折兵]
Péi le fū rén yòu zhé bīng
Losing the lady and the soldiers
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.
[空中樓閣]
Kōng zhōng lóu gé
A pavilion in the air
A fanciful and impossible scheme. An impractical idea with a streak of vanity.
Roughly equivalent to: A flight of fancy.
[滅此朝食]
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.
暗渡陈仓 [暗渡陳倉]
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.
Shàng xià qí shǒu
To raise and lower the hand
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.
[圖窮匕見]
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.
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.
蹈覆辙 [重蹈覆轍]
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.
dragon, vector
dragon design
汤池 [金城湯池]
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.
Sān lìng shēn
Issuing three orders and five injunctions
Giving order after order. Someone who is officious and over-bearing. The use of three and five is often used to give idea of endless repetition.
Roughly equivalent to: Cracking the whip.
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.
败俱伤 [兩敗俱傷]
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.
[兩條骽走路]
Liǎng tiáo tuǐ zǒu lù
Need two legs to be able to walk
When alternative methods are needed not just one.
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.
[東山再起]
Dōng shān zài qǐ
To rise again from the east mountain
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.
[黃粱美夢]
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.
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.
[不撒大網不得大魚]
Bù sǎ wǎng bù dé
Without casting a big net how can a big fish be caught
Need to think big if to succeed.
,殃 [城門失火殃及池魚]
Chéng mén shī huó, yāng jí chí
Burning a city gate kills the fish in the moat
A drastic action may unintentionally affect other people. Show consideration for all.
奸巨猾
Lǎo jiān jù huá
To be very crafty and cunning
To be tricky, cunning, crafty. Well versed in the ways of the world.
Roughly equivalent to: All's fair in love and war.
[先下手為強]
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.
opera, costume, people, woman
Chinese Opera, Chengdu

See also