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.
This loosely knit group of proverbs all have to do with dealing with a particular predicament. Some of these just describe the situation without offering advice on how to deal with it.
Chòu bù kě dāng
Worst ever smell
To give off an unbearable stink.
Chuān xīn xié, zǒu lǎo lù
Wear new shoes but follow old paths
Stick to the old ways while appearing to follow the latest trends.
Overly portentous. Reality does not match expectations.
Roughly equivalent to: Empty vessels make the most noise.
Mǎ mǎ hǔ hǔ
So so; average; careless
Some people say it comes from an old story in which a horse and a tiger get into a fight. Neither animal could defeat the other. In time, mentioning the two animals together came to mean a fight with no definite winner - and ma ma hu hu came to mean 'so so.'. There is also a story that, a long time ago, an artist drew an animal. He asked other people what the animal he drew was. Some said it looked like a horse while others said it was a tiger. They said, 'ma ma hu hu' because the drawing was just 'so-so'.
Ambushed from all sides. Hopeless situation. In the battle of Gaixia ➚ troops surrounding the enemy sang songs of home, breaking their spirit. From the classic Shi Ji from 2,200 years ago. After the end of the Qin dynasty the Han general used this tactic against of the Chu kingdom. The Chu songs persuaded the surrounded Chu forces that the Han must have overrun much of the Chu kingdom already.
Overrating strength and being defeated. Defeat guaranteed.
Roughly equivalent to: Kicking a brick wall.
Yì rú fǎn zhǎng
As easy as turning over your hand
Simple. Very easy.
Yǔ maó wèi fēng
Not yet grown adult plumage. A fledgling bird - young and inexperienced
Still too young and immature.
Zuǒ yòu wéi nán
Both alternatives are difficult
In a dilemma.
Roughly equivalent to: Be in a pickle.
Zhōu guān fàng huǒ
The magistrate burns down the town
Bewailing pompous and incompetent officials. The story is that an official who did not want his name 'Deng' to be used in any official proclamation. The problem arose when the Lantern or 'Deng' festival was to be announced. Instead of 'Deng' he used the character for Fire instead and so announced the coming of Fire throughout the town - causing widespread alarm.
Roughly equivalent to: Couldn't organize a piss-up in a brewery.
Shū gōng mò shǒu
Shu attacks and Mo defends
Two opponents of equal skill. Back in the Spring and Autumn period the story goes that Gongshu Ban, a carpenter had developed a new device to attack cities. He was persuaded by the pacifist philosopher Mo Zi not to deploy it. Mo Zi was able to defend against any attack by Gongshu Ban leading to stalemate.
Roughly equivalent to: Fighting to a standstill.
Shì wài táo yuán
The land of peach blossoms
A mythical land of peace and harmony. The story is of a hidden land that a fisherman found while trying to escape turmoil and war in the Qin dynasty. Try as he might he never found the land again.
Roughly equivalent to: Land of milk and honey.
Juǎn tǔ chóng lái
Sweeping off the dust and trying again
Making a comeback after a setback - determined to have another go. Like getting back on a horse after being thrown off.
Roughly equivalent to: Dust yourself off and start all over again.
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 horse expert was persuaded to give a mere glance at a horse that was for sale and by so doing its price rose enormously in value.
Máng cì zài bèi
A thorn in one's flesh
Someone or something is causing continuous irritation.
Chún wáng chǐ hán
Without lips the teeth feel the cold
Two interdependent things or people. The story of is of an attack on two kingdoms, as they were so mutually dependent the fall of one led directly to the fall of the other.
Prepared to kill one's own family to keep to the law. Back in the Spring and Autumn Period a father, Shi Que, uncovered the murder of the king of Wei was done by a treasonous group which included his own son Shi Hou. Believing he could not show him special treatment he had him executed.
Forced to take an undesirable action. The story is of Lin Chong who was hounded down by Chao Gai because he wanted Lin's wife. After being falsely accused of attempted murder Lin was further victimized by Chao Gai until he was left with no choice but to join the rebels. So it means left with no choice at all.
Roughly equivalent to: Hobson's choice.
Kē zhèng měng yú hǔ
Tyranny is more terrible than tigers
The story is that Confucius met a woman near mount Taishan who was weeping bitterly. When asked, she said she had lost father-in-law, husband and son to marauding tigers. When Confucius asked why then she did not move to a safer village she replied that she was sheltering from a despotic government and would rather risk tigers than oppression. Evil government is the worst of evils.
Yǐng shū yān shuō
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.
Roughly equivalent to: Get hold of the wrong end of the stick.
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.
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.
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.
The beginning of a great task. In one creation myth Pangu set about his momentous work by first separating heaven (yang) from earth (yin). An epic undertaking.
Roughly equivalent to: To boldly go.
Hé dōng shī hǒu
The lioness from Hedong roars
A husband under the control of a domineering wife. The story is of Chen Zao of the Song dynasty who often had guests around in the evening. If his wife got to hear that there were other women with him she would knock on the wall and roar. A hen-pecked man.
Avoid circumstances that give rise to false suspicion, If someone is seen near ripe melons or under a plum tree they are open to suspicion of theft. A longer form of the saying makes it clear that you should not tie up your shoes in a melon field or out on a hat under a plum tree as these actions are suspicious.
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.