Chinese idioms concerning skill and ability

As well as careful planning, it is necessary to have the right skills and abilities to do the job. There is no point in carrying out a task without the aptitude to do it well.

[伯樂識馬]
Bó Lè shí mǎ [Bo Le shi ma]
Bo Le know horse
Bo Le, the horse expert
A person of good judgment. Someone who can quickly appreciate skill. The idiom refers to Bo Le from the Warring States period who was an acclaimed judge of horses. It is said that he came upon an old horse trudging along. Only Bo Le could see that this was once a great horse of strength and stamina.
Gāo bù chéng dī bù jiù [gao bu cheng di bu jiu]
high no accomplish low no come near
Although not qualified for high office will not accept a lower position
Exaggerating one's skills
[欲速則不達]
Yù sù zé bù dá [yu su ze bu da]
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
牝牡骊 [牝牡驪黃]
Pìn mǔ lí huáng [pin mu li huang]
female male black horse yellow
Choose a black mare instead of a yellow stallion
Don't judge by outward appearance. The horse's ability is more important than the external appearance. The story is that a Duke of Qin wanted a good horse. He was told a yellow stallion had been selected. On seeing it was in fact a black mare the duke was annoyed but the horse expert stood his ground saying it was the character and ability that was the important thing.
Don't judge a book by its cover
鹏程
Péng chéng wàn [peng cheng wan li]
Peng journey ten thousand li
Peng Niao flies ten thousand miles
Emergence of great talent. The Peng Niao is a mythical bird of huge size and power that could fly huge distance with little effort. Said of someone of immense potential.
[藏龍臥虎]
Cáng lóng wò hǔ [cang long wo hu]
hide dragon lie tiger
Hidden dragon, crouching tiger
There are often people around with great power and skill
脱颖 [脫穎而出]
Tuō yǐng ér chū [tuo ying er chu]
take off sharp point and yet emerge
A sharp stick protrudes
A talented person can't help but be noticed
腾达 [飛黃騰達]
Fēi huáng téng dá [fei huang teng da]
fly yellow gallop extend
To fly in the sky like the legendary horse Fei Huang (flying yellow)
A meteoric rise to success and honour
[虎頭蛇尾]
Hǔ tóu shé wěi [hu tou she wei]
tiger head snake tail
Tiger's head; snake's tail
Begins promisingly but ends badly
[半斤八兩]
Bàn jīn liǎng [ban jin ba liang]
half catty eight taels
Two equivalent measures
Nothing to choose between two alternatives
Six of one, and half a dozen of the other
郎才尽 [江郎才盡]
Jiāng láng cái jìn [jiang lang cai jin]
Jiang official talent exhaust
Master Jiang has exhausted his talent
Losing your creative spark. Jiang Yan was an official in the Southern Liang dynasty [502-557] achieved early repute as a poet and writer but in later years struggled to write anything of value. He dreamed that he owed his talent to the pen of Guo Pu who then reclaimed it.
Running out of steam
[听其言觀其行]
Tīng qí yán guān qí xíng [ting qi yan guan qi xing]
listen his speech observe his travel
Listen to what a person says and then watch what is done
Judge people by their actions, not by their words
Actions speak louder than words
弄斧 [班門弄斧]
Bān mén nòng fǔ [Ban men nong fu]
Ban door use hatchet
Demonstrating the axe at Ban?s door
Lu Ban (c. 500BCE) was a master engineer inventor and carpenter. So trying to show off you skills with an axe (or adze in those days) at his door was being rather pretentious. So the phrase means to show off your feeble skills in front of a real expert.
Teaching your grandmother to suck eggs
驴唇[馿唇不對馬嘴]
Lǖ chún bù duì mǎ zuǐ [lu chun bu dui ma zui]
donkey lips no match horse mouth
Donkey's lips do not fit a horse's mouth
Something that is out of place and inappropriate
暗渡陈仓 [暗渡陳倉]
Àn dù chén cāng [an du chen cang]
secret pass through Chencang
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.
yì gū xíng [yi yi gu xing]
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.
Steely-eyed
[青出于藍而勝于藍]
Qīng chū yú lán ér shèng yú lán [qing chu yu lan er sheng yu lan]
indigo blue comes out foremost blue but excel foremost blue
Indigo is obtained from the indigo plant, but such color is bluer than the plant itself
Wise schooling has produced excellence beyond the teacher. The follower has surpassed the master.
zì qiān jīn [yi zi qian jin]
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
, [八仙過海各顯神通]
xiān guò hǎi, gè xiǎn shén tōng [ba xian guo hai, ge xian shen tong]
eight immortal past sea each show god knowledge
The Eight Immortals crossing the sea all have there own particular skills
Everyone has their own special skills to contribute
Dragon Boat, festival
Dragonboat Racing Festival Macau 2005. Image by lidxplus available under a Creative Commons license
Bái shǒu qǐ jiā [bai shou qi jia]
clear hand make house
Empty hand make house
To build up something from nothing
[力不從心]
Lì bù cóng xīn [li bu cong xin]
strength not from feeling
Strong ambition but no motivation
Lacking in motivation to achieve aims
If a job is worth doing it is worth doing well
滥竽充数 [濫竽充數]
Làn yú chōng shù [lan yu chong shu]
excessive yu pipe supply fate
Passing oneself off as a proficient Yu pipe player
Pretending to be well qualified for a job. The story is that the king of Qi loved to hear an ensemble of yu players. A lazy sponger Nanguo wanted the plum job as a yu player. He faked playing the yu in the large ensemble. It came to an end with the next king of Qi who preferred soloists rather than an ensemble and so, expecting exposure, quickly fled away.
Pulling a fast one
[華而不實]
Huá ér bù shí [hua er bu shi]
flower but not fruit
Flowering but not bearing fruit
Said of someone is all show and no substance
All that glitters is not gold
邯郸 [邯鄲學步]
Hán dān xué bù [han dan xue bu]
Handan study gait
Trying too hard to impress
Learning how the residents of Handan walk . The story is of a man back in the Warring States period who took on the gait of grand city folk trying to impress but could no longer walk properly. Pompous and pretentious.
Make an ass of yourself
[龍爭虎斗]
Lóng zhēng hǔ dòu [long zheng hu dou]
dragon war tiger battle
Bitter fight between a dragon and tiger. An evenly matched big fight
Struggle between two equal leaders
[雞鳴狗盜]
Jī míng gǒu dào [ji ming gou dao]
chicken cry dog steal
Able to crow like a cockerel and steal like a dog
A person with a range of useful tricks. The story is of someone back in the Warring States period who helped a prince out of difficulty by imitating a dog to distract prison guards and to crow like a cockerel to trick them into thinking it was already morning
Every trick in the book
, [宁做雞頭不噹鳳尾]
Nìng zuò jītóu, bù dāng fèng wěi [ning zuo jitou, bu dang feng wei]
serene make chicken head, no equal phoenix tail
Rather be a chicken's head than a phoenix's tail
Better to be leader of a humble organization than the stooge of a grand one
A big fish in a small pond
[再作馮婦]
Zài zuò féng fù [zai zuo feng fu]
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
[鶴立雞群]
Hè lì jī qún [he li ji qun]
crane stand chicken crowd
A crane standing amidst a flock of chickens
Being conspicuously different (often superior)
Standing head and shoulders above the opposition.
识泰 [有眼不識泰山]
Yǒu yǎn bù shí tài shān [you yan bu shi tai shan]
have eye not know great mountain
To fail to see the great Taishan mountain
To be too arrogant or ignorant to acknowledge true talent
赴汤蹈 [赴湯蹈火]
Fù tāng dǎo huǒ [fu tang dao huo]
wade hot water tread fire
Wade through scolding water and burning flame
Showing great courage and valour
Shì bèi gōng bàn [shi bei gong ban]
work multiple times merit half
Work very hard for half the result
Work with care rather than speed
Less haste more speed
[一顧之榮]
gù zhī róng [yi gu zhi rong]
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.
[走官發財]
Zǒu guān fā cái [zou guan fa cai]
from government get rich
Become a government official to get rich
Attain riches by working a government career
Lǎo bàng shēng zhū [lao bang sheng zhu]
old oyster grow pearl
An old oyster yields pearls
Remaining fit and healthy into old age, specifically can mean fathering children in advanced years.
There's many a good tune played on an old fiddle
[爭先恐後]
Zhēng xiān kǒng hòu [zheng xian kong hou]
strive for first afraid behind
Striving to be first and fearing to be last
Striving for position. Over competitive.
Devil take the hindmost
Yǎn gāo shǒu dī [yan gao shou di]
eye high hand low
Eyes look up but the hands go down
To have high ambitions but possess limited skills
Jiǔ niú èr hǔ zhī lì [jiu niu er hu zhi li]
nine ox two tiger 's strength
The strength of nine bulls and two tigers
Tremendously strong
Li River, Guilin, Guangxi
River Li (Lijiang) between Guilin and Yangshuo, Guangxi. 23 September 2009
Image by Jerzy Bereszko available under a Creative Commons license
急,授 [授人以魚只解一旹之急授人以漁則解一生之需]
Shòu rén zhǐ jiù shí zhī jí, shòu rén yǐ yú zé jiě yī shēng zhī xū [shou ren yi yu zhi jiu yi shi zhi ji, shou ren yi yu ze jie yi sheng zhi xu]
award person use fish one explain once quick, award person use fishing standard separate one produce must
Give a fish and be fed for only a day. Teach how to fish and be free from hunger forever
It is important to learn a skill that will last for life
Qī yǐ qí lì [qi yi qi li]
cheat according to its ability
Knowing the approptiate way to cheat
To skilfully deceive. Invent a lie that fools the audience. Playing a clever trick.
Having an ace up the sleeve
, [人無完人金無足赤]
Rén wú wán rén, jīn wú zú chì [ren wu wan ren, jin wu zu chi]
person nothing whole person, gold nothing pure gold
It is as impossible to find a perfect person as it is to discover pure gold
Having to settle for something less than perfection
[別別具一格]
Bié jù yī [bie ju yi ge]
classify tool one pattern
Possessing a unique style
Doing things your own way
[空洞無物]
Kōng dòng wú wù [kong dong wu wu]
cavity has no thing
Vacuous
Empty and devoid of worthwhile content. Usually applied to poor writing that is devoid of meaning.
Empty words
[畫虎類犬]
Huà hǔ lèi quǎn [hua hu lei quan]
draw tiger like dog
A drawing of a tiger that looks like a dog
Foolishly undertaking something over-ambitious and coming a cropper. Taking on something beyond your ability. Puffed up with self-conceit.
The pride of the peacock.
识途 [老馬識途]
Lǎo mǎ shí tú [lao ma shi tu]
old horse know way
An old horse knows the way
Knowledge born from long experience. The story is of a Duke of Qi of the Spring and Autumn period who became lost on the way home from a campaign because winter had set in. The Duke proposed that the old horses should be allowed to lead their way home which they did successfully.
Been around the block a few times
Rù mù sān fēn [ru mu san fen]
enter wood three parts
Inscribe wood to a depth of three measures
To write with such confidence that the wood is etched away to a good depth. So this means to write with a profound and forceful hand. The story is of the great calligrapher who produced some calligraphy so confidently written that the characters were etched by 3/10th of an inch.
[天下無雙]
Tiān xià wú shuāng [tian xia wu shuang]
heaven below no pair
Unequalled under heaven
Something or someone with superlative skills.
[百發百中]
Bǎi bǎi zhòng [bai fa bai zhong]
hundred arrows hundred middles
One hundred arrows, one hundred bullseyes
A superb marksman; showing great skill. Yang Youji and Houyi were archers of great renown.
A dab hand
Zì zhī zhī míng [zi zhi zhi ming]
self know self understand
Knowing oneself
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.
Know thyself
灰复燃 [死灰復燃]
Sǐ huī fù rán [si hui fu ran]
die ash return fire
Ashes burn again
Resuming work after a long break. Taking up a previously held position of authority. Another flush of youthful energy in later life.
[天衣無縫]
Tiān yī wú fèng [tian yi wu feng]
heaven clothes not seam
Heavenly robe without seams
A perfect result, clothes so well made that the seams cannot be seen. Used to describe an excellent piece of work - especially an essay or speech.
Ticks all the boxes
黔驴 [黔馿技窮]
Qián lǖ jì qiong [qian lu ji qiong]
black donkey skill poor
The Guizhou donkey has no more tricks
Even a clever donkey can not solve the problem. The story is that Guizhou province had no donkeys. A man brought a donkey there and having no further use for it set it free. The tiger then spotted the donkey and was scared of the new monster, but seeing it do very little but kick it killed and ate it. So it means being in desperate circumstances with no real options left
Be at one's wit's end
[玩物喪志]
Wán wù sàng zhì [wan wu sang zhi]
play thing lose ambition
Obsessional play ruins the will
Spending too much time on trivia. Excessive attention to detail. Losing the big picture.
Little things please little minds
Shén gōng guǐ fǔ [shen gong gui fu]
God work ghost hatchet
God's work and spirit's axe
So skilled that workmanship presumed to be the work of a god not a human. Fantastic, superb artistry.
Qǐ sǐ huí shēng [qi si hui sheng]
raise death return life
Can bring the dead back to life
Amazing recovery from illness. Said of a doctor who has brought someone back from a terminal condition.
[眾口難調]
Zhòng kǒu nán tiáo [zhong kou nan tiao]
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
[倒繃孩兒]
Dào bēng hái ér [dao beng hai er]
invert bind child
Wrap up a baby upside down
Accidentally wrapping a new-born baby the wrong way round. Said of someone who though skilled can sometimes make mistakes. An occasional error out of character.
Great Wall, tower
Great Wall in China, near Beijing
, [千軍易得一將難求]
Qiān jūn yì dé, yī jiang nán qiú [qian jun yi de, yi jiang nan qiu]
thousand troops easy get , one general difficult beg
It is easy to find a thousand soldiers, but hard to find a good general
It is hard to find an outstanding leader
Hǎo rén hǎo shì [hao ren hao shi]
good person; good deeds
Good personality good deeds
Pleasant person who behaves well
A good man is hard to find
筹帷幄 [運籌帷幄]
Yùn chóu wéi wò [yun chou wei wo]
fortune plan curtain tent
Formulate plans in a tent
Careful planning for the future - not just a victim of events. An analogy to commanders devising their plans in a tent on the eve of battle.
Man with a plan
[目無全牛]
wú quán niú [mu wu quan niu]
catalogue not whole ox
See an ox as a set of joints of meat
A skilled butcher who can see an ox as a collection of joints rather than a whole animal. A person of great practical skill
[一絲不苟]
sī bù gǒu [yi si bu gou]
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
[屠龍之技]
Tú lóng zhī jì [tu long zhi ji]
slaughter dragon skill
Skilled in killing dragons
Possessing a useless skill. Pointless training to achieve something of no value. Wasting time and effort.
按图索骥 [按圖索驥]
Àn tú suǒ jì [an tu suo ji]
according to picture search thoroughbred horse
Choosing a fine horse using only a picture
Following a rigid framework to carry out a task. Using standard rules to achieve something or discover something. Knowing and following the basic principles.
cái xiǎo yòng [da cai xiao yong]
big ability tiny use
Big ability barely used
Wasting talent on trivial things. Using someone talented for a menial task
All dressed up and nowhere to go
[言過其實]
Yán guò qí shí [yan guo qi shi]
words excessively that's true
To embellish the facts
Overstate the facts or exaggerate skills. Someone who is a bit of a windbag.
Xiōng yǒu chéng zhú [xiong you cheng zhu]
mind have finished bamboo
Keeping the appearance of bamboo in mind
To be able to paint bamboo (or anything else), you have to have a mental image of how it looks. An admonishment to plan ahead carefully and acquire the skill to carry it out.
Forewarned is forearmed
Míng chá qiū háo [ming cha qiu hao]
clear observe autumn hair
Able to see an animal?s autumn fur
A perceptive and sharp-sighted person who is able to grasp all the detail. In autumn some animals grow new, fine fur to keep themselves warm in winter.
On the ball
[犬牙交錯]
Quǎn yá jiāo cuò [quan ya jiao cuo]
dog tooth deliver interlock
Locked together like dog's teeth
Closely locked together like the two sets of teeth, Said of two opponents who are closely matched in skill who are locked in complex conflict.
Bù zì liàng lì [bu zi liang li]
not self capacity strength
Overrating your own strength
Overreaching yourself, not taking account of true capabilities. Exaggerate level of skill.
By no stretch of the imagination
退避
Tuì bì sān shè [tui bi san she]
withdraw to escape three 'she'
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.
管齐 [雙管齊下]
Shuāng guǎn qí xià [shuang guan qi xia]
two writing brush simultaneous down
Painting with two brushes at the same time
To be able to do two things at once. The story is of a painter who was so skilled he could paint two pictures at the same time with a brush in either hand.
A dab hand
[後來居上]
Hòu lái jū shàng [hou lai ju shang]
behind arrive reside above
A later-comer surpasses everyone
A new arrival outperforms everyone present. A youngster outstrips the older generation
Put everyone in the shade
[異曲同工]
Yì qǔ tóng gōng [yi qu tong gong]
other song same skill
Different tunes played with the same skill
Different methods giving the same result. Different but equally satisfactory.
[不覺技癢]
Bù jué jì yǎng [bu jue ji yang]
no sleep skill itch
Itching to show off a skill
Eagerness to impress people with a skill.
[干將莫邪]
Gān jiāng mò yé [gan jiang mo ye]
Gan Jiang and Mo Ye
Two famous swords
These are the names of two supreme bronze swords of long ago. Gan Jiang was unable to melt the bronze until he added some hair and nail clippings from his wife Mo Ye. Only then could the swords be made and they were the sharpest swords ever made. Used to honor someone or something as superlative.
Cat's pyjamas
Tang dynasty, Xian, Sacred Way, tomb, people
Sacred Way to tombs of Tang Emperor Gaozong and Empress Wu Zetian, Xi'an
China motif
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.

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