Han Xin was a famous general under Liu Bang, the first emperor of the Han Dynasty. When other people were afraid that too many troops were hard to control, Han Xin held confidently that the more troops he could command, the more advantages he had in a battle. 多多益善, the more the better, refers favorably to both the number of people and items one can use to do a job.
This is a pun. Monks shave their heads (发, hair, is pronounced the same as 法，law). Thus 无发, without hair, sounds the same as 无法, without law. When a monk holds an umbrella, it shields him from the sky, 天, above him, which also signifies Heaven or Providence. 无法无天 means running wild and defying all laws human and divine.
This is also a pun. A monk’s head is without hair, 发, a similar sound to 法 which also means method or way. Thus 没发, with no hair, becomes 没法, meaning no way out, or being able to do nothing about a situation.
The rhizome of Chinese goldthread which grows on Chinese pistache tree is an extremely bitter medicine, while palying the instrument under such a tree makes an interesting contrast between bitterness and happiness. Note that 苦, bitter, can also mean pain. 苦中作乐 means seeking happiness and pleasure in an adverse and painful environment.
huáng shǔ láng dān yǎo bìng yā zǐ——gāi dǎo méi
A sick duck bitten by a weasel – more bad luck.
When a duck unfortunately gets sick, and then is caught by a weasel, the duck is really down on its luck. This idiom describes someone who has already suffered a misfortune and then meets another disaster.
huáng shǔ láng gěi jī bài nián——méi ān hǎo xīn
The weasel usually sleeps during the day and goes out at night, praying on chickens, ducks and the like. So if a weasel pays a hen a New Year call, obviously it has a hidden motive. This idiom is used to describe a hypocrite, who seems kind and sincere but is actually malignant and vicious.
huǒ shāo méi máo——gù yǎn qián
Eyebrows on fire – concentrate on immediate matters.
Since the eyebrows are immediately above the eyes, when eyebrows are on fire, the eyes are in immediate danger. 眼前, before or above the eyes, also means right now, at present. This idiom is used when the circumstances have become desperately urgent and one must solve the most pressing problem, leaving aside other, less-important business. Sometimes it can also refer to shortsightedness, i.e. paying attention only to the present, without any consideration for the future.
jī dàn lǐ tiāo gǔ tóu——gù yì zhǎo cuò
Picking bones from eggs – finding fault deliberately.
Someone who tries to pick bones from an egg is trying to find something which is not there. This allegory refers to someone who is hypercritical and likes to fabricate something out of nothing.
jiāng tài gōng diào yú——yuàn zhě shàng gōu
A fish jumping to Jiang Taigong’s hookless and baitless line – a willing victim.
In the first years of the Zhou Dynasty, a hermit, Jiang Ziya, was often seen fishing in the River Wei in Shanxi Province. What was peculiar about him was that his line was hookless and baitless, for he was simply waiting to be invited to take an official post. This ambition was finally realized in his old age, and he was respectfully addressed as Jiang Taigong. This saying refers to someone who willingly plays into other people’s hands and, more often than not, become a victim.
jiǎo dǐ shàng cā yóu——liū le
Putting grease onto one’s soles – to slip away.
The character 溜 has two meanings: to slide and to sneak off. Grease on one’s soles makes one liable to slip. But it is the second meaning that the pun is aimed at, i.e. when someone meets with difficulies or is caught in an unfavorable situation, he tends to slip away.
jǐng lǐ de há mà——méi jiàn guò dà tiān
A frog in a well – never having seen the whole sky.
A frog living in a well can only see the part of the sky framed by the mouth of the well. This idiom is used to ridicule short-sighted and narrow-minded people.
kǒng fū zǐ bān jiā——jìng shì shū（shū）
Confucius moves house – nothing but books (always lose).
Confucius, the founder of the Confucian school, was considered the most learned scholar in ancient China, so there must have been a great number of books in his home. When he moved house, what he took with him was probably mostly books. 书, book, however, sounds the same as 输, to lose. This pun means always losing out.
kuài dāo dǎ dòu fǔ——liǎng miàn guāng
Bean curd cut with a sharp knife – smooth on both sides.
When a sharp knife is used to cut bean curd, the two sides left after the cut will both look very smooth. 两面光 is a common saying, meaning trying to please both parties, or being slick and sly.
lài há mà dǎ hā qiàn——hǎo dà kǒu qì
A toad yawns – a gaping mouth (talking big).
A toad has a huge mouth. When it yawns, its mouth becomes even bigger. 好大口气 is often cited to ridicule a boastful person.
lài há mà xiǎng chī tiān é ròu——chī xīn wàng xiǎng
A toad craving for swan’s flesh – an impractical dream.
The swan, so beautiful and refined, flies high in the sky, while the toad, so ugly and awkward, can only crawl on the earth. It would be hopelessly impractical for a toad to yearn for a taste of swan’s flesh. This is a very common saying, used to mock wishful thinking or impractical plans.
lǎo hǔ dài fó zhū——jiǎ zhuāng shàn rén
A tiger wearing a monk’s beads – a vicious person pretending to be benevolent.
How can a carnivore like a tiger become a vegetarian like a monk simply by wearing prayer beads round its neck? This expression is used to allude to people who pretend to be philanthropists but who are actually just the opposite, or a person pretending to be kind and benevolent.
lǎo hǔ de pì gǔ——mō bù dé
The buttocks of a tiger – cannot be touched.
Touching the buttocks of a tiger is a very dangerous act. This common saying is used to describe someone with power and position who rides roughshod over the people, or someone who is too tyrannical to allow any comment or criticism of his actions.
lǎo hǔ zuǐ shàng bá hú zǐ——zhǎo sǐ
Pulling a tiger’s whiskers – only to court death.
If one pulls a tiger’s whiskers one may end up inside the animal’s mouth. This idiom means taking a great risk by offending an authority or someone much more powerful than oneself.
lǎo shǔ diào jìn shū xiāng lǐ——yǎo wén jiáo zì
A mouse in a bookcase – chewing up the pages.
If a mouse gets into a bookcase, what else can it do besides nibbling at the books? This phrase is mostly used sarcastically to ridicule a pedant who is over-fastidious about wording but fails to grasp the essence of a text. Sometimes it refers to someone who parades his vocabulary just to show off.
lǎo shǔ guò jiē——rén rén hǎn dǎ
A rat runs across the street – everyone joins the hue and cry.
People generally think rats are very bad. If a rat crosses a street, everyone on the street will yells “Kill it!”. This metaphor describes an evildoer who is hated by everyone.
lǎo shǔ pá chèng gōu——zì jǐ chēng zì jǐ
A mouse climbs onto a steelyard hook – weighing itself in the balance.
秤, when pronounced in the fourth tone is a balance or steelyard. When a mouse climbs onto a steelyard hook, it is weighing, or in Chinese, 称, itself. 称 , however, can also mean to praise. So 自己称自己 means to chant the praises of oneself. This saying refers to person who has no real ability but likes to boast of his prowess.
lǎo shǔ zuān jìn fēng xiāng lǐ——liǎng tóu shòu qì
A mouse in a bellows – pressed from both ends.
A bellows works by inducting air at one end expelling it from the other. If a mouse gets into it, it cannot escape the pressure of the air, which in Chinese is literally 受气. Here 受气 actually means to be bullied. 两头受气 means being blamed by both sides.
lǎo shǔ zuān niú jiǎo——cǐ lù bù tōng
A mouse in an ox horn – meeting a dead end.
Since an ox horn tapers toward the end, a mouse crawling into it will find itself increasingly hampered, until it meets a dead end. This idiom is used to mean that an idea or method is not feasible or someone is in a tight spot with no way out.
lǎo wáng mài guā——zì mài zì kuā
Lao Wang selling melons – praising his own wares.
Lao Wang is the archetypal melon peddler, who naturally boasts how fine his melons are. This idiom is often quoted to describe a person who likes to boast about his own exploits.
léi gōng pī dòu fǔ——zhuān zhǎo ruǎn de qī
The God of Thunder cleaves a bean curd – seeking out the soft and weak to bully.
Bean curd is soft and very easy to cut, while the God of Thunder is the epitome of savage power. This idiom implies choosing to bully only the vulnerable and weak.
lóng zǐ de ěr duǒ——bǎi shè
A deaf man’s ear – just for show.
A deaf man cannot hear, despite having ears like other people. In this sense, his ears be regarded as ornaments without any practical use. 摆设 means things merely for show and without pragmatic value. This saying refer to someone or something that has a fine appearance but no substantial content or something that enjoys an undeserved reputation, despite its worthlessness.
lǒu cǎo dǎ tù zǐ——shùn shǒu
Raking the hay and catching the rabbit – with no extra trouble.
Since rabbits usually hide themselves in thick grass or hay, when one is raking hay, he may easily catch a rabbit. This expression means while doing something, one can conveniently accomplish something else without extra effort.
mǎ wěi chuān dòu fǔ——tí bù qǐ lái
Threading bean curd with a hair from a horse’s tail – impossible to lift it up.
Bean curd is so soft and delicate that it crumbles easily, even at a touch. Therefore, it is impossible to thread bean curd with a hair from horse’s tail. 提不起来 is often used to describe either someone who is too backward to be cultivated and improved or the state of lacking energy and spirit.
māo kū lǎo shǔ——jiǎ cí bēi
A cat crying over a mouse’s misfortune – sham mercy.
A cat is a mouse’s natural enemy. If a cat sheds tear at a mouse’s misfortune, it must be only pretending to pity it. This saying is used to describe those who are ruthless inside but put on a show of benevolence.
mén féng lǐ chǒu rén——bǎ rén kàn biǎn liǎo
Gazing at someone from behind a slightly opened door – taking a narrow view of a person.
瞅 means to look at, to gaze. If one opens a door slightly and gazes at someone through the resultant crack, the attitude is the same as looking down upon that person. This saying is used to mean looking down upon someone.
mù jiàng dài jiā——zì zuò zì shòu
A carpenter in a cangue – suffering from one’s own endeavors.
A cangue was a kind of instrument of punishment consisting of a heavy wooden board hung round the neck. They were, of course, made by carpenters. This saying is used to mean suffering the unfavorable consequences of one’s own wrongdoing or mistake.
ní pú sà guò hé——zì shēn nán bǎo
A clay Buddha crossing a stream – hardly able to save itself.
Buddha is considered to be the supreme savior. Howerver, a clay statue of Buddha will dissolve if crosses a steam. How can it help others? This saying denotes those who cannot even help themselves, not to mention others.
páng xiè jiā wān dòu——lián pá dài gǔn
A crab carrying a pea – crawling and rolling.
A crab scuttles sideways. It is extremely difficult for a crab to carry a pea, as one is crawling while the other is rolling. This saying is often used to describe those who flee in a panic after being defeated.
qí gān shàng guà dēng lóng——gāo míng
A lantern hung from a flagpole – high and bright.
A lighted lantern could be both 高 (high) and 明 (bright) when hung from a tall flagpole. 高明 is an expression that means wise, or skilled above average. This saying is used to praise someone who’s done an excellent job.
qí lǘ kàn chàng běn——zǒu zhe qiáo
Reading a book on donkey back – reading while riding.
唱本 is a brochure recording the words of Chinese ballad singing or traditional Chinese opera. Reading such a book while riding a donkey evokes an image of letting matters take their course. 走着瞧 in Chinese means the same as wait and see. The actual meaning is that it takes some time to see the result of the development of some event.
qí zài lǎo hǔ bèi shàng——shēn bù yóu jǐ
Riding a tiger – having no control over oneself.
When one rides a tiger one dare not dismount for fear of being eaten.
This saying is used to describe the situation of being deprived of freedom by exterior forces.
qiān lǐ sòng é máo——lǐ qīng qíng yì zhòng
Travel a thousand miles to bestow a goose feather – a small gift may be a token of profound friendship.
Traveling a long way just to give somebody a goose feather indicates a profound friendship.This saying is used to express that true friendship is not measured in terms of money or expensive gifts.
qīng shí bǎn shàng dīng dīng——bù dòng
Driving a nail into a stone – impossible to penetrate.
The first 钉 is a verb, while the second one is a noun. A nail cannot penetrate a stone slab, no matter how hard one drives it. In Chinese it is called 钉不动, which means that it is impossible to drive a nail into something. The extended meaning of this idiom is that things are already settled and cannot be changed.
qiū hòu de mǎ zhà——bèng dá bù liǎo jī tiān le
A grasshopper at the end of autumn – its jumping days are numbered.
蚂蚱 means grasshopper. Similar to 蹦跳 in meaning, the English equivalent of 蹦跶 is jump. When winter takes the place of autumn, the grasshopper is also coming to the end of its life. So it is said that the days when it can keep jumping are numbered. This saying describes imminent failure or destruction.
rè guō shàng de mǎ yǐ——tuán tuán zhuǎn
A swarm of ants on a hot oven – milling around in a panic.
A swarm of ants on a hot oven dash around, with no way out. This saying is used to describe people who are in a blind panic.
ròu bāo zǐ dǎ gǒu——yǒu qù wú huí
A meat bun thrown at a dog – by no means retrievable.
There is no way of getting back a meat bun thrown at a dog in an attempt to drive it away. Something given out but hardly returnable or someone going without coming back is often compared to a meat bun thrown at a dog.
shí wǔ zhī diào tǒng dǎ shuǐ——qī shàng bā xià
Fifteen buckets to draw water from a well – seven up and eight down.
In the past, when there was no tap-water, water had to be drawn from well. Only when the full buckets are pulled up can the empty buckets be lowered.
七上八下 is an idiom, which is often used to describe a state of being flurried and restless.
shòu xīng lǎo shàng diào——xián mìng cháng
A person of longevity hangs himself – growing tied of living a long life.
寿星, also called 寿星公 or 寿星老, refers to a person of longevity, and is regarded in Chinese culture as a symbol of long life. If a person of longevity tried to hang himself or herself, it would indicate being tired of living. This saying is used to refer to those who take risks blindly or fight recklessly without caring about their own health or lives.
shuì zài mó pán shàng——xiǎng zhuǎn liǎo
Sleeping on a millstone – expecting a turn of fortune.
磨 is a millstone, used to grind grain into flour. Only when the millstone is turned can the grain be ground. If someone sleeps on a millstone, it indicates that he wants to turn with it. 想转了 implies thinking the wrong way. It may also mean looking on the bright side of things.
sūn hóu zǐ de liǎn——shuō biàn jiù biàn
The Monkey King’s face – unpredictable changes.
In journey to the West, one of the four major classical Chinese novels, the main character Sun Wukong, also known as the Monkey King, has the power of 72 metamorphoses. This saying is used to describe sudden unpredictable changes.
tài píng yáng de jǐng chá——guǎn dí kuān
In charge of the Pacific Ocean – excessive responsibilities.
The Pacific is the largest ocean in the world. If a person were put in charge of the Pacific, he would have to govern a vast area too big to control properly. 管得宽 means the same as have one’s finger in every pie.
tài suì tóu shàng dòng tǔ——hǎo dà de dǎn
Digging clay near Taisui – being reckless.
Taisui is the name of a god in Chinese mythology. As he lived below the ground, it was important not to dig for clay or engage in construction in his location. Otherwise, one risked disaster. This idiom is used to refer to reckless actions, especially when one risks offending a person of power and influence.
tiě dǎ de gōng jī——yī máo bù bá
An iron rooster – not a feather can be pulled out.
It is an easy job to pluck a feather from a live rooster; but it is impossible to do so from one made of iron. This saying refers to someone who is stingy and miserly, or a person who will not lift a finger to help.
tīng píng shū diào yǎn lèi——tì gǔ rén dān yōu
Shedding tears while listening to pingshu – worrying about the ancients.
Pingshu is a traditional Chinese story-telling art form. The themes are usually ancient ones. Shedding tears while listening to the sad part really shows great concern and worry about the ancients – the characters in the story. This saying refers to unnecessary worries about persons or irrelevant things.
tū zǐ gēn zhe yuè liàng zǒu——zhān guāng
A bald head shines in the moonlight – reflected glory.
秃子 means a person with a bald head. In the moonlight, a bald man’s head shines. The bald man borrows the natural light of the moon. This saying implies gaining benefit from association with somebody or something.
tū zǐ tóu shàng de shī zǐ——míng bǎi zhuó
A louse on a bald head – too obvious.
Since there is no hair on a bald, a louse on it must be very conspicuous. 明摆着 means obvious, clear, plain.
tù zǐ de wěi bā——cháng bù liǎo
A hare’s tail – cannot be too long.
A hare is born with a short tail, which cannot grow long. With the implication of another meaning of 长 – length of time, this saying implies that evildoers will soon meet their doom.
tuō kù zǐ fàng pì——duō cǐ yī jǔ
Taking off the pants to break wind – make an unnecessary move.
To break wind, it is unnecessary to take off the lower garments. This saying refers to making an unnecessary fuss over a simple matter.
wài shēng dǎ dēng lóng——zhào jiù（jiù）
The nephew holds a lantern for his uncle – things stay unchanged.
This is a pun. Maternal uncle is 舅, while the son of one’s sister is 外甥. Since 舅 is pronunced the same as 旧, hold a lantern for his uncle 照舅 sounds like 照旧, which means stay unchanged, or remain as usual. This saying is used to describe someone or something that remains the same.
wáng bā chī chēng tuó——tiě liǎo xīn
A tortoise swallowing a weight – get an iron heart.
王八 is an alternative vulgar name for a tortoise. 秤砣 is the iron weight sliding along the arm of a steelyard. If a tortoise swallowed a weight, he would feel as though he had got an iron heart. 铁了心 means having made up one’s mind or having an iron will.
wén zǐ dīng pú sà——rèn cuò rén liǎo
A mosquito bites a clay idol – mistaken identity.
A mosquito flies into a temple and tries to bite a clay idol, thinking that it is a living person. This saying refers to the wrong identification of someone.
wū guī chī yíng huǒ chóng——xīn lǐ míng bái
A tortoise which has swallowed a firefly – bright inside.
A tortoise is dark all over, and is always silent. If a tortoise swallowed a firefly it would be bright inside. This saying is used to describe someone who knows something very well in his heart but remains silent about it.
xiā zǐ dài yǎn jìng——duō cǐ yī jǔ
A blind man putting on glasses – an unnecessary action.
It is completely unnecessary for a blind man to wear glasses, since he cannot see anything. This saying refers to doing something superfluous and unnecessary.
xiā zǐ diǎn dēng——bái fèi là
A blind man lighting a candle – wasting wax.
Even though a blind man lights a candle in the dark he still cannot see anything; he is simply wasting the wax of the candle. This saying indicates that someone expends his energy on something to no avail.
xiā zǐ guò hé——qiān xū（qiān xū）
A shrimp cross a river – modesty.
This is a pun. 虾子, the dialectal name for shrimp, has feelers on its head that look like two ropes pulling it forward while the shrimp is swimming in the water. The Chinese words for modest 谦虚 and for pull feelers 牵须 have the same pronunciation. This saying is used to praise someone for being modest.
xiā zǐ mó dāo——kuài le
A blind man sharpening a knife – not far to go.
When a blind man is sharpening a knife, once in a while he has to stop to test the blade with his finger and say repeatedly: 快了快了, which could mean sharp or soon. 快了 here means soon, before long, not much left. It is used when indicating that a task will soon be done, or a goal will soon be accomplished.
xiǎo cōng bàn dòu fǔ——yī qīng èr bái
Shallot mixed with bean curd – one green and one white.
This is a pun. Shallots are green, while bean curd is white. The dish called shallot mixed with bean curd is both tasty and pleasant to look at – green contrasted with white. The 青meaning green and 清 meaning innocent have the same pronunciation. Therefore, 一青二白 becomes 一清二白, which means completely innocent or clear-cut, explicit, plain.
xiǎo hái fàng biān páo——yòu ài yòu pà
Kids letting off firecrackers – feeling both joy and fear.
鞭炮, also called 爆竹, means firecracker. Children like to let off firecracker. However, they know that can be burned or otherwise injured. So when they let them off they feel both joy and fear. This saying is used to describe a person’s conflicting psychological state of feeling both joy and fear at the same time.
xiǎo hé shàng niàn jīng——yǒu kǒu wú xīn
An apprentice monk reciting scriptures – saying what one does not mean.
An apprentice monk who has just started to practice Buddhism recites scriptures with the older monks every day, but does not understand what he is saying. His heart is not moved at all. This saying means speaking empty words or making insincere statements.
xiù cái yù jiàn bīng——yǒu lǐ shuō bù qīng
A scholar meeting a warrior – unable to vindicate oneself against an unreasonable opponent.
In the past a scholar was considered to be educated and cultured, while a warrior was regarded as rude and unreasonable. If a dispute arose between a scholar and a warrior, the scholar would find it hard to vindicate himself in spite of having justice on his side. This saying implies that there is no reasoning with an unreasonable person.
yǎ bā chī huáng lián——yǒu kǔ shuō bù chū
A dumb person tasting bitter herbs – unable to express bitter feelings.
Huanglian, the rhizome of Chinese gold thread, is used in traditional Chinese medicine. It tastes quite bitter. When a dumb person tastes it, he senses the bitter taste but cannot express how he feels. 苦 can mean either bitter, pain or suffering. Here in this saying, 苦 refers to the latter. It means to suffer in silence, or be unable to communicate one’s suffering.
yǎ bā chī jiǎo zǐ——xīn lǐ yǒu shù
A mute person eating jiaozi – knowing how many he has eaten.
When a mute person eats jiaozi (dumplings), he knows how many he has eaten, even though he cannot speak. 心里有数 means knowing the situation quite well, yet saying nothing.
yán wáng yé chū gào shì——guǐ huà lián piān
The King of Hell’s announcement – a whole series of lies.
In Buddhism the King of Hell is called 阎王 Yanwang or 阎王爷 Yanwangye. An announcement by Yanwang should be all about ghosts’ affairs and be written in ghosts’ language. However, this saying is not really about ghosts, but means a pack of lies.
zhāng fēi chuān zhēn——cū zhōng yǒu xì
Zhang Fei threading a needle – subtle in one’s rough ways.
In the Three Kingdoms Period in ancient China, there was a general in the State of Shu called Zhang Fei, who was known for his stalwart appearance and rough and straightforward character. The image of him threading a needle is one of sharp contrast between subtlety and roughness. 粗中有细 means being somewhat refined in one’s rough ways.
zhàng èr jīn gāng——mō bù zháo tóu nǎo
The giant monk’s head – cannot be reached.
金刚 was one of Buddha’s warrior attendants. How could you touch his head if he were a giant? The extended meaning of 摸不着头脑 is “be in the dark, be completely at a loss”.
zhī má kāi huā——jié jié gāo
Sesame in bloom – rising steadily.
Sesame is a plant, the seeds of which produce oil. When sesame is in bloom, each flower grows higher than the last, and the stem rises joint by joint. The flowers grow continuously as the stem rises. This saying is used to describe either ever-rising living standards or making steady progress in thought, studies or skills.
zhōu yú dǎ huáng gài——yī gè yuàn dǎ，yī gè yuàn āi
Zhou Yu beats Huang Gai – the punishment is appropriately given by one and willingly accepted by the other.
In the Three Kingdoms Period in ancient China, the State of Wu was allied with Shu against Wei, which was ruled by Cao Cao. General Huang Gai of Wu offered to have himself tortured by the commanding general Zhou Yu and then flee to Cao Cao, pretending to have gone to the latter’s side. This saying is used to indicate that both parties are in accord on a matter of business.
zhū bājiè chī rénshēn guǒ —— quán bùzhī zīwèi
Zhu Bajie eating ginseng – not knowing the taste at all.
Zhu Bajie is one of the chief characters in the novel Journey to the West. He used to be a Divine General of Heaven but was punished and reincarnated with the spirit of a pig. In the novel, there is a story about Zhu Bajie eating ginseng. Zhu Bajie, who is gluttonous, swallows up all the ginseng he stole from an immortal’s orchard without knowing the taste of it. This saying means either not appreciating the taste of food or not knowing the value of something.
zhū bā jiè zhào jìngzǐ——lǐ wài bù shì rén
Zhu Bajie looking at himself in a mirror – blamed everywhere.
Zhu Bajie is very ugly, with a pig’s head and a human body. If he look at himself in a mirror, he could find that he was not like a human being either inside or outside the mirror. The extended meaning of this saying is being bullied at home and outside, or being blamed everywhere.
zhú lán dǎ shuǐ——yī cháng kōng
Drawing water with a bamboo basket – achieving nothing.
It is no use trying to draw water with a basket, since it has cracks, and does not allow water to remain in it. This saying is used to describe achieving nothing in the end, though one has tried very hard.
zhuó mù niǎo zhǎo shí——quán píng zuǐ
Drawing water with a bamboo basket – achieving nothing.
A woodpecker has to peck holes in trees with its hard beak to find insects to eat. This saying is used to describe a type of person who merely chatters idly, and never works in a down-to-earth way. It can also mean being addicted to fine words or paying lip service.