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Chinese Idioms (成语)

A person's hand writing Chinese calligraphy on a large sheet of paper.
Photo by Marco Zuppone on Unsplash

成语 (chéngyǔ) are Chinese set expressions, typically consisting of four characters. They often allude to a story or historical proverb.

Here is a list of chéngyǔ I’ve come across while translating Why Harem Intrigue and Held in the Lonely Castle along with their meanings in English. I also include some well-known phrases. My Chinese skill is not very high so I’m afraid I can’t explain the stories behind them. I will link any background information I come across.

I plan on adding to this page periodically as a way to review the chéngyǔ flashcards that I’ve saved that I’ve come across while translating (i.e. have made TL Notes about them). Please check back from time to time if you’d like to learn together! 🙂

For more on Chinese words and idioms, also check out the blog NihaoCafe!


千篇一律 | qiānpiān yīlǜ
Literally: A thousand articles, the same rule
Meaning: Stereotyped; Following the same pattern

额手称庆 | éshǒu chēnpqìng
Literally: Raising one’s hand to one’s forehead in joy
Meaning: To be overjoyed

特立独行 | tèlì dúxíng
Literally: Unconventional, independent action
Meaning: to be independent in mind and action

抑扬顿挫 | yìyáng dùncuò
Literally: To modulate one’s tone and pause and transition in rhythm or melody
Meaning: Cadence, modulation in tone

敷衍了事 | fūyǎn liǎoshì
Literally: Perfunctorily completing work
Meaning: To work half-heartedly, to skimp

蠢蠢欲动 | chǔnchǔn yùdòng
Literally: Restlessly moving as one wishes
Meaning: To begin to stir, to become restless, to be ready to make trouble

根深蒂固 | gēnshēn dìgù
Literally: As deep as a root, as firm as the stem of a fruit
Meaning: Deep-rooted, ingrained

众矢之的 | zhòngshǐzhīdì
Literally: To be the target for the crowd’s arrows/feces
Meaning: To be attacked on all sides, to be the target of public criticism, censured by all

群起而攻之 | qúnqǐ ér gōng zhī
Literally: The group rises against sth/sb
Meaning: To have the masses rise (or turn against) against sth/sb, universally abhorrent

皆大欢喜 | jiēdà huānxǐ
Literally: Everyone is pleased
Meaning: To everyone’s delight and satisfaction

异军突起 | yìjūn tūqǐ
Literally: An unusual army charges forward
Meaning: To emerge as a new force to be reckoned with

轰轰烈烈 | hōnghōng lièliè
Literally: To violently explode
Meaning: On a grand and spectacular scale; vigorous and dynamic

戴绿帽子 | dài lǜ màozi
Literally: Wearing a green hat
Meaning: One’s partner is having an affair
Background: Supposedly in the Ming and Yuan dynasties, men whose female relatives were prostitutes would have to wear green head coverings

打草惊蛇 | dǎchǎojīngshé
Literally: To beat the grass and startle the snake
Meaning: To act rashly and alert an enemy

兄友弟恭 | xiōngyóu dìgōng
Literally: The elder brother is a friend to the younger brother; the younger brother is respectful towards the older brother
Meaning: A harmonious brotherly relationship

异想天开 | yìxiǎng tiānkāi
Literally: Thinking very differently
 To indulge in one’s wildest fantasy. The equivalent English expression would be “building castles in the air (or in Spain)” or “letting your imagination run away with you”

腹背受敌 | fùbèi shòudí
Literally: Receive enemies from the front and back
Meaning: To be attacked from all sides

防不胜防 | fáng bùshèng fáng
Literally: To defend unsuccessfully
Meaning: Impossible to defend; Cannot be prevented

一手遮天 | yīshǒu zhē tiān
Literally: To cover heaven with one hand
Meaning: To hide the truth from the masses

改天换地 | gǎitiān huàndì
Literally: Change heaven and change the earth
Meaning: To change the world tremendously
Background: 改天 also alludes to changing Emperors who were believed to be Sons of Heaven and 换地 sounds the same as 换帝, haha~

夫唱妇随 | fūchàng fùsuí
Literally: the husband sings and the wife follows
Meaning: Describes marital harmony

大马金刀 | dàmǎjīndāo
Literally: big horse gold knife
Meaning: Describes boldness and grandeur or speaking sharply
Example: Most often seen in WHI describing sitting firmly with one’s legs apart ala manspreading to assert dominance. For a visual, ZW usually sits like this.

凤凰于飞 | fèng huáng yúfēi
Literally: A pair of phoenixes flying together
Meaning: Marital happiness

梨花带雨 | líhuā dài yǔ
Literally: A pear blossom bathed in the rain
Meaning: Describes the tear-stained face of a beauty

美不胜收 | měi bú shèngshōu
Literally: More beauty than one can take in
Meaning: Breathtaking beauty

铁桶一样 | tiětǒng yíyàng
Literally: Like an iron barrel
Meaning: Being unbreakable and having no weak points

过河拆桥 | guò hé chà qiáo
Literally: Crossing a river and destroying the bridge.
Meaning: Being ungrateful – burning one’s bridges. Abandoning one’s benefactor upon achieving one’s goal

鹅毛大雪 | émáo dàxuě
Literally: goose feather large snow
Meaning: Describes big snowflakes or heavy snowfall

鱼死网破 | yúsǐ wǎngpò
Literally: either the fish dies or the net splits.
Meaning: a life and death struggle or fighting at the risk of mutual destruction.

常伴青灯 | chángbàn qīngdēng
Literally: To accompany a green lamp.
Meaning: to become a monk/nun.

危机四伏 | wēijīsìfú
Meaning: danger lurks on every side.

峰回路转 | fēnghuí lùzhuǎn
Literally: The mountain road twists around each new peak.
Meaning: An opportunity has come unexpectedly or that things have taken a new turn.

 仁义道德 | rén yì dào dé
Meaning: (refers to) traditional virtues of compassion, duty, propriety, and integrity. It’s mainly used sarcastically when referring to a hypocrite.

 眼高手低 | yǎn gāo shǒu dī
Literally: Eyes higher than their hands
Meaning: To have high standards but little ability or to be fastidious but incompetent.

屏雀中选 | píngquè zhòngxuǎn refers to the Chinese idiom, 雀屏之选 | quèpíng zhīxuǎn
Literally: bird screen choice.
Meaning: This describes a person who is the ideal choice.
Background: The Old Book of Tang describes the story of how General Dou Yi of the Northern Zhou Dynasty chose his son-in-law. He felt that his daughter was both talented and beautiful and couldn’t marry some mediocre pleb, wanting his daughter to marry a real warrior. He drew two peacocks on a screen and asked the men who proposed to shoot two arrows, stipulating that whoever could shoot the peacocks’ eyes would be his son-in-law. That’s one way to choose a son-in-law, I guess. It’s a bit better than throwing a ball into a crowd and letting fate decide.

阴奉阳违 | yīnfèngyángwéi seems to be either a typo or play on words for the Chinese idiom 阳奉阴违 | yángfèngyīnwéi.
Meaning: to agree on the surface while opposing someone in secret – which is what Sangyu is doing. The way its written here, it means means opposing someone on the surface while secretly praising them – what Emperor Zhou’wu is doing. (refer to WHI Chp.65)

钻空子 | zuānkòngzi
Literally: To drill a hole.
Meaning: to exploit an advantage or seize an opportunity, especially to do something bad.

越庖代俎 | yuèpáo dàizǔ
Literally: To exceed one’s limits as the cook to stand in for the officer of prayer who presides over the sacrifice.
Meaning: going beyond the scope of one’s own duties to take over someone else’s job or meddle in their affairs.

心潮澎湃 | xīncháopéngpài
Literally: Feelings swell like turbulent waves.
Meaning: To be overwhelmed by emotions.

盛况空前 | shèngkuàng kōngqián
Meaning: describes the scenery. 盛 flourishing/abundant, 况 = situation, 空 = empty/hollow, 前 = preceding.

搬起石头砸自己的脚 | bānqǐ shítou zá zìjǐ de jiǎo 
crush one’s own foot while trying to maneuver a rock.
Meaning: To shoot oneself in the foot.

狼狈不堪 | lángbèibùkān
Literally: battered and exhausted.
Meaning: being so hard-pressed or stuck past the point of endurance. It describes looking poverty-stricken, battered, exhausted and embarrassed.
The story behind it: a promising talent was invited to become an official by the Emperor but if he did so, he would have to leave his grandmother who raised him and there was no one else to look after her. Thus he was stuck between choosing to leave behind his grandmother or disobey an imperial edict and made this kind of expression. This chengyu wasn’t as straightforward to me as some of the others below so the video was quite helpful.

众目睽睽 | zhòngmùkuíkuí or 万目睽睽 | wànmùkuíkuí
Literally: ‘the staring eyes of the crowd’ or ‘thousands of staring eyes’ respectively.

心生怯意 | xīnshēngqièyì
Literally: ‘cowardly feelings arise in the heart’.
having a guilty conscious or lacking courage.

千军万马 | qiānjūnwànmǎ
Literally: ‘a thousand armies with ten thousand horses.’
Meaning: an impressive display of manpower or moving with great momentum. 

斩草除根 | zhǎncǎochúgēn
Literally:  ‘to destroy root and branch.’
Meaning: eradicating the problem from the root.

惊恐万状 | jīngkǒngwànzhuàng
Literally: showing ten thousand forms of fear.
Meaning: (from ch 73 of WHI) his whole body convulsed with fear while tears overflowed.

悔不当初 | huǐbùdāngchū
Literally:  ‘regretting that one cannot return to the beginning.’
Meaning: Regretting one’s past deeds.

不胜其扰 | bùshèngqírǎo
Literally: does not surpass one’s annoyance.
Meaning: Can’t put up with it anymore. 

众矢之的 | zhòngshǐzhīdì
Literally: Being the target of a multitude of arrows.
Meaning:  Being targeted from all sides.

欲擒故纵 | yùqíngùzòng
Literally: To loosen the reins only to trap someone better.
Meaning: resort to using this kind of catch-and-release tactic, letting down her guard to lure him in.

珠玉 | zhūyù
Literally: pearl and jade.
Meaning: Used to describe someone’s talent or genius; “gems of wisdom”.

归心似箭 | guīxīnsìjiàn
Literally: Wanting to return home like an arrow.
Meaning: (from WHI ch.75) “he was truly a man with his heart set on speeding home.”

 天马行空 | tiānmǎxíngkōng
Literally: like a heavenly steed soaring across the skies.
Meaning: to describe something bold and imaginative or unconstrained in style.

鸠占鹊巢 | què cháo jiū zhàn
Literally: turtledove occupying a magpie’s nest.
Meaning: Refers to a woman who gets married and goes to live with her husband’s family. Used to describe occupying someone else’s residence.

血肉模糊 | xuèròumóhu
Literally: mangled mess of blood and flesh.
Meaning: Idiom to describe being badly mangled or mutilated. (refer to WHI ch.76) 

一劳永逸 | yīláoyǒngyì
Literally: one toil, escape forever.
Meaning: To get something done once and for all.

井底之蛙 | jǐngdǐzhīwā
Literally: “a narrow-minded frog at the bottom of a well.”
Meaning: Describes a person of limited outlook and experience.

颐指气使 | yízhǐqìshǐ
Literally: An idiom literally meaning ordering people by pointing the chin; signalling orders using facial gestures.

绞尽脑汁 | jiǎojìnnǎozhī
Literally: “exhausting one’s brain juice.”
Meaning: “wracking one’s brains”

心馳神往 | xīnchíshénwǎng
Describes the mind being focused on the pursuit or longing for things or places; yearning from one’s heart; being fascinated or infatuated with obtaining something.

胡拼乱凑 | luànzuòhúwéi Doing something the wrong way or messily, without regard for others’ opinion.

红颜白骨 | hóngyánbáigǔ
Literally: 红颜 (beautiful women/the beautiful face of a woman) and 白骨 (white bones).
Meaning: No matter how beautiful a woman is, she will eventually grow old and die. This is a sentence from Buddhism telling people to abstain from licentiousness.

流光溢彩 | liúguāngyìcǎi
Meaning: Idiom describing brilliant lights and vibrant colors. It’s generally used to describe the gleam off of a treasure such as a pearl.

矫揉造作 | jiǎoróuzàozuò
Meaning: Describes behavior or speech that is fake and designed to impress.

亦步亦趋 | yìbùyìqū
Meaning: To blindly follow suit, to imitate someone slavishly.

没精打采 | méijīngdǎcǎi also written as 没精打彩
Meaning: To be listless, dispirited or washed out.

引狼入室 | yǐnlángrùshì
Literally: To show the wolf into the house.
Meaning: To introduce a potential source of trouble.

养虎为患 | yǎnghǔwéihuàn
Literally: To nurture a tiger invites calamity.
Meaning: To indulge one’s enemy is asking for trouble.

不阴不阳 | bùyīnbùyáng
Meaning: Hidden intentions, indirect means.

吃醋 | chīcù
Literally: Eating vinegar.
Meaning: A metaphor for jealousy in romantic relationships.
Background: The phrase stems from the Tang Dynasty. In order to win over people’s hearts, Tang Taizong wanted his minister Fang Xuanling to take a concubine, but his wife was against it. She was very stubborn so he gave her the option of choosing between drinking poisoned wine or accepting the concubine. Unexpectedly, Mrs. Fang decided to drink the poisoned wine, but only after did she realize that it wasn’t in fact poisoned wine, but thick vinegar. Since then, consuming vinegar has been a metaphor for jealousy.

醋坛子 | cùtánzi plays on the phrase 吃醋 | chīcù or ‘eating vinegar’
Literally: ‘vinegar jar’
Meaning: someone is jealous.

脱颖而出 | tuōyǐng érchū
Meaning: to reveal one’s talent, to rise above others, to distinguish oneself.

得不偿失 | débùchángshī
Meaning: The gains do not make up for the losses.

“数九寒冰” | shùjiǔ hánbīng , a phrase which relates to the idiom “数九寒天”  | shǔjiǔ hántiān
Literally: “Counting nine cold days”
Meaning: It describes a folk method in China to calculate the coldest days of the year and the number of days from the winter solstice until the spring equinox.
Background: The method has a long history amongst Chinese farmers and has been passed down orally based on ecological reflections of nature and weather signs. Nowadays, it’s been turned into a children’s folk song known as 九九消寒歌 (jiǔjiǔxiāohángē) “Nine nine songs to chase away the cold” or more commonly, 九九歌 (jiǔjiǔgē) “nine nine song”. Here is a Youtube video with the song.

爱之若命 | ài zhī rú mìng is a play on words on “爱之若子”  ài zhī rú zǐ
Meaning: to love/treat the subject as though they are their own 子, or child

如坠冰窟 | rú zhuì bīng kū
Literally: falling into a cave of ice. 
hopeless and desperate.

苦瓜脸 | kǔguā liǎn
Literally: bitter melon face.
Meaning: a bitter expression.

没心没肺 | méixīnméifèi
Literally: No heart, no lungs.
Meaning: describes someone thoughtless, heartless or simple-minded.

秋后算账 | qiūhòu suànzhàng
Meaning: to settle scores an an opportune time.

胡思乱想 | húsīluànxiǎng
Meaning: To indulge in flights of fancy or let one’s imagination run wild.

孺子可教 | rúzǐ kějiào
Meaning: ‘The child is worth teaching.’


Longer Idioms/Phrases

千里之堤毁于蚁穴 | qiān lǐ zhī dī, kuì yú yǐ xué
Literally: An ant may well destroy an entire dam
Meaning: If a small problem is overlooked, it could develop into a big disaster. Ants multiply quickly and make tunnels in dams, allowing water in and consequently causing it to collapse.

心肝宝贝脾肺肾 | xīnggānbǎobèi pí fèi shèn
Literally: As precious as my heart, spleen, lungs, and kidneys
Meaning: Precious darling! An expression of being loved and important!

活要见人,死要见尸 | huó yào jiàn rén, sǐ yào jiàn shī
Literally: If they’re alive, one must see them in person. If they’re dead, one must see their corpse.
Meaning: Wanting to see someone (who is missing) whether they’re alive or dead.

富贵险中求 | fùguì xiǎn zhōng qiú
To seek riches and honour in spite of danger
Meaning: Taking risks in order to succeed (and obtain the wealth and insurance you desire)
Background: It comes with another saying as a pair: ‘成功细中取, 富贵险中求’ (chénggōng xì zhōng qǔ, fùguì xiǎn zhōng qiú). Together, they mean that success lies in the details, and wealth comes to those who take risks rationally. Read more about it here [in Chinese].

以其人之道, 还治其人之身 | yǐ qí rén zhī dào, huán zhì qí rén zhī shēn
Literally:  Using someone’s own logic and tactics to embarrass them 
To pay someone back with their own coin; To give someone a taste of their own medicine

衙门八字开, 有理无钱莫进来 | yámén bāzì kāi, yǒulǐ wú qián mò jìnlái
Literally: The yamen gate is open wide; If you have reason/right but no money, don’t go inside
Meaning: Don’t visit the yamen/government office if you don’t have money to bribe your way out

水中月镜中花 | shuǐ zhōng yüè jìng zhōng huā
Literally: The moon reflected in the water; The flower reflected in the mirror
Meaning: Describes something illusionary or ethereal in a derogatory sense

人要找死,十匹马也拉不回来 | rén yào zhǎo sǐ, shí pǐ mǎ yě lā bù huí lái
Literally: Those who seek death can’t be pulled back, even by ten horses. *Horses are seen as strong animals, and one of their uses used to be to pull people out of pits.
Meaning: Someone is beyond saving

秋后的蚂蚱 | qiūhòude màzha
Literally: A grasshopper at the end of autumn
Meaning: Nearing one’s end

会叫的狗不咬人,会咬人的狗不会叫 | huì jiào de gǒu bù yǎo rén, huì yǎo rén de gǒu bù huì jiào
Literally: A dog who barks does not bite, but a dog who bites does not bark.
Meaning: Used to describe a person who is knowledgeable and tolerant. But, if they were to make a move, they would be utterly ruthless in their methods, often taking their target by surprise.
Background: It comes from a breed of dog that appears very docile at first glance, and will even let you get close to it, but if you offend it or its owner, it will bite you without hesitation.

他强由他强,清⻛拂⼭冈。他横任他横,明⽉照⼤江。| Tā qiáng yóu tā qiáng, qīng fēngfú shān gāng. Tā héng rèn tā héng, míng yuè zhào dà jiāng.
Literally: ‘Let him thrash, the cool breeze brushes the hill. Let him go crazy, the bright moon illuminates the Great River.’
Meaning: Both mean to ignore the enemy – treat them like air – and only worry about your own matters. No matter how strong or fierce an enemy is, their actions can’t affect you. Man’s greatest enemy is worry, unease, weakness, ignorance etc. which all come from within.
Background: A play on words on a line of poem from Jin Yong’s [Heavenly Sword and Dragon Slaying Sabre].

 撞死在南墙上 zhuàngsǐ zài nánqiáng shàng.
Literally: ‘Running into the south wall’
Meaning: someone who is unwilling to be flexible.

花无百日红,人无千日好 | huā wú bǎirì hóng, rén wú qiānrì hǎo
Literally:  refers to impermanence – youth, beauty, love, happy times, human relationships.
Meaning: A good thing doesn’t last forever and lasting friendships are difficult to maintain.
初生牛犊不怕虎 | chūshēng niúdú bù pà hǔ
Literally: Newborn calves do not fear tigers
Meaning: The young are fearless.
近朱者赤,近墨者黑 | jìn zhū zhě chì, jìn mò zhě hēi
 Literally: Those who handle cinnabar are stained red; Those who work with ink are stained black.
Meaning: One is a product of their environment.
打落牙齿和血吞 | dǎluò yáchǐ huó xiětūn
Literally: Knocking out one’s teeth and swallowing blood.
Meaning: to express suffering a loss and not being able to let others know about it.
诟伯飞鸟尽良弓藏 | gòu bǎi fēiniǎo jìn liáng gōng cáng
Literally:  ‘when all the birds have been shot, the bow will be set aside’. 
Meaning: casting someone aside after their services are no longer needed. There is a longer version: 鸟尽弓藏, 兔死狗烹 = when all the birds have been shot, the bow will be set aside; when all the hares are killed, the hounds will be stewed and eaten.
丈二和尚摸不着头脑 | zhàng’èr héshang mōbuzháo tóunǎo
Literally: ‘you can’t touch the head of a ten-foot-tall monk’ a.k.a. You can’t make heads or tails of something.
Meaning: To be completely in the dark, puzzled, or at a loss.
弄巧成拙 | nòngqiǎo chéngzhuō
Meaning: to want to be smart and get some benefits or to do a task better but ending up doing something stupid or completely messing up the task at hand; to overreach oneself.
风口浪尖 | fēng kǒu làng jiān
Meaning: where the societal struggle is most fierce, or in this case, a dangerous position to survive in.
不破不立,破而后立 | bùpòbùlì, poérhòulì
Literally: Without breaking, one cannot build. Break and then build.
Meaning: It speaks to the resilience of Chinese people and the constant change one undergoes, with each new iteration being stronger than the last.


Ignore this section~ It’s more to keep myself accountable while learning.


  • 04-13-2020
    Translated: 5 chapters | Saved: 58 idiom flashcards | Added/reviewed: 10/58
  • 04-15-2020
    Translated: 6.85 chapters | Saved: 61 idiom flashcards | Added/reviewed: 12/61 | Others: 1/1
  • 07-07-2021
    Translated: 34 (WHI)+9 (HLC) chapters | Moved away from the flashcard system and updated this list according to TL notes instead; Updated until: WHI chapter 50, HLC none
  • 05-13-2023
    Updated until WHI chp. 82 ; HLC chp. 1pt.2

Helpful Chéngyǔ Resources That I’ve Found

  • Baidu is pretty comprehensive for chengyu and anything Chinese, really. For chengyu and sayings, they have cute videos explaining the meaning/story behind them.
  • List of 148 well-known Chengyu by Armando Turturici

Thank you for reading!
Please check back from time to time if you’d like to learn together! 🙂
I’d love to hear any thoughts you might have.

To any Chinese speakers:

  • Do you know the stories behind the chéngyǔ above?
  • How did you learn chéngyǔ?
  • Do you know any resources for learning chéngyǔ?
  • What chéngyǔ are obsolete in modern times?

I deeply appreciate your guidance! (>m<) <3


  • You can buy children’s books that explain a lot of chen yu. Baidu is a good resource, use 成语故事 idiom story, to help you find the right information. For example for 轰轰烈烈, Baidu says


    During the Song dynasty, the anti corruption hero Wen Tian Xiang wrote … blah blah blah… life’s short, what a grand and spectacular event (life)” blah blah blah.

    Also from Baidu, a discussion about the poem can be found by searching for 沁园春·题潮阳张许二公庙

    You can find references to the events by looking up Zhang Zun and Wen Tian Xiang’s opinion on him on wikipedia. I started going down the history rat hole looking at it.

    I like for looking up classical stuff, but I have trouble finding things in it.

    • Wow, thank you so much for the resources, Nopenopenope!! *bows*
      Do you happen to know any resources for poems? Held in the Lonely Castle looks like it will have more artistic/historical references than Why Harem Intrigue.

  • Sorry for the slow reply. I don’t have good resources for poems, there are annotated collections of poems intended for elementary students but I haven’t found one that I really like.

    • Don’t worry about the reply! Thanks for remembering :3

      Ah, okay. I’ve found a few myself (the annotated collections) but sometimes it’s hard to understand the poem’s explanation. E.g. The explanation was harder to translate than the poem itself hahaha… I’ll keep hunting then. Thanks!

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