Chinese proverbs

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The nature of the Chinese language lends itself to proverbs and idioms. Just a few characters in Chinese can quickly convey a complex thought. Proverbs and sayings are a tasking study as their origins are difficult to trace; some go back thousands of years and are mentioned in the Yi Jing and Dao De Jing ancient classics.

Many proverbs relate to specific people or places in Chinese history, we have chosen to exclude these as they are hard for non-Chinese people to understand without considerable historical context; instead we have chosen proverbs and sayings that give an insight into Chinese culture and traditions.


Translating Chinese proverbs into English is not an easy task. Sometimes there is no similar construct or meaning in English and so a translation can seem contrived. If you can help improve our efforts please let us know.

Chinese proverbs are broadly categorized as either yàn yǔ (proverbs or ‘familiar saying’) or chéng yǔ (meaning ‘become language’ usually translated as ‘idiom’ or ‘accepted saying’). The short standard form of Chengyu is made up of four characters and there are thousands of them, one for every possible situation. They are written in Classical Chinese where often one character takes the place of two or more in Modern Chinese. There are also the Súyǔ which are popular sayings and the Xiē hòu yǔ which are two part allegorical sayings that are pretty hard to translate. In the first part of a xiehouyu the situation is described and the second gives the underlying truth, so in English there is the similar ‘a bird in the hand, is worth two in the bush’ construction. Often only the first part needs to be said as the second part is implied. Puns are also used in xiehouyu adding to the difficulty in understanding and translating them.


Here are a few random idioms to give a flavor of the hundreds on this site. The proverbs are divided into different categories with a common theme. The same proverb may appear under several categories. Use this bar to see a group of related proverbs.

Alternatively, you can look a proverb by in Chinese by looking through the index by pinyin. As there are so many these are split into separate pages:

yi jing
Three gold coins used for Yi Jing fortune telling
[噁貫滿盈]
È guàn mǎn yíng [e guan man ying]
evil string of cash everywhere full
If evil was placed like discs on a string it would be always be full.
Evil is all around. Traditionally coins had holes in them and they were strung together.
[不善始者不善終]
Bù shàn shǐ zhě bù shàn zhōng [bu shan shi zhe bu shan zhong]
not good beginning not good end
A bad beginning leads to a bad ending
Need to plan everything from the beginning
Don't put the cart before the horse
[掛羊頭賣狗肉]
Guà yáng tóu mài gǒu ròu [gua yang tou mai gou rou]
hang up sheep head sell dog meat
Hanging up a sheep?s head but selling dog meat
Deceiving people into believing you are selling something much less valuable than it appears to be. A con trick. Dishonest advertising.
Buying a pig in a poke
叶障 [一葉障目]
yè zhàng [yi ye zhang mu]
one leaf block eye
Covering your eyes with a leaf
Not seeing the full picture and so making a flawed analysis of the situation. A blinkered approach often through prejudice.
Can't see the wood for the trees
[水深火熱]
Shuǐ shēn huǒ rè [shui shen huo re]
water deep fire hot
In deep water and fierce fire
In very deep trouble. A desperate situation with nowhere to turn.
In dire straits
因噎废 [因噎廢食]
Yīn yè fèi shí [yin ye fei shi]
because choke abandon eat
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
[邪門歪道]
Xié mén wāi daò [xie men wai dao]
evil people crooked way
Evil people in crooked ways
Dishonesty and deceit
[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
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.

Our translations are in need of improvement, so please let us know your ideas. For background on the types and history of proverbs please see our guide.

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