Chinese proverbs

calligraphy, people, children
Old man practicing calligraphy at the Temple of Heaven park, Beijing Copyright © Dreamstime see image license

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 proverbs to give a flavor of the hundreds we list on this site. The proverbs are divided into different categories which share a common theme. The same proverb may appear under several categories. Use this bar to go to a page of related proverbs.

yi jing
Three gold coins used for Yi Jing fortune telling
尺,
Bīng dòng sān chǐ, fēi zhī hán [bing dong san chi, fei yi ri zhi han]
ice freeze three foot, wrong one day single cold
Three feet of ice is not formed in a single day
It takes time to achieve satisfactory results
Rome was not built in a day
Qí hǔ nán xià [qi hu nan xia]
ride tiger difficult down
When on a tiger's back, it is hard to dismount
When taking risks you have to live with the consequences, it is difficult to back out
He who sups with the Devil should have a long spoon
,
fēn qián, fēn huò [yi fen qian, yi fen huo]
one penny, one portion goods
With only a penny you can't buy much
You cant buy something for nothing
You get what you pay for
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
适履
Xuē zú shì lǚ [xue zu shi lu]
trim foot fit shoe
Reshape feet to fit new shoes
Take the wrong decision. Apply an inappropriate solution
Héng xíng bà dào [heng xing ba dao]
across walk bully road
Walking sidewise to block the way
Being deliberately obstructive
碎,
Féng jiān nìng kě yù suì, qì zhèng bù qiú wǎ quán [feng jian ning ke yu sui, qi zheng bu qiu wa quan]
come upon traitor stand approve jade, spirit straight no beg tile complete
In face of evil, rather be a broken jade than an intact brick
It is better to die with honor than surrender
léi tíng [da fa lei ting]
big develop thunder
Develop large thunderstorm
Fly into a furious rage
To spit nails
China motif
Our proverbs come with lots of information. The modern Chinese characters are followed by the proverb 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 suggestions.
Source references used for this page: Book : The Cambridge Encyclopedia of… p. 335

Copyright © Chinasage 2012 to 2019