Chinese proverbs

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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
xiào jiě qiān chóu [yi xiao jie qian chou]
one smile separate ten thousand worries
One smile can erase a myriad worries
Keep cheerful against all the odds
Keep your chin up
抛砖引
Pāo zhuān yǐn yù [pao zhuan yin yu]
throw brick draw jade
Cast out a brick to invite jade
Modestly allow others to contribute to conversation by making a silly remark
Zǒu mǎ kàn huā [zou ma kan hua]
walk horse look flower
Looking at the flowers while riding a horse
To take a cursory look at something. Smug
避坑落井
Bì kēng luò jǐng [bi keng luo jing]
evade pit drop well
Avoid falling into a pit to fall into a well
Avoid one obstacle only to hit another
腾达
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
穿
Shuǐ dī shí chuān [shui di shi chuan]
water drip stone penetrate
Dripping water eventually wears away stone
If you persevere, you will eventually achieve your goal
Mighty oaks from little acorns grow
Shān fēng diǎn huǒ [shan feng dian huo]
incite wind spot fire
Create wind and fire
Create a lot of trouble
Yuán mù qiú [yuan mu qiu yu]
cause tree seek fish
To catch fish on a tree. To look at a tree hoping it will catch fish.
Waste time doing something pointless and bound to fail
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

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