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 meaning in English and so a translation may 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 greatly to the difficulty of translation.


Here are a few random idioms to give a flavor of the hundreds on this site. The proverbs are grouped according to theme. The same proverb may appear under several categories. Use this bar to see the group of proverbs.

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

yi jing
Three gold coins used for Yi Jing fortune telling
Zì zhī zhī míng
Knowing oneself
Knowing your own strengths and weaknesses is an essential first step in life. being able to judge yourself objectively as others see you is a path to harmony and true friendship.
Roughly equivalent to: Know thyself.
[鏡花水月]
Jìng huā shuǐ yuè
Flowers in a mirror and the moon in water
Beautiful but unattainable dreams. Unrealistic ambitions.
[雞犬升天]
Jī quǎn shēng tiān
Even chickens and dogs go to heaven
Riding high on someone else's success. When someone gets a plum job all his friends and family will also prosper. Alternatively can mean once a problem has been cracked anyone can solve it.
[一廂情願]
xiāng qíng yuàn
A private wish
Acting on a personal wish not shared by others.
Roughly equivalent to: Wishful thinking.
[行屍走肉]
Xíng shī zǒu ròu
A walking zombie
An unworthy person. Someone bereft of value - just a walking body with no active mind.
Rén gè yǒu néng yǒu bù néng
Every person has things that he can do and those that he cannot do
Everyone has their own particular set of skills.
Roughly equivalent to: It takes all sorts to make a world.
[少見多怪]
Shaǒ jiàn duō guài
Things look strange to the unfamiliar
Unsettled by a new environment.
助桀[助桀爲虐]
Zhù jié wéi nu:è
Aiding King Jie in his cruelty
An admonishment not to turn to the dark side. King Jie was the last ruler of the Xia dynasty and a byword for cruelty and depravity.
Roughly equivalent to: Supping with the Devil.

We also have an index of the proverbs base on similarly meaning English language proverbs. So you can, for example, look for a Chinese equivalent for proverbs such as ‘Many hands make light work’:

China motif
Our proverbs come with full information. The modern Chinese characters are given first with links that give information on the character. As proverbs are so old you will often see them written using the traditional form of characters; so if some of the characters have been simplified the traditional form is shown in brackets and gray text. 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 shown.

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.

See also