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 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
,谎 [泥人怕雨謊言怕理]
rén yǔ, huǎng yán pà lǐ [ni ren pa yu, huang yan pa li]
clay figure fear rain, lie speech fear logic
A mud figure fears rain; a lie fears truth
Over time lies will eventually be laid bare
Truth will out
[一竅不通]
qiào bù tōng [yi qiao bu tong]
all orifice not linked up
All parts of the body are not working together
Incoherent action, not making any sense
[維妙維肖]
Wéi miaò wéi xiaò [wei miao wei xiao]
tie clever tie resemble
Weave skillfully life like images
Produce an image remarkably true to life; highly skilled
[莫測高深]
Mò cè gāo shēn [mo ce gao shen]
cannot measure high deep
Too high or deep to measure
Enigmatic, unfathomable. Too profound to be readily understood
Still waters run deep
嫁祸 [嫁旤于人]
Jià huò yú rén [jia huo yu ren]
marry disaster foremost person
A person in misfortune blames someone else
Spread blame onto others
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
Kuà xià zhī rǔ [kua xia zhi ru]
crotch below it disgrace
Forced to crawl under someone's crotch
An act of great humiliation. It was considered unseemly to have to crawl between someone's legs
A slap in the face
Daǒ gē xiāng xiàng [dao ge xiang xiang]
fall spear mutual direction
Attack own party
Betray one's own side
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 of the characters have been simplified the phrase 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.

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