Chinese proverbs

TCM, medicine, lattice screen
TCM doctor preparing a prescription

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. Click on this bar to view the extensive 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:

dress, clothing, women, silk
Chinese silk dresses
逆境
Nì jìng chū rén cái
Rebellion creates capability
Hardship and adversity foster talent.
Roughly equivalent to: If life deals you lemons, make lemonade.
[世上沒有無緣無故的愛,也沒有無緣無故的恨]
Shì shàng méi yǒu wú yuán wú gù de ài, yě méi yǒu wú yuán wú gù de hèn
There is no love without a reason there is no hate without a cause
There is a reason behind all strong emotions.
衔环 [結草銜環]
Jié cǎo xián huán
Tying grass and delivering rings
Generously repaying a debt of gratitude. The story is of Yang Bao who nursed a sick bird back to health. After he had released the siskin into the wild he dreamed of the bird carrying grass tied in rings in its beak which transformed into a boy with precious jade rings . The boy gave Yang Bao enduring good fortune in gratitude.
[半斤八兩]
Bàn jīn liǎng
Two equivalent measures
Nothing to choose between two alternatives.
Roughly equivalent to: Six of one, and half a dozen of the other.
[殃及池魚]
Yāng jí chí
Calamity has spread to the fish in the pond
Suffering collateral damage. Draining a fish pond to search for some treasure would kill off all the fish as a consequence. An action that creates unintended victims.
Roughly equivalent to: Cannon fodder.
[單槍匹馬]
Dān qiāng pǐ mǎ
A single spear and a single horse
Taking on a difficult task on your own.
捉襟[捉襟見肘]
Zhuō jīn jiàn zhǒu
Pulling the lapels only to expose the elbows
In poverty - wearing an old coat so threadbare that pulling it up exposes the elbows through holes. Unable to make ends meet. Up Queer street.
Roughly equivalent to: As poor as a church mouse.
驴唇[馿唇不對馬嘴]
Lǖ chún bù duì mǎ zuǐ
Donkey's lips do not fit a horse's mouth
Something that is out of place and inappropriate.

We also have an index of the Chinese idioms based on similarly meaning English language proverbs. So you can, for example, look up the Chinese equivalent of ‘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 (normally a chéng yǔ) 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.

For background on the types and history of proverbs please see our guide.

See also