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 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 gāo zì [zi gao zi da]
self tall self big
Think oneself tall and great
Full of conceit and ego
狐谋 [與狐謀皮]
Yǔ hú móu pí [yu hu mou pi]
with fox seek skin
Asking a fox for its skin
Make an unrealistic request of someone who is bound to refuse. A pointless request requiring someone to act against their normal character
The leopard does not change his spots
Wáng jǐ dé máo [wang ji de mao]
lose halberd gain spear
Losing a halberd but gaining a spear
Losing something but gaining something of similar value. A halberd is rather similar to a spear - having a different blade on the end of a pole. No overall impact - both losses and gains.
Swings and roundabounts
Yǔ maó wèi fēng [yu mao wei feng]
feather not yet mature
Not yet grown adult plumage. A fledgling bird - young and inexperienced
Still too young and immature
厌诈 [兵不厭詐]
Bīng bù yàn zhà [bing bu yan zha]
weapon not detest cheat
In conflict cheating is permitted
In warfare nothing is too dishonest
All is fair in love and war
[傍人門戶]
Bàng rén mén [bang ren men hu]
near person door
Hanging on another?s door
Someone dependent on a household without making much contribution. A hanger-on.
A sponger
[賜子千金不如教子一藝]
Cì zǐ qiān jīn bù rú jiào zǐ [ci zi qian jin bu ru jiao zi yi yi]
grant child thousand cash not like teach child one skill
Better to teach a child a skill than give money
Learning a new skill will pay dividends in the future
[大發雷霆]
léi tíng [da fa lei ting]
big develop thunder
Develop large thunderstorm
Fly into a furious rage
To spit nails

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 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.

See also