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 谚语 yàn yǔ (proverbs or ‘familiar saying’) or 成语 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 俗语 Súyǔ which are popular sayings and the 歇后语 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:
Losing your creative spark. Jiang Yan was an official in the Southern Liang dynasty [502-557] achieved early repute as a poet and writer but in later years struggled to write anything of value. He dreamed that he owed his talent to the pen of Guo Pu who then reclaimed it.
Running out of steam
Nán yuán běi zhé [nan yuan bei zhe]
south shafts of cart north rut
South-pointing carriage shaft and north-pointing track
Doing the opposite of what was intended. The carriage points one way but the ruts in the road force it to go the other way. A foolish and futile plan.
Wèi néng miǎn sú [wei neng mian su]
not able avoid convention
Bound up by conventions
Unable to do what you want because social conventions forbid it. Doing something just because it is expected.
A strategy to maintain possession. By giving up something in the hope that it will be rewarded. The story is of a dispute with a greedy neighboring kingdom. Rather than oppose a kingdom volunteered to give up land. When the greed y neighbor continued to take advantage all the neighbors united against it and all the lands were returned.
Dōng shí xī sù [dong shi xi su]
east food west night
Eating in the east and sleeping in the west
Taking fully advantage of kindly offers - accepting hospitality in a selfish way. The story is of a girl who was asked to choose whether to live with a family in the east or west side of a village. She chose to eat with the rich family of one suitor on the east side but also sleep with the poor but good looking suitor on the west side.
Butter one's bread on both sides
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 you can, for example, look for a Chinese equivalent for proverbs such as ‘Many hands make light work’:
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