Chinese proverbs

Dragon Boat, festival
Dragonboat Racing Festival Macau 2005. Image by lidxplus available under a Creative Commons 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. 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:

ginseng, TCM, food, ginseng
贼喊捉贼 [賊喊捉賊]
Zéi hǎn zhuō zéi
A thief cries 'Stop thief!'
Diverting attention to cover misdoing.
Roughly equivalent to: Crying 'wolf'
叶障 [一葉障目]
yè zhàng
Covering your eyes with a leaf
Not seeing the full picture and so making a flawed analysis of the situation. A blinkered approach often through prejudice.
Roughly equivalent to: Can't see the wood for the trees.
Xuē zú shì lǚ
Reshape feet to fit new shoes
Take the wrong decision. Apply an inappropriate solution.
西 [東奔西走]
Dōng bēn xī zǒu
Busy everywhere
Be busy; bustling about.
Guā tián xià
In a melon field and under a plum tree
Avoid circumstances that give rise to false suspicion, If someone is seen near ripe melons or under a plum tree they are open to suspicion of theft. A longer form of the saying makes it clear that you should not tie up your shoes in a melon field or out on a hat under a plum tree as these actions are suspicious.
One morning and one evening
A short space of time. Something transient that will soon pass.
Roughly equivalent to: Over in a flash.
嫁祸 [嫁旤于人]
Jià huò yú rén
A person in misfortune blames someone else
Spread blame onto others.
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.

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