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 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 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.
An absurdly ambitious plan divorced from reality. A dream of grandeur and splendor.
A pipe dream
Fēng chuī cǎo dòng [feng chui cao dong]
wind blow grass move
The wind causes the grass to move
A minor repercussion of a larger action. A trifling consequence
Gāo wū jiàn líng [gao wu jian ling]
high house make water tank
Pouring water from the roof of a tall building
Being in a good position to repel attackers. Holding a commanding position
Xuán yá lè mǎ [xuan ya le ma]
precipice rein in horse
Rein in the horse at the cliff edge
Realize danger at the last moment
Our proverbs come with full information. The modern Chinese characters are given first with links that give information on the character. If the phrase uses traditional characters these are shown in brackets and gray text. As proverbs are so old you will often see them written in the old form. 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 included at the end.
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.