Chinese proverbs

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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 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 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 to the difficulty in understanding and translating them.


Here are a few random proverbs to give a flavor of the hundreds we list on this site. The proverbs are divided into different categories which share a common theme. The same proverb may appear under several categories. Use this bar to go to a page of related proverbs.

yi jing
Three gold coins used for Yi Jing fortune telling
Zì xiāng máo dùn [zi xiang mao dun]
self mutual contradict
Self contradictory. The story is about the man who said he had a spear that could pierce anything in the world, but also a shield that was impenetrable to any spear. Both claims could not be true
To speak in contradictions
蛾投
Fēi é tóu huǒ [fei e tou huo]
fly moth hurl fire
A moth throws itself into a flame
Heading for self destruction
Like a moth to a flame
guò tiān qíng [yu guo tian qing]
rain past heaven bright
The rain has gone, the sky brightens
Things are improving. Hope for the future
Tù sǐ gǒu pēng [tu si gou peng]
rabbit dog cook
Trusted helpers are dispensable after their mission is complete
Watch your back. Once the job is done you may be sacked
Hǎo mǎ bù chī huí tóu cǎo [hao ma bu chi hui tou cao]
good horse no eat return head grass
A good horse will not eat the grass behind it
Pride may forbid a person going back to his home town after failure. Do not dwell on past actions, progress forward
井观
Zuò jǐng guān tiān [zuo jing guan tian]
sit well watch sky
To sit at the bottom of a well and view the sky
A blinkered or limited view of the world
蜡烛,却毁
Là zhú zhào liàng bié rén, què huǐ miè le zì jǐ [la zhu zhao liang bie ren, que hui mie le zi ji]
candle illuminate bright other people, but destroy extinguish itself
A candle illuminates others at the cost of burning itself up
Helping others at the cost of not looking after yourself
Love thy neighbor as thyself
Shān míng shuǐ xiù [shan ming shui xiu]
mountain bright water elegant
Beautiful mountain scenery
Beautiful landscape
China motif
Our proverbs come with lots of information. The modern Chinese characters are followed by the proverb 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 suggestions.
Source references used for this page: Book : The Cambridge Encyclopedia of… p. 335

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