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 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.

Alternatively, you can look a proverb by in Chinese by looking through the index by pinyin. As there are so many these are split into separate pages:

yi jing
Three gold coins used for Yi Jing fortune telling
鼎烹 [牛鼎烹雞]
Niú dǐng pēng jī [niu ding peng ji]
ox cauldron boil chicken
Cooking a chicken in a pot designed for an ox
An in appropriate tool or scale of preparation for a job. Also refers to when a person of great skill is given a menial job
[程門立雪]
Chéng mén xuě [cheng men li xue]
Cheng door stand snow
Standing at Cheng?s door in the snow
Showing great respect for someone - usually a teacher or scholar. The story is that a great scholar accidentally left two students waiting for him for hours out in the snow.
[有備無患]
Yǒu bèi wú huàn [you bei wu huan]
have preparation no misfortune
Preparedness averts misfortune
Be prepared against all eventualities to avoid misfortune. Have fallback plans.
Be Prepared!
[專心致志]
Zhuān xīn zhì zhì [zhuan xin zhi zhi]
concentrate mind devote ambition
Study hard to achieve ambitions
An admonishment to encourage full concentration in order to study effectively and so achieve ambitions.
废寝 [廢寑忘食]
Fèi qǐn wàng shí [fei qin wang shi]
abandon sleep forget eat
To forget to sleep and eat
To be absorbed in work and study
含沙
Hán shā shè yǐng [han sha she ying]
keep sand shoot shadow
Making insinuations
To spit sand at someone's shadow, in other words to attack someone indirectly by innuendo. There is a legend of a three-legged turtle that would spit out sand at anyone who passed. Its spittle was so noxious that it would infect someone even if it only hit their shadow.
Bù zì liàng lì [bu zi liang li]
not self capacity strength
Overrating your own strength
Overreaching yourself, not taking account of true capabilities. Exaggerate level of skill.
By no stretch of the imagination
[富麗堂皇]
Fù lì táng huáng [fu li tang huang]
good fortune beautiful hall emperor
Prosperous and beautiful
To have the best of good fortune
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.

We also have an index of the proverbs base on similarly meaning English language proverbs. So for example you can look for a Chinese eqivalent of proverbs such as ‘Many hands make light work’: