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 成语 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.
When striving towards a better job, or bringing up a family you may need a proverb to keep yourself determined for the long haul towards success.
Āi bīng bì shèng
A vengeful army will certainly win
Strong emotion galvanizes effort.
Bàn tú ér fèi
Give up half way through
To abandon work half done. Lacking determination to see the job through.
Beautiful but unattainable dreams. Unrealistic ambitions.
Mǎ yǐ kěn gǔ tou
Like ants gnawing at a bone
Dogged perseverance to achieve a long term end.
Pò fǔ chén zhōu
Smash the pots and sink the boats
A story ➚ at the fall of the Qin dynasty 207BCE tells of the general Xiang Yu who refused to accept possibility of retreat at the battle of Julu by burning the boats and smashing the cooking pots. So it means no going back whatever happens. Cutting off all possibility of retreat.
Anything can be achieved with persistence. The famous story ➚ is that an old man wanted to move a mountain that blocked his path. Despite widespread cynicism he and his descendents gradually wore down the mountain. Mao Zedong used this proverb to persuade people that the seemingly impossible was achievable. One version of the story has the gods taking pity on the old man and removing the mountain with their magical powers.
Roughly equivalent to: Go the extra mile.
Shū gōng mò shǒu
Shu attacks and Mo defends
Two opponents of equal skill. Back in the Spring and Autumn period the story goes that Gongshu Ban, a carpenter had developed a new device to attack cities. He was persuaded by the pacifist philosopher Mo Zi not to deploy it. Mo Zi was able to defend against any attack by Gongshu Ban leading to stalemate.
Roughly equivalent to: Fighting to a standstill.
Rěn rǔ fù zhòng
Enduring humiliations in line of duty
Willing to put up with disgrace and humiliation so that work can be done. Often applied to someone given a very difficult but important task.
Roughly equivalent to: Taking the flak.
Shì wài táo yuán
The land of peach blossoms
A mythical land of peace and harmony. The story is of a hidden land that a fisherman found while trying to escape turmoil and war in the Qin dynasty. Try as he might he never found the land again.
Roughly equivalent to: Land of milk and honey.
Juǎn tǔ chóng lái
Sweeping off the dust and trying again
Making a comeback after a setback - determined to have another go. Like getting back on a horse after being thrown off.
Roughly equivalent to: Dust yourself off and start all over again.
Honored by a visit of someone distinguished who is showing an interest. A passport to getting on in social circles. The story is that a horse expert was persuaded to give a mere glance at a horse that was for sale and by so doing its price rose enormously in value.
Mó chǔ chéng zhēn
Grinding an iron pestle down to a needle
Patiently setting about a great, lengthy task step by step. Anything can be achieved with a firm resolve,
Roughly equivalent to: Little strokes fell great oaks.
Acting dogmatically in pursuit of own objectives without regard to others. Dogged determination. Sometimes this approach is honorable and sometimes leads to ruin but it is the single-mindedness that is being admired.
Roughly equivalent to: Steely-eyed.
Lǎo bàng shēng zhū
An old oyster yields pearls
Remaining fit and healthy into old age, specifically can mean fathering children in advanced years.
Roughly equivalent to: There's many a good tune played on an old fiddle.
Fā fèn wàng shí
Working so hard as to forget to eat
Concentrating on work so much that appetite is forgotten. Implication that work is interesting rather than drudgery.
The beginning of a great task. In one creation myth Pangu set about his momentous work by first separating heaven (yang) from earth (yin). An epic undertaking.
Roughly equivalent to: To boldly go.
Yǐn zhuī cì gǔ
Pricking your thigh with an awl
Study hard with great determination. An awl is a sharp pointed tool for making holes in wood. The story is from the Three Character classic which tells how Su Qin of the Han dynasty pricked himself in the thigh to keep himself awake and alert for study. Used as a parent or teacher's encouragement for children to study diligently.
Roughly equivalent to: Hit the books.
Dī shuǐ chuān shí
Dripping water can bore into stone
Long perseverance will win in the end, even stone wears away. Nothing is permanent.
Roughly equivalent to: Keep on keeping on.
Zǒu guān fā cái
Become a government official in order to become rich
Coming back after voluntary retirement into public life. Particularly for taking on high office after a long break away from all the action.
Roughly equivalent to: To make a comeback.
Mèng mǔ sān qiān
Mencius' mother moved house three times
It's important to spend time getting things just right for your children's education. The famous story is of Mencius (Mengzi) the second sage of Confucian philosophy. To ensure she had chosen the best possible location for her son's education she is reputed to have moved house three times. The legend is mentioned in the three character classic.
Bù pà màn jiù pà zhàn
Not fear slowing down; fear coming to a halt
Do not be afraid of slowing down as long as you keep going.
Roughly equivalent to: A rolling stone gathers no moss.
Bù rù hǔ xué yān dé hǔ zǐ
Without entering a tiger's den how can you hope to capture a tiger cub?
Great rewards require a great risk.
Roughly equivalent to: Fortune favors the brave. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.
Diǎn shí chéng jīn
Turn stone into gold
To turn something of little worth into something of great value.
Roughly equivalent to: Improve beyond recognition.