Wise sayings and idioms
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 成 语 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.
A large and varied collection of proverbs all containing a small pearl of ancient wisdom. This list includes many traditional wise sayings.
A wise person may seem silent as often remains silent
A wise person holds his counsel.
Roughly equivalent to: Still waters run deep.
The Chinese LanguageThe Chinese language is rightly treasured as the country's greatest accomplishment. Our language section introduces the language. The section includes some introductory lessons and a guide to writing the characters. Read more…
万卷 书 不 如 行 万 里 路 [讀万卷書不如行万里路]
Reading ten thousand books is not the same as walking a thousand miles
Learn from practical experience not from books.
对症 下 药 [對症下葯]
Suiting the right medicine for an illness
Take the right measures to solve a problem to achieve the desired result.
Conjuring clouds with one hand and rain with the other
Trying too hard to impress.
When the nest is overturned, no egg is left unbroken
In a disaster everyone will feel the consequences. Failure will affect everyone involved.
归 正 [改邪歸正]
Abandon evil and turn to good
Reject bad ways and turn to the good.
Roughly equivalent to: Turn over a new leaf.
古 为 今 用 [古為今用]
Applying ancient ways to the present day
Learning from history. Applying past history to the current situation.
话 里 有 话 [話里有話]
Within the talk there is more meaning
There is more in what was said than is obvious.
China's Silk RoadThe silk road from China leading to India and also through Central Asia to the Middle East was the longest trade route by land. It allowed early contact between the Roman Empire and China when silk was in great demand in Rome. The trade brought great prosperity to the cities of Central Asia such as Samarkand and Bactra. Read more…
不换 药 [換湯不換葯]
Change the soup but not the medicine
Not getting to the root of a problem, making superficial changes.
Roughly equivalent to: Rearranging the deckchairs while the ship is sinking.
是 老 的 辣
Aged ginger is more potent
Experience gives wisdom.
交 个 朋 友 多 条 路, 树 个敌 人 多堵墙 [交個朋友多條路樹個敵人多堵墻]
Making a friend is an open road; making an enemy builds a wall
It is better to make friends than enemies.
Roughly equivalent to: One good turn deserves another.
The winning foot is the first to climb
To succeed need to start off first.
Roughly equivalent to: The early bird catches the worm.
The present cannot be compared with the past
The past is not always a good predictor of the future. Things change.
Moon gate view to garden with rocks and bamboo, Henan
上添 花 [錦上添花]
Add another flower to a tapestry
Taking too much trouble with detail to try to achieve perfection. Fiddling when already complete.
Roughly equivalent to: Gilding the lily.
今 朝 有 酒 今 朝醉
When have some wine, all will get drunk
Take advantage of good fortune while it is around.
开 门 见 山 [開門見山]
As soon as the door is opened see the mountain
To come straight to the point. Avoid procrastination.
Roughly equivalent to: Brevity is the soul of wit.
Unsolicited comment from a genuine Chinasage visitor.
空 穴 来 风 未 必 无因 [空穴來風未必無因]
If wind comes from an empty cave it did not come from nowhere
There are always clues that something is about to happen.
Roughly equivalent to: No smoke without fire.
口 是 心 非
Say yes when mean no
To say the opposite of what you really think.
得 青 山 在, 不 怕 没 柴烧 [留得青山在不怕沒柴燒]
So long as the green mountains are preserved, there will be no shortage of firewood
Do not despair, there is plenty of time and opportunity.
Roughly equivalent to: Everything comes to him who waits.
Cast out a brick to invite jade
Stimulate others to contribute to conversation by making a silly or superficial remark that sparks off debate.
皮 之 不 存 毛 将焉附 [皮之不存毛將焉附]
If the skin is missing hair can not grow
Everything needs its proper environment for nurture.
Roughly equivalent to: No man is an island.
千 里 之堤,溃 于蚁 穴 [千里之堤潰于蟻穴]
An ant may destroy an entire dam
Take full attention to detail to avoid catastrophe.
Roughly equivalent to: Spoil the ship for a ha'pworth of tar.
强扭 的 瓜 不甜 [強扭的瓜不甜]
A melon taken off its vine is not sweet
Coercion never ends up satisfactorily. Leave things to develop naturally.
妇 难 为 无 米 之炊 [巧婦難為無米之炊]
Even the cleverest cook cannot prepare rice without rice
You need to assemble the right materials for a job.
we have an extensive range of Chengyu
chéng yǔ - Chinese 成 语 proverbs. We've categorized literally hundreds of these (usually four character) sayings into seventeen groups including love, skill, study and foolishness. You can also look up the Chinese equivalent to many well-known English proverbs. Read more...
青 出 于 蓝 而 胜 于 蓝 [青出于藍而勝于藍]
Indigo is obtained from the indigo plant, but such color is bluer than the plant itself
Wise schooling has produced excellence beyond the teacher. The follower has surpassed the master.
三 十 六计, 走 为 上策 [三十六計走為上策]
Of the thirty-six stratagems, running away is the best.
Sometimes it is best to avoid conflict altogether. Flight can be the best option. 'The Thirty-Six Stratagems' was written by the great military thinker
Sun Zi ➚
Roughly equivalent to: Devil take the hindmost.
Chinese bronze coins. Image by Plismo available under a ➚ Creative Commons License ➚
杀 一儆 百 [殺一儆百]
Kill one to warn a hundred
To warn many people by punishing a few. Making example punishments.
山 雨 欲 来 风 满 楼 [山雨欲來風滿樓]
The wind sweeping through the tower heralds a rising storm in the mountain
A premonition of something significant about to happen.
Roughly equivalent to: Forewarned is forearmed.
失败 是 成 功 之 母 [失敗是成功之母]
Failure is the mother of success
Learning from mistakes.
Roughly equivalent to: Cut your coat to suit your cloth.
老 马 [識途老馬]
An old horse who knows the way
Age brings experience and wisdom.
人 以 鱼 只解 一 时 之急,授 人 以 渔 则解 一 生 之需 [授人以魚只解一旹之急授人以漁則解一生之需]
Give a fish and be fed for only a day. Teach how to fish and be free from hunger forever
It is important to learn a skill that will last for life.
死 的骆驼比 马 大 [瘦死的駱駝比馬大]
The body of a starved camel is bigger than the body of a living horse.
Respect ancient wisdom rather than the new.
Feng ShuiThe ancient tradition of Feng Shui has been far reaching for thousands of years. It is still practiced today, particularly for choosing the site for buildings and graves. With the goal of harmony and balance with nature, it has excellent environmental credentials. Read more…
说曹操,曹操 到 [說曹操曹操到]
Speak of Cao Cao and he arrives
Cao Cao ➚
of the Three Kingdoms is the embodiment of evil. Someone who you are talking about happens to appear unexpectedly.
Roughly equivalent to: Speak of the devil and he is sure to appear.
天 下 没 有 不 散 的宴席 [天下沒有不散的宴席]
No banquet in the world goes on forever
Good fortune can not last for ever.
Roughly equivalent to: All good things must come to an end.
同 床 异梦 [同床異夢]
Dream different dreams on the same bed
Not everyone thinks the same.
Roughly equivalent to: It takes all sorts to make a world.
网 开 一 面 [網開一面]
To leave one side of the net open
To give someone a chance of escape.
Roughly equivalent to: To let someone off the hook.
未 雨 绸缪 [未雨綢繆]
Before the rains repair the cloth
Plan ahead, be prepared.
Roughly equivalent to: An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
故 而 知 新 [溫故而知新]
Study the past and yet know the present
Studying the past helps to understand the present.
无 风 不 起浪 [無風不起浪]
No wind, no waves
There must have been signs that it was going to happen.
Roughly equivalent to: No smoke without fire.
A speck on a jade stone can't obscure its brilliance
One small fault won't spoil the impression of an overall exceptional person.
学 而 不 思 则罔, 思 而 不 学 则殆 [學而不思則罔思而不學則殆]
Learning without thinking means wasted work; thinking without learning is dangerous
Studying hard is important and gives rewards.
一 寸 光 阴 一 寸 金, 寸 金 难 买 寸 光 阴 [一寸光陰一寸金寸金難買寸光陰]
Money spent can be earned again, but time lost is lost for good
An inch of time is an inch of gold, but an inch of time cannot be purchased by an inch of gold.
一 龙 生 九 种, 种 种 不 同 [一龍生九種種種不同]
The dragon has nine sons, each different from the others
Brothers and sisters may not resemble each other.
易 如 反 掌
As easy as turning over your hand
Simple. Very easy.
一 言 既 出驷 马 难追 [一言既出駟馬難追]
A speech made cannot be taken back even by a team of horses
Be careful what you say, it can not be unsaid.
纸 包 不 住 火 [帋包不住火]
Paper can not wrap up a fire
The truth can not be concealed.
Roughly equivalent to: Truth will out.
Pointing to the mulberry tree when the locust tree is to blame
Deliberately deflecting criticism to someone or something else - often to protect friends or family.
种 瓜 得 瓜 种 豆 得 豆 [種瓜得瓜種豆得豆]
Plant melons and you will harvest melons; plant beans and you will harvest beans
Live with the consequences of your actions.
Roughly equivalent to: Reap what you sow.
一 登 龙 门, 身价 十倍
By crossing the dragon gate, prestige rises ten-fold
Diligent study brings great rewards. The Dragon Gate is a dangerous gorge on the Yellow River. Success in the Imperial examinations was likened to a carp ascending the gorge. Passing the examinations greatly added to prestige.
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.
常 在 河 边 走,哪 能 不湿鞋 [常在河邊走哪能不溼鞋]
You cannot routinely walk along a river without sometimes getting your shoes wet
You can't ignore the local conditions.
当 局 者 迷,旁观 者 清 [噹局者迷旁觀者清]
Spectators get a better appreciation of the game than the players
If too closely involved may not see all the issues involved.
Modern Shanghai. Copyright Richard Wingfield, October 2017.
字 里 行 间 [字里行間]
Between the lines
Uncovering the hidden meaning or character.
Roughly equivalent to: Reading between the lines.