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.

Mon 19th Feb

The year of the Pekingese dog

With many people still celebrating the Spring Festival and the start of the Year of the Dog, I came across a piece describing the decline of what was the most famous breed of dog in China. The Pekingese were Dowager Empress Cixi's favorite dog and she kept hundreds. They were bred to look like tiny lions rather than dogs and Cixi kept them as lap dogs. They were given marble kennels in the Forbidden City and rested on silk cushions. Imperial eunuchs looked after the dogs and they were given the choicest meat and rice. As part of the spoils of the sacking of the Summer Palace in the Opium Wars (1860) one Pekingese dog was sent back to Queen Victoria which she kept as a pet called 'Looty'.

In China the Pekingese breed is not now popular, people now prefer poodles and other breeds. The small, local population is now considered so inbred that Chinese are looking to bring back Pekingese from overseas to re-invigorate the breed.


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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 half a dozen 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 in multiple categories. Use this bar to go to a page of related proverbs.

yi jing
Three gold coins used for Yi Jing fortune telling
Jié zú xiān dēng [jie zu xian deng]
victory foot first climb
The winning foot is the first to climb
To succeed need to start off first
The early bird gets the worm
,
Xiào xiào, shí nián shào [xiao yi xiao, shi nian shao]
smile a smile, 10 year less
Just one smile makes you ten years younger
Happiness is the best cosmetic
Xí guàn chéng zì rán [xi guan cheng zi ran]
habit grow nature
Become habitual, normal
Habit becomes engrained
狐悲
Tù sǐ hú bēi [tu si hu bei]
hare die fox sorrow
A fox mourns the death of a rabbit
Showing false grief to conceal true feeling
To weep crocodile tears
破釜沉
Pò fǔ chén zhōu [po fu chen zhou]
broken pot sink boat
Smash the pots and sink the boats. A story from the Qin dynasty tells of a general who refused to accept possibility of retreat by burning the boats and smashing the cooking pots.
No going back whatever happens. Cutting off all possibility of retreat
Don't burn your bridges behind you
Zuǒ yòu wéi nán [zuo you wei nan]
left right pride difficult
Both options are difficult
In a dilemma
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 need improving, so please let us know if you can help with that.
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Citation information: Chinasage, 'Chinese Proverbs', last updated 6 Dec 2016, Web, http://www.chinasage.info/proverbs.htm.

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