Chinese proverbs

calligraphy, people, children
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 are ancient and have been recorded in ancient texts such as the Yi Jing and Dao De Jing.

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 the translation can look contrived. If you can help improve our efforts please let us know.

Battle of Talas

During the Tang dynasty the extent of Chinese ruled territory spread west through Central Asia. The decisive battle at Talas in 751 with the Arab Abbasid Caliphate led to the defeat of Gao Xianzhi and the end of Chinese western expansion.
Read More

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 split 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
烂额
Jiāo tóu làn é [jiao tou lan e]
beaten head burnt brow
Head bruised and brow burned
In terrible trouble
Beaten black and blue
妻离
Qī lí zǐ sàn [qi li zi san]
wife leave child break-up
Wife left; children scattered
A broken family
Xīn huā nù fàng [xin hua nu fang]
heart flower in full bloom
The flower of the heart in full bloom
Full flowering of joy
塞翁,
Sài wēng shī mǎ, ān zhī fēi fú [sai weng shi ma, an zhi fei fu]
frontier old man lose horse, peace know wrong blessing
When the old man from the frontier lost his horse; how could he have known that it would not be fortuitous? The story is that a man lost his horse but actually it went over the Great Wall and brought back several horses with it
A setback may turn out to be a blessing in disguise.
Every cloud has a silver lining
ér xíng qiān lǐ mǔ dān yōu [er xing qian li mu dan you]
child travel 1000 mile mother undertake worry
When children travel far away the mother worries
When children travel far from home, mothers never stop worrying.
盗铃
Yǎn ěr daò líng [yan er dao ling]
conceal ear steal bell
Covering your ears while stealing the bell
Failing to think things through. Taking a rash action without applying logic
Stupid is as stupid does
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.
Share this page Facebook Twitter Google+ Pinterest

Chinasage is a new web resource, started in 2012, pages will be added, enhanced and re-formatted regularly. Please check back soon for updated information about China.

We would be most grateful if you have any comments or suggestions to help improve this page. Our contact page is also available if you have a longer comment. Just type in a quick remark here:

 

Citation information: Chinasage, 'Chinese Proverbs', last updated 6 Dec 2016, Web, http://www.chinasage.info/proverbs.htm.

Copyright © Chinasage 2012 to 2017