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.

Chinese Poetry

Chinese Poetry

Language

The Chinese language is ideally suited for writing poems. The long history of Chinese has allowed poems written over two thousand years ago to be appreciated even today. The characters provide a concise method for conveying impressions and emotion.

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
Shān qióng shuǐ jìn [shan qiong shui jin]
mountain poor water exhaust
Run out of food and water
Thirsty and starving; destitute
Bù dào Huáng hé bù sǐ xīn [bu dao Huang he bu si xin]
not arrive Yellow River not die heart
Not giving up until one reaches the Yellow River
Keep going until you hit an insurmountable obstacle
He who hesitates is lost
Xiāng xiāo yù sǔn [xiang xiao yu sun]
fragrant vanish jade broken
Fragrance is dissipated; jade is broken
Spoken of on the death of a beautiful young woman
Whom the Gods love die young
Tiān nán dì běi [tian nan di bei]
heaven south land north
As distant as the heavens
Places or opinions that are very far apart
Kōng xuè lái féng wèi bì wú yīn [kong xue lai feng wei bi wu yin]
empty cave arrive wind surely nothing not follow
If wind comes from an empty cave it did not come from nowhere
There are always clues that something is about to happen
No smoke without fire
虑必
Zhì zhě qiān l? bì yǒu shī [zhi zhe qian l? bi you yi shi]
wisdom that thousand worry about certainly have one mistake
Even the wise can be occasionally wrong
One small mistake does not discredit a wise person
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