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 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.

How to write Chinese characters

How to write Chinese characters

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Many Chinese spend a great deal of time studying calligraphy. To be able to write (or more accurately draw) Chinese characters requires lots of practise as well as knowing both the brush strokes and the order in which to make them.

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
Cì zǐ qiān jīn bù rú jiào zǐ [ci zi qian jin bu ru jiao zi yi yi]
grant child thousand cash not like teach child one skill
Better to teach a child a skill than give money
Learning a new skill will pay dividends in the future
ěr xīn [er mu yi xin]
ear eye one new
New sights and sounds
A change of place, everything fresh and new
,
Qiān jūn yì dé, yī jiang nán qiú [qian jun yi de, yi jiang nan qiu]
thousand troops easy get , one general difficult beg
It is easy to find a thousand soldiers, but hard to find a good general
It is hard to find an outstanding leader
蜜腹剑
Kǒu mì fù jiàn [kou mi fu jian]
mouth honey belly sword
Mouth of honey, heart of daggers
Disguising ill intent with honeyed words. Deceitful and dangerous
急,授 则解
Shòu rén zhǐ jiù shí zhī jí, shòu rén yǐ yú zé jiě yī shēng zhī xū [shou ren yi yu zhi jiu yi shi zhi ji, shou ren yi yu ze jie yi sheng zhi xu]
award person use fish one explain once quick, award person use fishing standard separate one produce must
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
厌诈
Bīng bù yàn zhà [bing bu yan zha]
weapon not detest cheat
In conflict cheating is permitted
In warfare nothing is too dishonest
All is fair in love and war
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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