Chinese proverbs

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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.

Wed 15th Mar

Panda's goes home

Giant Pandas can live to a good age. Shu Lan has spent much of her 23 years in Chengdu. She spent the period 1996-9 in Lanzhou, Gansu and she went back there a year ago. However the climate and zoo conditions at Lanzhou zoo have not suited an elderly panda and she is now going back to Sichuan. Although North-Western Sichuan is the main center for pandas in China they are also known in Henan, Southernmost Gansu and Shaanxi. They can tolerate cold conditions of high mountains and live on a diet of bamboo. It is suggested that the bamboo and housing provided for Shu Lan in Lanzhou was of poor quality.

In the early days of looking after pandas (1930s) they did not survive well in zoos, many that were sent to foreign zoos died soon after arrival. Even though the captive breeding programme for pandas is going well there are still only 1,864 living in the wild and 375 in zoos scattered around China and the world.


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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 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
Tóu tóu shì daò [tou tou shi dao]
head head correct way
Thinking carefully about the way to proceed
Logically and rigorously argued
There's many a slip 'twixt cup and lip
míng jīng rén [yi ming jing ren]
one cry startle people
One chirp surprises everyone
To rise to stardom overnight. Discovering an unknown talent
Qiān lǐ zhī xíng shǐ yú zú xià [qian li zhi xing shi yu zu xia]
thousand mile's walk begin goto foot down
A long march starts from a single step
Perseverance will lead to eventual success
Mighty oaks from little acorns grow
殿
Wú shì bū dēng sān bǎo diàn [wu shi bu deng san bao dian]
nothing matter no climb three treasure hall
No-one comes to pray at the Temple of Three Treasures unless in trouble
Often it is obvious when somebody is after something
曹操,曹操
Shuō Cáo Cāo, Cáo Cāo dào [shuo Cao Cao, Cao Cao dao]
speak Cao Cao, Cao Cao arrives
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
Speak of the devil and he is sure to appear
Shuō daò zuò daò [shuo dao zuo dao]
speak arrive make arrive
Say and then make
Do what one says
Actions speak louder than words
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.
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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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