Chinese proverbs 谚语
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.
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Chinese proverbs are broadly categorized as either 谚语 yàn yǔ (proverbs or ‘familiar saying’) or 成语 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 俗语 Súyǔ which are popular sayings and the 歇后语 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.
Three gold coins used for Yi Jing
one yet lift water, two yet carry water, three yet not carry water
One monk shoulders water by himself; two can still share the labor between them. When it comes to three, they all go thirsty.
Sometimes work is best done alone, a group may just spend the time discussing without doing anything
Too many cooks spoil the broth
mountain rain intend arrive wind tower
The wind sweeping through the tower heralds a rising storm in the mountain.
A premonition of something significant about to happen
Forewarned is forearmed
nine ox one hair
Nine cows are missing just one hair
An insignificant amount. A trivial matter.
A drop in the ocean
snow neighbourhood deliver charcoal
Send charcoal in a snow storm
To offer assistance when it is needed
A friend in need is a friend indeed
city gate destroy fire , calamity reach moat fish
Burning a city gate kills the fish in the moat
A drastic action may unintentionally affect other people. Show consideration for all
marry disaster foremost person
A person in misfortune blames someone else
Put blame onto others
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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