Chinese proverbs

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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 not to include these as they are hard for non-Chinese people to understand without a lot of 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 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
Shí nián shù mù, bǎi nián shù rén [shi nian shu mu, bai nian shu ren]
ten year establish timber, hundred year establish person
It takes ten years for a tree to grow up, but it takes a hundred years for talents to be nurtured
Studying may be slow and arduous but is worth it
Tán hé róng yì [tan he rong yi]
chat what look easy
Talking makes look easy
Not as easy as it seemed
Easier said than done
Jiā jiā hù hù [jia jia hu hu]
house house door door
Every family
The whole community
Chī ruǎn bù chī yìng [chi ruan bu chi ying]
eat soft not eat hard
Only able to chew tender food, not the tough
Unable to withstand harsh criticism
Chuān xīn xié, zǒu lǎo lù [chuan xin xie, zou lao lu]
put on new shoes, walk old road
Wear new shoes but follow old paths
Stick to the old ways while appearing to follow the latest trends
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
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 19 Oct 2015, Web,

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