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.
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 a few 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 under several categories. Use this bar to go to a page of related proverbs.
Bǎi zú zhī chóng sǐ ér bù jiāng [bai zu zhi chong si er bu jiang]
hundred foot insect dead but not motionless
A centipede with a hundred legs does not lose its life after one blow
An evil is not easily disposed of; old institutions take a long time to renew
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
Nǐ sǐ wǒ huó [ni si wo huo]
you die I live
Fight to the death
To fight to the bitter end
Xiù sè kě cān [xiu se ke can]
beautiful appearance can eat
A lovely sight to feast the eyes on
A beautiful woman
A feast for the eyes
Jiǎ gōng jì sī [jia gong ji si]
false public aid self
Swindle public to help yourself
Use public office for personal gain
Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely
Là zhú zhào liàng bié rén, què huǐ miè le zì jǐ [la zhu zhao liang bie ren, que hui mie le zi ji]
candle illuminate bright other people, but destroy extinguish itself
A candle illuminates others at the cost of burning itself up
Helping others at the cost of not looking after yourself
Love thy neighbor as thyself
Yù sù zé bù dá [yu su ze bu da]
desire fast level not extend
A desire for speed but unable to reach destination
More interest in working fast than working effectively
Less haste more speed
Yǎn gāo shǒu dī [yan gao shou di]
eye high hand low
Eyes look up but the hands go down
To have high ambitions but possess limited skills
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 are in need of improvement, so please let us know your suggestions.