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 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 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 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.

yi jing
Three gold coins used for Yi Jing fortune telling
Míng luó kāi dao [ming luo kai dao]
beat gong start road
Beating the gong to clear the way for dignitaries
To publicize an event
,
Jīn shì, jīn [jin ri shi, jin ri bi]
this day task, this day complete
Today's task, today's job to complete
Finish the current job before starting something new
Don't put off until tomorrow what can be done today
Bèn niǎo xiān fēi zǎo rù lín [ben niao xian fei zao ru lin]
stupid bird first fly early enter forest
A clumsy bird that flies first will get to the forest earlier
Starting early helps achieve success
The tortoise beats the hare. The early bird catches the worm
漏偏
Wū lòu piān féng lián yè [wu lou pian feng lian ye yu]
house leak slanting happen upon continuous night rain
When the roof is leaking, there will be continuous nights of rain
Misfortunes tend to come all at once
When it rains, it pours
Yán ér wú xìn [yan er wu xin]
word but nothing true
Speak but not mean it
To go back on one's word
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
临渴掘井
Lín kě jué jǐng [lin ke jue jing]
approach thirsty dig well
To start digging a well only when feeling thirsty
Begin to take measures when it is far too late
Failing to plan is planning to fail
Tiān zuò zhī hé [tian zuo zhi he]
heaven make someone close
Heaven made intimacy
Blissful affection
Marriage made in heaven
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 are in need of improvement, so please let us know your suggestions.
Source references used for this page: Book : The Cambridge Encyclopedia of… p. 335

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