Chinese proverbs that help with coping with life

This loosely knit group of proverbs all have to do with dealing with a particular predicament. Some of these just describe the situation without offering advice on how to deal with it.

,
Jiàn zài xián shàng, bù dé bù fā [jian zai xian shang, bu de bu fa]
arrow exist string on, not get no deliver
When the arrow is on the string, it must be shot
Things have reached a point when something must be done
Great Inventions

Great Inventions

Culture

The four great Chinese inventions are considered to be: paper; printing; compass and gunpowder. Other key inventions include the abacus, iron casting, pasta, silk etc.. However the production of paper and then printing must be considered the most important of these.
面楚
miàn chǔ gē [si mian chu ge]
four side Chu song
In the battle of Gaixia troops surrounding the enemy sang songs of home, breaking their spirit.
Ambushed from all sides. Under sustained attack
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
,
Léi shēng dà, diǎn xiǎo [lei sheng da, yu dian xiao]
thunder sound big, rain drop small
Thunder is loud but little rain falls
Overly portentous. Reality does not match expectations
Empty vessels make the most noise
Zuǒ yòu wéi nán [zuo you wei nan]
left right pride difficult
Both alternatives are difficult
In a dilemma
Be in a pickle
Fēng chuī cǎo dòng [feng chui cao dong]
wind blow grass move
The wind causes the grass to move
A minor repercussion of a larger action. A trifling consequence
Yǔ maó wèi fēng [yu mao wei feng]
feather not yet mature
Not yet grown adult plumage. A fledgling bird - young and inexperienced
Still too young and immature
ěr xīn [er mu yi xin]
ear eye one new
New sights and sounds
A change of place, everything fresh and new
鸣锣
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
Wǎng kāi miàn [wang kai yi mian]
net open one side
To leave one side of the net open
To give someone a chance of escape
To let someone off the hook
Mǎ mǎ hǔ hǔ [ma ma hu hu]
horse horse tiger tiger
Some people say it comes from an old story in which a horse and a tiger get into a fight. Neither animal could defeat the other. In time, mentioning the two animals together came to mean a fight with no definite winner - and ma ma hu hu came to mean 'so so.'. There is also a story that, a long time ago, an artist drew an animal. He asked other people what the animal he drew was. Some said it looked like a horse while others said it was a tiger. They said, 'ma ma hu hu' because the drawing was just 'so-so'.
So so; average; careless
Shuǐ shēn huǒ rè [shui shen huo re]
water deep fire hot
In deep water and fierce fire
In very deep trouble
Shǒu kǒu rú píng [shou kou ru ping]
guard mouth like bottle
To keep mouth shut, like a bottle
To avoid giving the game away; to not breathe a word
See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil
dèng kǒu dāi [mu deng kou dai]
eye stare mouth blank
Staring eyes and mouth open
Dumb struck
卵击
Yǐ luǎn tóu shí [yi luan tou shi]
use egg strike stone
Try to smash a stone with an egg
Overrate strength and be defeated. An ill-judged contest
掩瑜
Xiá bù yǎn yú [xia bu yan yu]
defect not conceal jewel
A speck on a jade stone can't obscure its brilliance
One small fault won't spoil the impression of an overall exceptional person
骨瘦
Gǔ shòu rú chái [gu shou ru chai]
bone thin as lath
Nothing but skin and bones
Emaciated
Shaǒ jiàn duō guài [shao jian duo guai]
less look many odd
Things look strange to the unfamiliar
Unsettled by a new environment
罗雀
Mén kě luó què [men ke luo que]
gate can net bird
The gate can catch birds. There are so few visitors that the door could be used to catch birds
Having few visitors
Li River, Guilin, Guangxi
River Li (Lijiang) between Guilin and Yangshuo, Guangxi. 23 September 2009
Image by Jerzy Bereszko available under a Creative Commons license
穿鞋,
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
悬崖勒
Xuán yá lè mǎ [xuan ya le ma]
precipice rein in horse
Rein in the horse at the cliff edge
Realize danger at the last moment
欲静
Shù yù jìng ěr fēng bù zhǐ [shu yu jing er feng bu zhi]
tree desire quiet but wind not still
The trees want to remain quiet, but the wind will not stop
In spite of a wish for peace, trouble is brewing

Writing characters

The art of calligraphy is still widely appreciated in China. Fine historic pieces by the great masters continue to achieve high prices at auction. To appreciate Chinese writing it is important to know how the characters are made with the brush. Our page on brush strokes lets you learn how to write in Chinese calligraphy.
Read More
Luàn qī zāo [luan qi ba zao]
chaos seven eight dregs
Chaotic mess
To be in a terrible mess. Dirty and filthy
漏洞
Lòu dòng bǎi chū [lou dong bai chu]
leak hole hundred get out
Leaking through one hundred holes
Full of mistakes and errors
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
针毡
Rú zuò zhēn zhān [ru zuo zhen zhan]
like sit needle carpet
Like sitting on a carpet of needles
To feel tense and uneasy
Bù bù gāo shēng [bu bu gao sheng]
step step tall ascend
Step by step promotion
Congratulation on promotion or a new job
Xīn huā nù fàng [xin hua nu fang]
heart flower in full bloom
The flower of the heart in full bloom
Full flowering of joy
yǐ jì yè [ri yi ji ye]
day take continue
Day and night continuously
Working without a break. Exhausted
Xīn gān qíng yuàn [xin gan qing yuan]
feeling sweet fine wish
Delighted and helpful
Delighted to be able to help
Wén fēng sàng dǎn [wen feng sang dan]
hear news lose courage
Panic on hearing news
Panic stricken; terrified by news
Wéi miaò wéi xiaò [wei miao wei xiao]
tie clever tie resemble
Weave skillfully life like images
Produce an image remarkably true to life; highly skilled
Shēn lín qí jìng [shen lin qi jing]
body face its border
Present and observing
An eye witness to an event
Tiān nán dì běi [tian nan di bei]
heaven south land north
As distant as the heavens
Places or opinions that are very far apart
视眈眈
Hǔ shì dān dān [hu shi dan dan]
tiger look at stare stare
A tiger's stare. To look covetously
To eye enviously
Mǎ daò chéng gōng [ma dao cheng gong]
horse arrive accomplish merit
Horse win easy victory
Gain immediate victory
Zì yóu zì zài [zi you zi zai]
freedom unrestrained
Unrestricted freedom
To be carefree, peaceful and relaxed
Fēng chuī cǎo dòng [feng chui cao dong]
wind blow grass move
The wind causes the grass to move
A minor repercussion of a larger action. A trifling consequence
Hebei, Sui dynasty, bridge
The earliest spandrel bridge in the world at Anji, Hebei from Sui dynasty
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
Kōng qián jué hòu [kong qian jue hou]
empty before terminate behind
Neither seen in the future nor in the past
Something that is genuinely new
怡,
Xīn kuàng shén yí, shì shì shùn lì [xin kuang shen yi, shi shi shun li]
heart broad spirit joy, matter matter obey profit
Heart joyful, work profitable
Feeling happy and relaxed
Shān míng shuǐ xiù [shan ming shui xiu]
mountain bright water elegant
Beautiful mountain scenery
Beautiful landscape
Ruò bù jīn fēng [ruo bu jin feng]
weak not restrict wind
Too weak to stand a gust of wind
Fragile, unable to withstand further setbacks
Bīng tiān xuě [bing tian xue di]
ice sky snow ground
Ice in the sky and snow on the ground
Encountering adverse conditions
double happiness

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Huā huā shì jiè [hua hua shi jie]
flower flower lifespan limit
Life full of experience. Dazzling world of excitement
World seething with life
Yì rú fǎn zhǎng [yi ru fan zhang]
easy as turn over palm
As easy as turning over your hand
Simple. Very easy
蚂蚁
Rè guō shàng de mǎ yǐ [re guo shang de ma yi]
heat pot up of ants
As active as ants on a hot pan
In a state of feverish activity and excitement
Rén shān rén hǎi [ren shan ren hai]
person mountain person sea
People everywhere
Huge crowds of people
烂额
Jiāo tóu làn é [jiao tou lan e]
beaten head burnt brow
Head bruised and brow burned
In terrible trouble
Beaten black and blue
Shí quán shí měi [shi quan shi mei]
ten complete ten beautiful
Completely whole and beautiful
Perfection; faultless
Fēi qín zǒu shòu [fei qin zou shou]
flying bird walking animal
Birds and beasts
Wildlife
妻离
Qī lí zǐ sàn [qi li zi san]
wife leave child break-up
Wife left; children scattered
A broken family
Fù lì táng huáng [fu li tang huang]
good fortune beautiful hall emperor
Prosperous and beautiful
To have the best of good fortune
nián [du ri ru nian]
pass day as year
Each day passes as a year
Time seems to pass very slowly
Time drags on
Chòu bù kě dāng [chou bu ke dang]
smelly not can equal
Worst ever smell
To give off an unbearable stink

Gateway to China

For centuries the Western gateway to China was at Jiayuguan in the north-west of Gansu province. It was an impressive fort marking entry into China on the Silk Road known as the “First and Greatest Pass Under Heaven”. It has impressive 35 feet [11 meters] high walls. Banishment from China meant ejection from this gate into the barbarian states that lived beyond.
Read More
Qí hǔ nán xià [qi hu nan xia]
ride tiger difficult down
When on a tiger's back, it is hard to dismount
When taking risks you have to live with the consequences, it is difficult to back out
He who sups with the Devil should have a long spoon
Mù yǐ chéng zhōu [mu yi cheng zhou]
tree cease make boat
The tree has been made into a boat
Too late to change anything
What's done is done
jade
Modern Chinese Dushan jade sculpture from central China.
It shows the variability of color within a block of jade. Here the artist has used the variation to exquisite effect.
Image by Artfiber available under a Creative Commons license
Jī quǎn bù ning [ji quan bu ning]
chicken dog not stand
Even the chicken and dog are disturbed. General commotion
All in turmoil and excitement
司空
Sī kōng jiàn guàn [si kong jian guan]
Sikong see usual
Sikong is the title of a minister in China who said that entertainers were a common sight at feasts.
An everyday occurrence; nothing out of the ordinary
Shēng mǐ zhǔ chéng shú fàn [sheng mi zhu cheng shu fan]
produce rice cook accomplish well-cooked food
The rice has already been cooked
What has been done can not be undone
What's done is done
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 with that.
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Citation information: Chinasage, 'Chinese Proverbs about coping with situations', last updated 6 Dec 2016, Web, http://www.chinasage.info/proverbsituation.htm.

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