General Chinese proverbs

A large and varied collection of proverbs all containing a little ancient wisdom. Many traditional wise sayings are included.

,哪湿鞋
Cháng zài hé biān zǒu, nǎ néng bù shī xié [chang zai he bian zou, na neng bu shi xie]
normal located river side walk, there can not wet shoes
You cannot frequently walk along a river without getting your shoes wet
People can't avoid the influence of the local environment
智若愚
zhì ruò yú [da zhi ruo yu]
big wisdom seem foolish
A wise person may seem silent as often remains silent
A wise person hold his counsel
Still waters run deep
,旁观
Dāng jú zhě mí, páng guān zhě qīng [dang ju zhe mi, pang guan zhe qing]
equal game other be confused, side observe other clear
Spectators get a better appreciation of the game than the players
If too closely involved may not see all the issues objectively
wàn juǎn shū bù rú xíng wàn lǐ lù [du wan juan shu bu ru xing wan li lu]
read 10000 roll up book no like walk 10000 mile road
Reading ten thousand books is not the same as walking a thousand miles
Learn from practical experience not from books
Duì zhèng xià yào [dui zheng xia yao]
answer illness down medicine
Prescribe the right medicine for an illness
Take the right measures to solve a problem and achieve the desired result
Fān yún fù [fan yun fu yu]
turn over cloud overturn rain
Conjuring clouds with one hand and rain with the other
Impressing by conjuring tricks
覆巢完卵
Fù cháo wú wán luǎn [fu chao wu wan luan]
overturn nest no entire egg
When the nest is overturned, no egg remains unbroken
In a disaster everyone will feel the consequences
改邪
Gǎi xié guī zhèng [gai xie gui zheng]
change evil return correct
Abandon evil and turn to good
Reject bad ways and turn to the good
Turn over a new leaf
wéi jīn yòng [gu wei jin yong]
ancient pride modern apply
Applying ancient ways to the present day
Learning from history. Applying past history to the current situation
Huà lǐ yǒu huà [hua li you hua]
speech inside has speech
Within the talk there is more meaning
There is more in what was said than is obvious
Huàn nàn jiàn zhēn qíng [huan nan jian zhen qing]
suffer difficult see true affection
In adversity, true feelings are shown
Only in a crisis do you know who your friends really are
A friend in need is a friend indeed
换汤换药
Huàn tāng bú huàn yaò [huan tang bu huan yao]
change hot water no change medicine
Change the soup but not the medicine
Not getting to the root of a problem, making superficial changes
Rearranging the deckchairs while the ship is sinking
grand canal, wuxi
Ancient Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal in Wuxi area. 锡段. Image by 波波 available under a Creative Commons License
Huò cóng kǒu chū [huo cong kou chu]
disaster from mouth emerge
The wrong words can bring disaster
Be careful what you say
Jiàn yì yǒng wéi [jian yi yong wei]
see justice brave act
See the just cause and act on it
To see what is right and act with courage
Jiāng shì lǎo de là [jiang shi lao de la]
ginger is old of peppery
Aged ginger is more potent
Experience gives wisdom
,堵墙
Jiāo gè péng you duō tiáo lù, shù gè dí rén duō dǔ qiáng [jiao ge peng you duo tiao lu, shu ge di ren duo du qiang]
exchange friend many paved road, tree enemy many stop wall
Making a friend is an open road; making an enemy builds a wall
It is better to make friends than enemies
One good turn deserves another
Jié zú xiān dēng [jie zu xian deng]
victory foot first climb
The winning foot is the first to climb
To succeed need to start off first
The early bird gets the worm
昔比
Jīn fēi xī bǐ [jin fei xi bi]
modern wrong ancient compare
The present cannot be compared with the past
The past is not always a good predictor of the future. Things change.
Jǐn shàng tiān huā [jin shang tian hua]
tapestry up add flower
Add another flower to a tapestry
Taking too much trouble with detail to try to achieve perfection. Fiddling when already complete.
Gilding the lily
Jīn zhāo yǒu jiǔ jīn zhāo zuì [jin zhao you jiu jin zhao zui]
now palace have wine, now palace drunk
When have wine all will get drunk
Take advantage of good fortune while it is around
Kāi mén jiàn shān [kai men jian shan]
begin entrance see mountain
As soon as the door is opened see the mountain
To come straight to the point. Avoid procrastination
Brevity is the soul of wit
Kōng xuè lái féng wèi bì wú yīn [kong xue lai feng wei bi wu yin]
empty cave arrive come wind surely nothing follow
If wind comes from an empty cave there must be a good reason
There must have been signs that it was going to happen
No smoke without fire
Kǒu shì xīn fēi [kou shi xin fei]
mouth OK feeling wrong
Say yes when mean no
To say the opposite of what you really think
kǒu liáng yaò [ku kou liang yao]
bitter mouth good medicine
Good medicine tastes bad
It may take hard work and discomfort to achieve something worthwhile
Western Xia, tomb, Ningxia
西塔, August 2013. Two tombs of the Western Xia at Helan Shan, Ningxia. Image by Jayavarman available under a Creative Commons license .
,柴烧
Liú dé qīng shān zài, bù pà méi chái shāo [liu de qing shan zai, bu pa mei chai shao]
remain get green mountain exist, no fear have no firewood
So long as the green mountains are preserved, there will be no shortage of firewood
Do not despair, there is plenty of time and opportunity
Everything comes to him who waits
Míng zhī gù wèn [ming zhi gu wen]
bright know incident ask
Already knowing the answer
To ask a question when already knowing the answer
Mò cè gāo shēn [mo ce gao shen]
cannot measure high deep
Too high or deep to measure
Enigmatic, unfathomable. Too profound to be readily understood
Still waters run deep
糊涂
Nan dé hú tu [nan de hu tu]
difficult achieve bewildered
Too hard to understand
Where ignorance is bliss, it is folly to be wise
Nì lái shùn shòu [ni lai shun shou]
disobey arrive obey receive
Do not block but welcome arrival
Deal with things as they happen; do not put them off
抛砖引
Pāo zhuān yǐn yù [pao zhuan yin yu]
throw brick draw jade
Cast out a brick to invite jade
Modestly allow others to contribute to conversation by making a silly remark
将焉附
Pí zhī bù cún maó jiāng yān fù [pi zhi bu cun mao jiang yan fu]
skin no exist hair support how add
If the skin is missing hair can not grow
Everything needs its proper environment for nurture
A house is not a home
Qián chē zhī jiàn [qian che zhi jian]
preceding vehicle's reflect
Study the progress preceding carriage. A carriage that overturned ahead can be a lesson for those to follow.
Take account of what has gone before
Look before you leap
堤,溃
Qiān lǐ zhī dī, kuì yú yǐ xué [qian li zhi di, kui yu yi xue]
thousand mile's dyke, river goto ant hole
An ant may destroy an entire dam
Take full attention to detail to avoid catastrophe
Spoil the ship for a ha'pworth of tar
强扭
Qiáng niǔ de guā bù tián [qiang niu de gua bu tian]
energetic seize melon not sweet
A melon taken off its vine is not sweet
Coercion never ends up satisfactorily. Leave things to develop naturally
Qiǎo fù nán wéi wú mǐ zhī chuī [qiao fu nan wei wu mi zhi chui]
skilful woman difficult pride nothing rice's cook
Even the cleverest cook cannot prepare rice without rice
You need to assemble the right materials for a job
Qīng chū yú lán ér shèng yú lán [qing chu yu lan er sheng yu lan]
indigo blue comes out foremost blue but excel foremost blue
Indigo is obtained from the indigo plant, but such color is bluer than the plant itself
Wise schooling has produced excellence beyond the teacher. The follower has surpassed the master.
Ming dynasty, pagoda
Ming dynasty Linlong pagoda detail
补短
Qǔ cháng bǔ duǎn [qu chang bu duan]
take long mend short
Learn from other's good points to offset your own shortcomings
Take notice of other people's admirable qualities
计,
Sān shí liù jì, zǒu wéi shàng [san shi liu ji, zou wei shang ce]
thirty six sums walk pride up urge
Of the thirty-six stratagems, running away is the best. 'The Thirty-Six Stratagems' were written by the great military thinker Sun Zi
Sometimes it is best to avoid conflict altogether. Flight can be the best option
Devil take the hindmost
Shā jī gěi hóu kàn [sha ji gei hou kan]
kill chicken give monkey look
Kill a chicken before a monkey. The monkey can then take the message as a warning
To punish somebody as a lesson and warning to others
Shā jǐng bǎi [sha yi jing bai]
kill one warn hundred
Kill one to warn a hundred
To warn many people by punishing a few. Making example punishments
Shān yù lái fēng mǎn lóu [shan yu yu lai feng man lou]
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
Shēn tǐ lì xíng [shen ti li xing]
health strength walk
To maintain health by strenuous walk
Following the advice given oneself
Practice what you preach
Shī bài shì chéng gōng zhī mǔ [shi bai shi cheng gong zhi mu]
failure is achieve merit's mother
Failure is the mother of success
Learning from mistakes
Cut your coat to suit your cloth
识途
Shí tú laǒ mǎ [shi tu lao ma]
know way venerable horse
An old horse who knows the way
Age brings experience and wisdom
急,授 则解
Shòu rén zhǐ jiù shí zhī jí, shòu rén yǐ yú zé jiě yī shēng zhī xū [shou ren yi yu zhi jiu yi shi zhi ji, shou ren yi yu ze jie yi sheng zhi xu]
award person use fish one explain once quick, award person use fishing standard separate one produce must
Give a fish and be fed for only a day. Teach how to fish and be free from hunger forever
It is important to learn a skill that will last for life
骆驼比
Shòu sǐ de luò tuo bǐ mǎ [shou si de luo tuo bi ma da]
thin die camel compare horse big
The body of a starved camel is bigger than the body of a living horse.
Respect ancient wisdom rather than the new. Size is more important than age
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
宴席
Tiān xià méi yǒu bù sàn de yàn xí [tian xia mei you bu san de yan xi]
world does not have no break up of banquet
No banquet in the world goes on forever
Good fortune can not last for ever
All good things must come to an end
stars, buddhism, constellations
Celestial Buddhas and Deities of the Northern, Western, and Central Dipper Constellations. c.1500CE. Image by LACMA available under a Creative Commons License
Tóng chuáng yì mèng [tong chuang yi meng]
same bed different dream
Dream different dreams on the same bed
Not everyone thinks the same
It takes all sorts to make the world
Wǎng kāi miàn [wang kai yi mian]
net open one side
To leave one side of net open. To allow a way out
To give someone a chance of escape
To let someone off the hook
Wèi chóu móu [wei yu chou mou]
not yet rain silk repair
Before rain repair cloth. Make preparations ahead of time
Plan ahead, be prepared
An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure
Wēn gù ér zhī xīn [wen gu er zhi xin]
revise ancient but know new
Study the past and yet know the present
Studying the past helps to understand the present
起浪
Wú fēng bù qǐ làng [wu feng bu qi lang]
no wind no rise wave
No wind, no waves
There must have been signs that it was going to happen
No smoke without fire
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
Xiaǒ zuò [xiao ti da zuo]
small topic large work
To talk a lot about very little
Procrastination and exaggeration
Make a mountain out of a molehill
则罔,则殆
Xué ér bù sī zé wǎng, sī ér bù xué zé dài [xue er bu si ze wang, si er bu xue ze dai]
study but no think rule deceive, think but no study rule dangerous
Learning without thinking means wasted work; thinking without learning is dangerous
Studying hard is important and gives rewards
Xué wú zhǐ jìng [xue wu zhi jing]
learn nothing stop border
There is no limit to learning
Knowledge is infinite
,
Yǎ ba chī jiǎo zi, xīn lǐ yǒu shù [ya ba chi jiao zi, xin li you shu]
mute person eat dumpling, heart inside has count
When a mute person eats dumplings, he knows how many he has eaten, even though he cannot speak. Someone understands the situation well, and yet says nothing.
When someone understands the situation without needing to say anything
眼泪救
Yǎn lèi jiù bù liǎo huǒ [yan lei jiu bu liao huo]
tears rescued not fire
Tears do not put out the fire
Decisive action is needed in a crisis not regrets
Yáng maó chū zài yáng shēn shàng [yang mao chu zai yang shen shang]
wool come out at sheep body on
Wool comes from a sheep
Unrealistic expectations. You get what you pay for
Emei Shan, Sichuan
Samantabhadra statue at Golden Summit on Emei Shan, Sichuan. April 2009.
Image by Martin Wettig available under a Creative Commons license
,
cùn guāng yīn cùn jīn, cùn jīn nán mǎi cùn guāng yīn [yi cun guang yin yi cun jin, cun jin nan mai cun guang yin]
one inch time one inch gold, inch time difficult buy inch gold
An inch of time is an inch of gold, but an inch of time cannot be purchased by an inch of gold
Money spent can be earned again, but time lost is lost for good
,
fēn qián, fēn huò [yi fen qian, yi fen huo]
one penny, one portion goods
With only a penny you can't buy much
You cant buy something for nothing
You get what you pay for
,
lóng shēng jiǔ zhǒng, zhǒng zhǒng bù tóng [yi long sheng jiu zhong, zhong zhong bu tong]
one dragon produce nine sons, grow not same
The dragon has nine sons, each different from the others
Brothers and sisters may not resemble each other
Yì rú fǎn zhǎng [yi ru fan zhang]
easy as turn over palm
As easy as turning over your hand
Simple. Very easy
yán jì chū sì mǎ nán zhuī [yi yan ji chu si ma nan zhui]
one speech already go out team of horses difficult chase
A speech made cannot be taken back even by a team of horses
Be careful what you say, it can not be unsaid
Yǐn shuǐ sī yuán [yin shui si yuan]
drink water think source
When drinking water remember the origin
Do not forget the source of your good fortune (particularly parents)
Biting the hand that feeds it
Yǒu gòng dǔ [you mu gong du]
has eye common observe
Seen by everyone. There for all to see
Obvious to everybody
Plain for all to see
消雾散
Yún xiāo wù sàn [yun xiao wu san]
cloud vanish mist disperse
Cloud and mists disperse
All becomes clear again. Troubles are over.
Zhǐ bāo bù zhù huǒ [zhi bao bu zhu huo]
paper wrap not live fire
Paper can not wrap up a fire
The truth can not be concealed
Truth will out
指桑骂槐
Zhǐ sāng mà huái [zhi sang ma huai]
finger mulberry blame locust tree
Point to mulberry tree when the locust tree is to blame
Deliberately deflecting criticism to someone or something else. Often to protect friends or family
虑必
Zhì zhě qiān l? bì yǒu shī [zhi zhe qian l? bi you yi shi]
wisdom that thousand worry about certainly have one mistake
Even the wise can be occasionally wrong
One small mistake does not discredit a wise person
Zhòng guā dé guā zhòng dòu dé dòu [zhong gua de gua zhong dou de dou]
plant melon get melon, plant beans get beans
Plant melons and you will harvest melons; plant beans and you will harvest beans
Live with the consequences of your actions
Reap what you sow
Qing dynasty, Qing tombs, Hebei, building
Eastern Royal Tombs of the Qing dynasty, Zunhua, Hebei
Zì lǐ háng jiān [zi li hang jian]
character inside line between
Between the lines
Uncovering the hidden meaning or character
Reading between the lines
Hǎo mǎ bù chī huí tóu cǎo [hao ma bu chi hui tou cao]
good horse not eat turn head grass
A good horse does not eat the grass behind it
Do not dwell on past actions, progress forward
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, 'Wisdom in Chinese Proverbs', last updated 4 Sep 2013, Web, http://www.chinasage.info/proverbwise.htm.

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