Chinese proverbs

opera, costume, people, woman
Chinese Opera, Chengdu

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 meaning in English and so a translation may 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 greatly to the difficulty of translation.

Here are a few random idioms to give a flavor of the hundreds on this site. The proverbs are grouped according to theme. The same proverb may appear under several categories. Click on this bar to view the extensive group of proverbs.

Alternatively, you can find a proverb by looking through our Chinese pinyin index. As there are so many these are split into separate pages:

opera, costume, people
Chinese Opera
Yǒu bèi wú huàn
Preparedness averts misfortune
Be prepared against all eventualities to avoid misfortune. Have fallback plans.
Roughly equivalent to: Be Prepared!
Dōng shī xiaò pín
Ludicrous self conceit
The story is of Dong Shi, an ugly person imitating the posture of famous beautiful woman Xi Shi by knitting his eyebrows.
Roughly equivalent to: Mutton dressed as lamb.
Hǎo rén hǎo shì
Good personality good deeds
Pleasant person who behaves well.
Roughly equivalent to: A good man is hard to find.
, [水能載舟亦能覆舟]
Shuǐ néng zài zhōu, yì néng fù zhōu
Not only does water float a boat, it can sink it too
Events and people can have both positive and negative influences.
Wǎng kāi miàn
To leave one side of the net open
To give someone a chance of escape.
Roughly equivalent to: To let someone off the hook.
Kāi mén jiàn shān
As soon as the door is opened see the mountain
To come straight to the point. Avoid procrastination.
Roughly equivalent to: Brevity is the soul of wit.
Zài zuò féng fù
Becoming Feng Fu again
Returning to old ways and habits. Feng Fu was a renowned tiger hunter from the state of Jin in the Zhou dynasty. After a successful career he vowed never to hurt another living thing. However when he chanced upon a local hunt for a vicious tiger he could not resist temptation to go back to old ways and killed the tiger single handed.
Roughly equivalent to: A leopard cannot change its spots.
Shǒu zhū dài tù
Watching a tree waiting for rabbits
Do not just count on luck, need action to reach your goals.
Roughly equivalent to: Nothing ventured nothing gained.

We also have an index of the Chinese idioms based on similarly meaning English language proverbs. So you can, for example, look up the Chinese equivalent of ‘Many hands make light work’:

China motif

Our proverbs come with full information. The modern Chinese characters are given first with links that give information on the character. As proverbs are so old you will often see them written using the traditional form of characters; so if some of the characters have been simplified the traditional form is shown in brackets and gray text. The characters are followed by the proverb (normally a chéng yǔ) 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 shown.

For background on the types and history of proverbs please see our guide.

See also