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
Yuǎn shuǐ jiǔ bù liaǒ huǒ [yuan shui jiu bu liao huo]
far water rescued not near fire
Distant water will not extinguish the nearby fire
There is no point in waiting for far off help. Get to it and solve the problem now
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
zhèng yā bǎi xié [yi zheng ya bai xie]
one correct flatten hundred evil
Justice can overpower a hundred evils
Justice is the main defense against evil
蜂酿
zhī fēng niáng bù chéng mì kē mǐ áo bù chéng zhōu [yi zhi feng niang bu cheng mi yi ke mi ao bu cheng zhou]
only one bee not produce honey, one grain rice cook not complete meal
One bee cannot produce honey; one grain of rice cannot produce a meal
It needs joint effort to achieve anything worthwhile
Many hands make light work
尺,魔
Dào gāo chǐ, mó gāo zhàng [dao gao yi chi, mo gao yi zhang]
virtue tall one foot, devil tall ten foot
Where good flourishes, evil can flourish even more
There is always opportunity for evil to take root
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
Láng xīn gǒu fèi [lang xin gou fei]
wolf feeling dog lungs
Wolves are aggressive, dog bark. Ungrateful; cruel and unscrupulous
Ungrateful and unscrupulous
畋,竭
Fén lín ěr tián, jié zé ěr yú [fen lin er tian, jie ze er yu]
burn forest but cultivate, exhaust pool but fishing
Burn a forest to farm; drain a pond to fish
Ignoring the consequences
Marry in haste, repent at leisure
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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