Chinese proverbs

Moon festival, food, cake
Moon cake for the Mid Autumn (Moon) Festival

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:

Beijing, dog, hutong, lion
Chow-chow dog
Biān cháng mò jí
Beyond the reach of the whip
Too far away to be able to help or beyond one's skill or influence.
Shì shí shèng yú xióng biàn
A real victory is better than a great debate
Better to act than just talk about it.
Roughly equivalent to: Actions speak louder than words.
Cì zǐ qiān jīn bù rú jiào zǐ
Better to teach a child a skill than give money
Learning a new skill will pay dividends in the future.
Gān jiāng mò yé
Two famous swords
These are the names of two supreme bronze swords of long ago. Gan Jiang was unable to melt the bronze until he added some hair and nail clippings from his wife Mo Ye. Only then could the swords be made and they were the sharpest swords ever made. Used to honor someone or something as superlative.
Roughly equivalent to: Cat's pyjamas.
Xiǎng rù fēi fēi
Indulge in fantasy
Let imagination run wild.
Roughly equivalent to: Head in the clouds.
Fēng tóng zhōu
In the same boat in a storm
Facing troubles together.
Roughly equivalent to: A trouble shared is a trouble halved.
Yè cháng mèng duō
The longer the night, the more dreams there will be
When in hard times it is foolish to merely dream of better things.
Roughly equivalent to: If wishes were horses, beggars would ride.
躲,暗 [明槍易躲暗箭難防]
Míng qiāng yì duǒ, àn jiàn nán fáng
It is easy to dodge a spear from in front; but hard to avoid an arrow from behind
It is difficult to guard against furtive attacks.

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