Chinese proverbs

dragon, graphic
Carving of a dragon at a Chinese temple

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:

Chinese New year, dragon dance, London
Chinese new year celebration, London
望洋[望洋興嘆]
Wàng yáng xīng tàn
Consider one's competence before the ocean
To feel inadequate to perform a great task. Feel misgivings before a big endeavor. The story is of the river god of the Huanghe (Yellow River) caused a great flood that made the river a mile wide but when he met the sea he was overcome with his relative inadequacy.
[馬到成功]
Mǎ daò chéng gōng
Horse win easy victory
Gain immediate victory.
Qí lù wáng yáng
The sheep goes astray at the fork of a road
Taking a wrong decision and now hopelessly lost. Unable to work out a way forward because the true situation has not been appreciated.
Yǔ maó wèi fēng
Not yet grown adult plumage. A fledgling bird - young and inexperienced
Still too young and immature.
,殃 [城門失火殃及池魚]
Chéng mén shī huó, yāng jí chí
Burning a city gate kills the fish in the moat
A drastic action may unintentionally affect other people. Show consideration for all.
乳臭
Rǔ chòu wèi gān
Still smelling of mother's milk
Young and inexperienced.
废寝 [廢寑忘食]
Fèi qǐn wàng shí
To forget to sleep and eat
To be engrossed in work and study.
释卷 [手不釋卷]
Shǒu bù shì juàn
Always have a book in hand
A diligent student engrossed in study.
Roughly equivalent to: Book worm.

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