Wise sayings and idioms

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.

A large and varied collection of proverbs all containing a small pearl of ancient wisdom. This list includes many traditional wise sayings.

zhì ruò yú
A wise person may seem silent as often remains silent
A wise person holds his counsel.
Roughly equivalent to: Still waters run deep.
wàn juǎn shū bù rú xíng wàn lǐ lù
Reading ten thousand books is not the same as walking a thousand miles
Learn from practical experience not from books.
Duì zhèng xià yào
Suiting the right medicine for an illness
Take the right measures to solve a problem to achieve the desired result.
Fān yún fù
Conjuring clouds with one hand and rain with the other
Trying too hard to impress.
覆巢完卵 [覆巢無完卵]
Fù cháo wú wán luǎn
When the nest is overturned, no egg is left unbroken
In a disaster everyone will feel the consequences. Failure will affect everyone involved.
改邪 [改邪歸正]
Gǎi xié guī zhèng
Abandon evil and turn to good
Reject bad ways and turn to the good.
Roughly equivalent to: Turn over a new leaf.
wéi jīn yòng
Applying ancient ways to the present day
Learning from history. Applying past history to the current situation.
Huà lǐ yǒu huà
Within the talk there is more meaning
There is more in what was said than is obvious.
换汤 [換湯不換葯]
Huàn tāng bú huàn yaò
Change the soup but not the medicine
Not getting to the root of a problem, making superficial changes.
Roughly equivalent to: Rearranging the deckchairs while the ship is sinking.
Jiāng shì lǎo de là
Aged ginger is more potent
Experience gives wisdom.
,堵墙 [交個朋友多條路樹個敵人多堵墻]
Jiāo gè péng you duō tiáo lù, shù gè dí rén duō dǔ qiáng
Making a friend is an open road; making an enemy builds a wall
It is better to make friends than enemies.
Roughly equivalent to: One good turn deserves another.
Jié zú xiān dēng
The winning foot is the first to climb
To succeed need to start off first.
Roughly equivalent to: The early bird catches the worm.
Jīn fēi xī bǐ
The present cannot be compared with the past
The past is not always a good predictor of the future. Things change.
Gansu, terraces, land form
Terraced farmland in the loess lands of Gansu
Jǐn shàng tiān huā
Add another flower to a tapestry
Taking too much trouble with detail to try to achieve perfection. Fiddling when already complete.
Roughly equivalent to: Gilding the lily.
Jīn zhāo yǒu jiǔ jīn zhāo zuì
When have some wine, all will get drunk
Take advantage of good fortune while it is around.
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.
Kōng xuè lái féng wèi bì wú yīn
If wind comes from an empty cave it did not come from nowhere
There are always clues that something is about to happen.
Roughly equivalent to: No smoke without fire.
Say yes when mean no
To say the opposite of what you really think.
Liú dé qīng shān zài, bù pà méi chái shāo
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.
Roughly equivalent to: Everything comes to him who waits.
抛砖引 [拋塼引玉]
Pāo zhuān yǐn yù
Cast out a brick to invite jade
Stimulate others to contribute to conversation by making a silly or superficial remark that sparks off debate.
焉附 [皮之不存毛將焉附]
Pí zhī bù cún maó jiāng yān fù
If the skin is missing hair can not grow
Everything needs its proper environment for nurture.
Roughly equivalent to: No man is an island.
堤,溃 [千里之堤潰于蟻穴]
Qiān lǐ zhī dī, kuì yú yǐ xué
An ant may destroy an entire dam
Take full attention to detail to avoid catastrophe.
Roughly equivalent to: Spoil the ship for a ha'pworth of tar.
Qiáng niǔ de guā bù tián
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
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
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.
Sān shí liù jì, zǒu wéi shàng
Of the thirty-six stratagems, running away is the best.
Sometimes it is best to avoid conflict altogether. Flight can be the best option. 'The Thirty-Six Stratagems' was written by the great military thinker Sun Zi
Roughly equivalent to: Devil take the hindmost.
Zhongnanhai, government
Xinhua Gate is the main ceremonial gate into the Zhongnanhai complex of government buildings, Beijing. The sector is located just to the west of the Imperial centre of government the Forbidden City. Image by Bgabel available under a Creative Commons license
Shā jǐng bǎi
Kill one to warn a hundred
To warn many people by punishing a few. Making example punishments.
Shān yù lái fēng mǎn lóu
The wind sweeping through the tower heralds a rising storm in the mountain
A premonition of something significant about to happen.
Roughly equivalent to: Forewarned is forearmed.
Shī bài shì chéng gōng zhī mǔ
Failure is the mother of success
Learning from mistakes.
Roughly equivalent to: Cut your coat to suit your cloth.
识途 [識途老馬]
Shí tú laǒ mǎ
An old horse who knows the way
Age brings experience and wisdom.
急,授 [授人以魚只解一旹之急授人以漁則解一生之需]
Shòu rén zhǐ jiù shí zhī jí, shòu rén yǐ yú zé jiě yī shēng zhī xū
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 [瘦死的駱駝比馬大]
Shòu sǐ de luò tuo bǐ mǎ
The body of a starved camel is bigger than the body of a living horse.
Respect ancient wisdom rather than the new.
曹操,曹操 [說曹操曹操到]
Shuō Cáo Cāo, Cáo Cāo dào
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.
Roughly equivalent to: Speak of the devil and he is sure to appear.
宴席 [天下沒有不散的宴席]
Tiān xià méi yǒu bù sàn de yàn xí
No banquet in the world goes on forever
Good fortune can not last for ever.
Roughly equivalent to: All good things must come to an end.
Tóng chuáng yì mèng
Dream different dreams on the same bed
Not everyone thinks the same.
Roughly equivalent to: It takes all sorts to make a world.
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.
Wèi chóu móu
Before the rains repair the cloth
Plan ahead, be prepared.
Roughly equivalent to: An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
Wēn gù ér zhī xīn
Study the past and yet know the present
Studying the past helps to understand the present.
Wú fēng bù qǐ làng
No wind, no waves
There must have been signs that it was going to happen.
Roughly equivalent to: No smoke without fire.
Gansu, lake, desert
The famous crescent lake near Dunhuang, Gansu
Xiá bù yǎn yú
A speck on a jade stone can't obscure its brilliance
One small fault won't spoil the impression of an overall exceptional person.
Xué ér bù sī zé wǎng, sī ér bù xué zé dài
Learning without thinking means wasted work; thinking without learning is dangerous
Studying hard is important and gives rewards.
, [一寸光陰一寸金寸金難買寸光陰]
cùn guāng yīn cùn jīn, cùn jīn nán mǎi cùn guāng yīn
Money spent can be earned again, but time lost is lost for good
An inch of time is an inch of gold, but an inch of time cannot be purchased by an inch of gold.
, [一龍生九種種種不同]
lóng shēng jiǔ zhǒng, zhǒng zhǒng bù tóng
The dragon has nine sons, each different from the others
Brothers and sisters may not resemble each other.
Yì rú fǎn zhǎng
As easy as turning over your hand
Simple. Very easy.
yán jì chū sì mǎ nán zhuī
A speech made cannot be taken back even by a team of horses
Be careful what you say, it can not be unsaid.
Zhǐ bāo bù zhù huǒ
Paper can not wrap up a fire
The truth can not be concealed.
Roughly equivalent to: Truth will out.
指桑骂槐 [指桑罵槐]
Zhǐ sāng mà huái
Pointing to the mulberry tree when the locust tree is to blame
Deliberately deflecting criticism to someone or something else - often to protect friends or family.
Zhòng guā dé guā zhòng dòu dé dòu
Plant melons and you will harvest melons; plant beans and you will harvest beans
Live with the consequences of your actions.
Roughly equivalent to: Reap what you sow.
dēng lóng mén shēn jià shí bèi
By crossing the dragon gate, prestige rises ten-fold
Diligent study brings great rewards. The Dragon Gate is a dangerous gorge on the Yellow River. Success in the Imperial examinations was likened to a carp ascending the gorge. Passing the examinations greatly added to prestige.
Mó chǔ chéng zhēn
Grinding an iron pestle down to a needle
Patiently setting about a great, lengthy task step by step. Anything can be achieved with a firm resolve,
Roughly equivalent to: Little strokes fell great oaks.
,哪湿鞋 [常在河邊走哪能不溼鞋]
Cháng zài hé biān zǒu, nǎ néng bù shī xié
You cannot routinely walk along a river without sometimes getting your shoes wet
You can't ignore the local conditions.
,旁观 [噹局者迷旁觀者清]
Dāng jú zhě mí, páng guān zhě qīng
Spectators get a better appreciation of the game than the players
If too closely involved may not see all the issues involved.
garden, Foshan, Guangdong, architecture
Moon gate in Qinghui garden, Foshan city, Guangdong
Zì lǐ háng jiān
Between the lines
Uncovering the hidden meaning or character.
Roughly equivalent to: Reading between the lines.

See also