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
换汤
Huàn tāng bú huàn yaò [huan tang bu huan yao]
change hot water no change medicine
Change the soup but not the medicine
Not getting to the root of a problem, making superficial changes
Rearranging the deckchairs while the ship is sinking
Gé àn guān huǒ [ge an guan huo]
separate bank observe fire
Watch the fire burn from the other side of the river
Refusing to help others when it is needed
wéi jīn yòng [gu wei jin yong]
ancient pride modern apply
Applying ancient ways to the present day
Learning from history. Applying past history to the current situation
Zhì bù kě màn shí bù kě shī [zhi bu ke man shi bu ke shi]
aspiration not can slow, time not can lose
Do not let your aspirations weaken; do not waste time
Keep hold of your hopes and dreams, waste no time in achieving them
Don't change horses midstream
Jiǎo tù sān kū [jiao tu san ku]
crafty hare three burrows
A crafty rabbit has three burrows
To succeed there must be several alternative strategies
There's more than one way to skin a cat
避坑落井
Bì kēng luò jǐng [bi keng luo jing]
evade pit drop well
Avoid falling into a pit to fall into a well
Avoid one obstacle only to hit another
恩负
Wàng ēn fù yì [wang en fu yi]
forget favor lose justice
Forget a previous favor
Ungratefully forget to acknowledge a favor.
,
Nìng zuò jītóu, bù dāng fèng wěi [ning zuo jitou, bu dang feng wei]
serene make chicken head, no equal phoenix tail
Rather be a chicken's head than a phoenix's tail
Better to be leader of a humble organization than the stooge of a grand one
A big fish in a small pond
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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