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 谚语 yàn yǔ (proverbs or ‘familiar saying’) or 成语 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 俗语 Súyǔ which are popular sayings and the 歇后语 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. Use this bar to see the 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:
Dé yì yáng yáng [de yi yang yang]
Smug and self-satisfied
To be very pleased with oneself. Giving an air of sublime complacency.
I'm all right Jack
Jīn shí wéi kāi [jin shi wei kai]
metal stone become open
Even metal and stone can be pierced
Any difficulty can be overcome given time and commitment. The story is of the famous archer Xiong Quzi of the Zhou dynasty. At dusk he mistook a stone for a tiger and shot an arrow at it. In the morning he found his arrow had penetrated deep into the stone. This led to the idiom that with great skill and determination the apparently impossible can be achieved.
The difficult we do immediately; the impossible takes a little longer
Ambushed from all sides. Hopeless situation. In the battle of Gaixia ➚ troops surrounding the enemy sang songs of home, breaking their spirit. From the classic Shi Ji from 2,200 years ago. After the end of the Qin dynasty the Han general used this tactic against of the Chu kingdom. The Chu songs persuaded the surrounded Chu forces that the Han must have overrun much of the Chu kingdom already
In very deep trouble. A desperate situation with nowhere to turn.
In dire straits
Dōng chuāng shì fā [dong chuang shi fa]
east window matter expose
The plot at the east window has been exposed
The game is up. Generally said of villains whose evil plans have been thwarted. The story is of Qin Hui of the Song dynasty who hatched a plot under the east window of his house to tell lies about General Yue Fei. Qin Hui and his son died shortly after Yue Fei was executed. Qin's wife Wang used a necromancer who discovered the truth and was told by Qin's spirit that the East window plot had been exposed.
The chickens havee come home to roost
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 of the characters have been simplified the phrase is shown in brackets and gray text. . The characters are followed by the proverb (Chengyu) 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.
Our translations are in need of improvement, so please let us know your ideas. For background on the types and history of proverbs please see our guide.
We also have an index of the proverbs base on similarly meaning English language proverbs. So you can, for example, look for a Chinese equivalent for proverbs such as ‘Many hands make light work’:
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