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 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. 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:

yi jing
Three gold coins used for Yi Jing fortune telling
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
Bái shǒu qǐ jiā
Empty hand make house
To build up something from nothing
Yù jiā zhī zuì hé huàn wú cí
There is always a crime that somebody can be accused of
No-one is spotless and so everyone can be rightly accused of a crime. Nobody's perfect.
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
, [人無完人金無足赤]
Rén wú wán rén, jīn wú zú chì
It is as impossible to find a perfect person as it is to discover pure gold
Having to settle for something less than perfection
急跳墙 [狗急跳墻]
Gǒu jí tiaò qiáng
A cornered dog will leap over a wall
Extreme circumstances require extreme measures
Roughly equivalent to: The end justifies the means
Rén xīn bù zú shé tūn xiàng
A person's greed is like a snake that seeks to swallow an elephant
Greed is insatiable
Xīng xīng zhī huǒ kě yǐ liáo yuán
One spark can burn a whole grassland
Need for great care and meticulous planning

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’:

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 (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.

See also