Chinese proverbs

stars, buddhism, constellations
Celestial Buddhas and Deities of the Northern, Western, and Central Dipper Constellations. c.1500CE. Image by LACMA available under a Creative Commons License

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:

Lantern Festival, festival, Shanghai
China,Shanghai,Yu Garden,the Lantern Festival 2012 Image by North sea deamer available under a Creative Commons license
Zhāo sān mù
Say three in the morning, four in the evening
Indecisive saying one thing and then changing mind later and saying another. The story is of a monkey trainer who reduced their chestnut rations from 3 in the morning and 4 in the evenings. The monkeys were most unhappy but when the trainer changed it to 4 in the morning and 3 in the evenings they were delighted. And so the phrase can also mean being foolishly deceived.
Roughly equivalent to: Hemming and hahing.
尺, [冰凍三尺非一日之寒]
Bīng dòng sān chǐ, fēi zhī hán
Three feet of ice is not formed in a single day
It takes time to achieve satisfactory results.
Roughly equivalent to: Rome was not built in a day.
Mù yǐ chéng zhōu
The tree has been made into a boat
Too late to change anything.
Roughly equivalent to: What's done is done.
Lǖ chún bù duì mǎ zuǐ
Donkey's lips do not fit a horse's mouth
Something that is out of place and inappropriate.
Huā huā shì jiè
Life full of experience. Dazzling world of excitement
World seething with life.
Yú gōng yí shān
The foolish old man who moved mountains
Anything can be achieved with persistence. The famous story is that an old man wanted to move a mountain that blocked his path. Despite widespread cynicism he and his descendents gradually wore down the mountain. Mao Zedong used this proverb to persuade people that the seemingly impossible was achievable. One version of the story has the gods taking pity on the old man and removing the mountain with their magical powers.
Roughly equivalent to: Go the extra mile.
Sān rén chéng hǔ
It only takes three people to confirm a sighting of a tiger.
A rumour can build up to a mighty story when only a handful confirm it. Basing a story on rumor and gossip rather than hard facts.
悬崖勒 [懸崖勒馬]
Xuán yá lè mǎ
Rein in the horse at the cliff edge
Realize danger at the last moment.

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