Chinese proverbs

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Old man practicing calligraphy at the Temple of Heaven park, Beijing Copyright © Dreamstime see image 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. 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
[維妙維肖]
Wéi miaò wéi xiaò [wei miao wei xiao]
tie clever tie resemble
Weave skillfully life like images
Produce an image remarkably true to life; highly skilled
Yǒu gòng dǔ [you mu gong du]
has eye common observe
Seen by everyone. There for all to see
Obvious to everybody
Plain for all to see
Jiǔ ròu péng yǒu [jiu rou peng you]
wine meat friends
Friends only for the food and drink
Cupboard love
Fair weather friends
骨瘦
Gǔ shòu rú chái [gu shou ru chai]
bone thin as lath
Nothing but skin and bones
Emaciated
,[一分錢一分貨]
fēn qián, fēn huò [yi fen qian, yi fen huo]
one penny, one portion goods
With only a penny you can't buy much
You cant buy something for nothing
You get what you pay for
退避
Tuì bì sān shè [tui bi san she]
withdraw to escape three 'she'
Withdrawing three leagues
To retreat ahead of superior force, a tactical withdrawal. A 'she' is an ancient term for three day's march or 30 li. To sensibly avoid conflict.
[生米煮成熟飯]
Shēng mǐ zhǔ chéng shú fàn [sheng mi zhu cheng shu fan]
produce rice cook accomplish well-cooked food
The rice has already been cooked
What has been done can not be undone
What's done is done
Hǎo rén hǎo shì [hao ren hao shi]
good person; good deeds
Good personality good deeds
Pleasant person who behaves well
A good man is hard to find

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 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.

See also