Chinese proverbs

acupuncture, TCM
A schematic of the 'Chinese' or human body meridians. The Chinese meridians are used in various oriental fight styles, as well as in healthcare; e.g. in traditional herbal medicine, massage techniques (see pressure points ), ... The schematic was based on an image of the Northern Crane Martial Arts Association dojo. Permission was given for the use of the image at wikimedia commons by sensei Phil Perez. Image by KVDP 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:

yi jing, calligraphy, coins
Yi Jing consultation
[臭不可噹]
Chòu bù kě dāng
Worst ever smell
To give off an unbearable stink.
眼泪救 [眼淚救不了火]
Yǎn lèi jiù bù liǎo huǒ
Tears do not put out the fire
Decisive action is needed in a crisis not regrets.
[賓至如歸]
Bīn zhì rú guī
Guests feel at home
Warmly welcoming guests to your home. Guests treated as part of the family.
Roughly equivalent to: Be my guest.
Gē ròu zì dàn
Eating one's own flesh
A foolish, self defeating stratagem.
Roughly equivalent to: Cutting off your nose to spite your face.
凿璧偷 [鑿璧偸光]
Zuò bì tōu guāng
Borrowing light through a hole in the wall
Using a hole in the wall to get light to be able to read with. Striving hard to study diligently. The story is of a boy from a poor family who could not afford to buy candles to give light to study books. Instead he bored a hole through to his neighbor's room that was well illuminated so he could then read.
Gǒu měng jiǔ suān
A fierce dog bankrupts a liquor store. A story of a shopkeeper who lost all his customers due to his ferocious dog
Bad company discourages true friends.
乳臭
Rǔ chòu wèi gān
Still suckling and in nappies. Still an infant. Young and inexperienced
Infantile and immature.
[車載斗量]
Chē zài dǒu liáng
Cartloads and sackfuls
Huge quantity. A very large number. Overabundant.

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