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:
Jí è rú chóu [ji e ru chou]
jealousy evil as if enemy
Treating evil as an enemy
Determined to confront evil. Not letting evil people or things continue.
Blinded by lust for gain. Greed. Avarice. Blinded by ambition. The story if of a man from the kingdom of Qi who seeing gold just grabbed it and ran off, oblivious of the consequences.
Duì niú tán qín [dui niu tan qin]
face ox play musical qin
To play a lute to a cow
Wasting your time on pointless efforts. The 'lute' in this case is the qin, a traditional musical instrument. To address an inappropriate and unappreciative audience. A story from the Han dynasty when Mouzi Lihuolun, a Confucian scholar, who failed to describe Buddhist teaching because his audience had no basic understanding of it
Pearls before swine
Fǎn lǎo huán tóng [fan lao huan tong]
return old return child
Return to youthful vigour
Returning to youthful energy. Turning back the years. Often used as a compliment to someone sprightly in old age.
New lease of life
Pí zhī bù cún maó jiāng yān fù [pi zhi bu cun mao jiang yan fu]
skin no exist hair support how add
If the skin is missing hair can not grow
Everything needs its proper environment for nurture
No man is an island
Hé pǔ zhū huán [he pu zhu huan]
Hepu pearl return
The Hepu pearls return home
Something or someone returns to its original source. Often said of someone returning to their original home district after years of wandering. The story is from the Han dynasty of Hepu, Gunagxi which was a leading center for pearl fishing until a local official over exploited the beds of pearls leading to Vietnam taking over as the leading procedure. Only when the pearl beds were left for years to recover did the pearl industry return.
Something without a proper foundation. Not properly planned
Dāi ruò mù jī [dai ruo mu ji]
stupid like wood chicken
As dumb as a wooden chicken
Dumbstruck, unable to move or say anything out of fear.
Caught like a rabbit in the headlights
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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