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 construct or meaning in English and so a translation can 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 to the difficulty in understanding and translating them.
Here are a few random proverbs to give a flavor of the hundreds we list on this site. The proverbs are divided into different categories which share a common theme. The same proverb may appear under several categories. Use this bar to go to a page of related proverbs.
There is no shame in asking help of those less fortunate
A cat may look at a king
Mò cè gāo shēn [mo ce gao shen]
cannot measure high deep
Too high or deep to measure
Enigmatic, unfathomable. Too profound to be readily understood
Still waters run deep
Jī bù zé shí [ji bu ze shi]
hunger not choose eat
When hungry don't care what you eat
The starving aren't fussy over their food - take whatever is available
Beggars can't be choosers
Bù rù hǔ xué yān dé hǔ zǐ [bu ru hu xue yan de hu zi]
not enter tiger den how get tiger cub
Without entering a tiger's den how can you hope to fetch a tiger cub
Great rewards require a great risk
Fortune favors the brave. Nothing ventured, nothing gained
Chéng mén shī huó, yāng jí chí yú [cheng men shi huo, yang ji chi yu]
city gate destroy fire , calamity reach moat fish
Burning a city gate kills the fish in the moat
A drastic action may unintentionally affect other people. Show consideration for all
Yǐ luǎn tóu shí [yi luan tou shi]
use egg strike stone
Try to smash a stone with an egg
Overrate strength and be defeated. An ill-judged contest
Cì zǐ qiān jīn bù rú jiào zǐ yī yì [ci zi qian jin bu ru jiao zi yi yi]
grant child thousand cash not like teach child one skill
Better to teach a child a skill than give money
Learning a new skill will pay dividends in the future
Qián lǖ jì qiong [qian lu ji qiong]
black donkey skill poor
Even a clever donkey can not solve the problem. The story is that a tiger first spotted a donkey and was scared of the new monster, but seeing it do very little but kick it killed and ate the donkey.
No idea on how to proceed
Be at wit's end
Our proverbs come with lots of information. The modern Chinese characters are followed by the proverb 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 included at the end.
Our translations are in need of improvement, so please let us know your suggestions.