Chinese proverbs

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Think for thyself one good idea, but known to be thine own, is better than a thousand gleaned from fields by others sown.
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This is a collection of chinese proverbs (諺語 yànyŭ) and idioms (成語 chéngyŭ), given in and sorted by their pinyin transcription. Chinese proverbs and four and more character idioms are developed from the formulaic or social dialect/saying/expression (歇後語 in pinyin: xièhòuyŭ) and historical story in Chinese.

Some proverbs are literary, that is, from a written source. (See the historical written language or the more modern written language.) Others originated among families, street vendors, and other commoners -- all walks of life.


  • ()(shǔi)(zhī)(ēn)(dāng)()(yǒng)(quán)(xiāng)(bào)
    • Literally: A drop of water shall be returned with a burst of spring.
    • Meaning: Even if it was just a little help from others, you should return the favor with all you can when others are in need.


  • ()(rén)(chī)(bǎo)(quán)(jiā)()()
    • Literally: A single member of a family eats; the whole family will not be hungry.
    • Meaning: The whole family consists of only one person, usually referring to the one not yet married
    • Common Misunderstanding: If one person in the family is happy, the whole family is happy.


  • ()()(chóng)(zhì), (huò)()(dān)(xíng)
    • Literally: blessing+not+repeat+arrive, misfortune+not+single+travel
    • Meaning: Fortune seldom repeats; troubles never occur alone.


  • (bīng)(dòng)(sān)(chǐ)(fēi)()()(zhī)(hán)(ice+freeze+three+units(~feet),not+one+day's(7th and 8th)+chill)
    • Literally: Three feet of ice not result from one day of freezing weather.
    • Moral: A predicament is not formed without a period of events creating it.
    • Compare: Rome was not built in a day (Roma non fu fatta in un giorno, Italian proverb).


  • ()(shuǐ)(chōng)(le)(lóng)(wáng)(miào)(big+water+poured over+finish+dragon+king+temple)
    • Literally: massive amounts of water flooded the dragon-king temple.
    • Moral: even those who work to prevent something (bad) can be hurt or damaged by it.
    • Explanation: the dragon-king is a mystical creature that lives underwater and controls the natural bodies of water. People visit the dragon-king temple to placate him and prevent floods, thus this proverb is ironic situationally (Sometimes this proverb is used as '大水冲了龙王庙,一家人不认一家人' (...yi1 jia1 ren2 bu4 ren4 yi1 jia1 ren2 ...one+home+person+not+know+one+home+person), or, One family member doesn't recognize another family member. The idiom might be used to resolve an embarrassing situation; Someone has a conflict with a stranger, only to find the stranger was a neighbor, or a sister's boyfriend, or any other person with some relation. The two might use this idiom to save face and make peace with each other, comparing the conflict to that of the flooded dragon-king's temple (dragon-king: rain god in some sense).


  • (kōng)(xué)(lái)(fēng)(wèi)()()(yīn)(empty+cave+come+wind+not+surely+not+cause)
    • Literally: If the wind comes from an empty cave, it's not without a reason.
    • Moral: Most seemingly strange rumours have an origin in fact.


  • (lǎo)()()(), (zhì)(zài)(qiān)()(old+thoroughbred+hidden+stable,determined+be+thousand+distance (unit))
    • Literally: The old horse in the stable still yearns to run 1000 li 1.
    • Moral: Don't underestimate experienced people, old people still may have great ambitions and potential. Another one is "The older the ginger the hotter the spice".
    • Note: 'stable' and 'li' rhyme in Mandarin
1 li: a Chinese unit of linear measure, corresponds to about .5 kilometers.


  • ()(yáo)(zhī)()(), ()( jiǔ)(jiàn)(rén)(xīn)
    • Literally: Over a long distance, you learn about the strength of your horse; over a long time, you learn about the character of your friend.
    • Usage: This can be used positively to praise a true friend; or negatively to criticize friends that could not stand a test.


  • (rén)(yào)(liǎn), (shù)(yào)()
    • Literally: a person needs a face; a tree needs bark.
    • Meaning: a person needs a clean reputation to survive.
    • Note: Face here is used metaphorically as the face (social custom).
    • Usage: when someone behaves dishonorably (once or repeatedly), it can be said directly to that person as admonishment (as parents to a child).


  • (ròu)(bāo)(zi)()(gǒu) (meat+bun(2nd and 3rd)+hit+dog)
    • Literally: to hit a dog with a meat-bun.
    • Interpretation: the dog will not be driven off, but rather enjoy the meat-bun instead.
    • Moral: using the wrong method to approach a problem.


  • 世上无难事,只怕有心人 (pinyin: shì shàng wú nán shì zhǐ pà yǒu xīn rén) (world+on+without+difficult+circumstances, only+fear+have+heart+people)
    • Literally: On this world there exists no such impossible tasks, they fear only those with perseverance.
    • Moral: No task in this world is impossible so long as there are willing hearts.
    • Compare: Where there's a will, there's a way.


  • 树倒猢狲散 (pinyin: shù dǎo hú sūn sàn)
    • Literally: When the tree falls, the monkeys scatter.
    • Usage: When a leader loses power, his followers become disorganized. This proverb is anti-anarchistic.


  • 死马当活马医 (si ma dang huo ma yi)
    • Literally: Try to save the dead horse as if it is still alive
    • Meaning: Do the impossible


  • 见风转舵 (jian feng zhuang duo)
    • Literally: See the wind, turn the rudder
    • Meaning: Change one's position when sees difficulties


  • 一代不如一代 (yi dai bu ru yi dai)
    • Literally: One generation is worse the one generation
    • Meaning: The next generation is worse the past generation (complain)


  • 富不过三代 (fu bu guo san dai)
    • Literally: Wealth does not pass three generations
    • Meaning: It's rare the wealth of a family can last for three generation (the 2nd may see the value of hard work, the 3rd, forget it)


  • 三年河东三年河西 (san nian he dong san nian he si)
    • Literally: Three years the east bank, three years the west bank
    • Meaning: One's luck/well often change to that of the competitor's


  • 十年风水轮流转 (shi nian feng shui lun liu zhuang)
    • Literally: Ten years the feng-shui will turn
    • Meaning: The luck will turn around


  • 窮则变,变则通 (qiong ze bian, bian ze tong)
    • Literally: Poor then change, change then go through
    • Meaning: When out of means, seek change. Then the change may go through.


  • 一颗老鼠屎坯了一锅粥 (yi ke lao shu shi huai le yi guo zhou)
    • Literally: One piece of mouce foul ruins the whole pot of rice soup
    • Meaning: One bad apple can ruin the whole group


  • 防人之心不可无 (fang ren zhi xin bu ke wu) Careful with other must have)
    • Meaning: Do be cautious that someone may hurt you intentionally


  • 害人之心不可有 (hai ren zhi xin bu ke yo) (Don’t intend to hurt others)
    • Literally: Do not have the intetion to hurt others
    • Note: This is usually use after 防人之心不可无


  • 看天吃饭 (kan tian chi fan)
    • Literally: See sky eat rice
    • Meaning: Counting on on mother nature for a harvest or not
    • Note: Usually meaning farmers


  • 以古讽今 (yiYi gu fen jin)
    • Literally: Use past to sarcast now
    • Meaning: Sarcarstic about something today using story of past


  • 骑驴找马 (qi lv zhao ma)
    • Literally: Riding a mule while looking for a horse
    • Meaning: Settle for what you have while looking for something better
    • Note: Usually for job hunting


  • 三个和尚没水喝 (san ge he shan mei shui he)
    • Literally: Three monks no water to drink
    • Meaning: Too many involve gets nothing done
    • Note: Because everyone is waiting for someone else to get it done


  • 做一天和尚撞一天盅 (zho yi tian he shan zhuang yi tian zhong)
    • Literally: one day a monk, beat the bell one day
    • Meaning: While you're still in this seat, do what you're supposed to do


  • 一厢情愿 (yi siang qin yun)
    • Literally: One side willing
    • Meaning: You are willing/hoping, what about the other/reality?


  • 剃头摊子一头热 (ti tou tan zi yi tou re)
    • Literally: shave head vendor one side hot (old time, one side hot water, ...)
    • Meaning: One is enthusiastic, the other is not - not gonna work


  • 水能载舟,亦能覆舟 (pinyin: shuǐ néng zài zhōu, yì néng fù zhōu)
    • Literally: Not only can water float a boat, it can sink it also.
    • Moral: There are opposite aspects of any tool or power.


  • 天下乌鸦一样黑 (pinyin: tiān xià wū yā yí yàng hēi)
    • Literally: All crows in the world are black.
    • Meanings: There are several possible interpretations:
      1. A natural interpretation: Some rules, like those natural forces of the Universe, are unbendable, regardless how much you may want it to change.
      2. A stereotypical interpretation: something or someone (bad) is no different from all the others (e.g., All government officials are corrupt, all lawyers are snakes, etc.).


  • 星星之火可以燎原 (pinyin: xīng xīng zhī huǒ kě yǐ liáo yuán)
    • Literally: A spark can start a fire that burns the entire prairie.
    • Moral: don't underestimate the potential destructive power that a seemingly minor problems can spread.
    • Compare: A butterfly beating it wings in America can start a hurricane in China.


  • 熊瞎子摘苞米,摘一个丢一个 (pinyin: xióng xiā zi zhāi bāo mǐ, zhāi yí gè diū yí gè)
    • Literally: blind bear picks corn, picks one and drops one.
    • Meaning: You will lose what you already have if you keep seeking for more.
    • Note: (Story) A bear (a bear, in Chinese culture, frequently symbolizes someone with little common sense) was picking corn and sticking the corn in his armpit. As he puts the next corn cob into his armpit, opening his arm, he drops the one he already had.
    • Compare: A bird in hand is worth two in the bush. (Benjamin Franklin - Poor Richard's Almanac)


  • 也要马儿好,也要马儿不吃草 (pinyin: yě yào mǎ ér hǎo, yě yào mǎ ér bù chī cǎo) (also+want+horse+good, also+want+horse+not+eat+hay)
    • Literally: Wants the horse to be good and at the same time want the horse not to eat hay.
    • Moral: You can't have your cake and eat it too (English equivalent).
    • Usage: someone has an unrealistic expectation.
    • Note: 'good' and 'hay' rhyme in Mandarin.


  • 有志者,事竟成 (pinyin: yǒu zhì zhe, shì jìng chéng)
    • Literally: If a person has ambition, things will be accomplished.
    • Moral: Where there is a will, there is a way (English equivalent).


  • 玉不琢不成器 (pinyin: yù bù zhuó bù chéng qì)
    • Literally: Jade that is not chiseled cannot become a gem.
    • Moral: a person needs training and discipline to build character.


  • 斩草不除根,春风吹又生 (pinyin: zhǎn cǎo bù chú gēn, chūn fēng chuī yòu shēng)
    • Literally: If the roots are not removed during weeding, the weeds will grow again when the winds of Spring blows.
    • Moral:
1)It is essential to finish a task thoroughly or the effort would be wasted
2) To solve any problems, the source of the problem must also be dealt with.
    • Compare: A stitch in time saves nine (approximate English equivalent).


  • 知子莫若父 (pinyin: zhī zǐ mò rú fù)
    • Literally: No one knows a son better than the father.
    • Moral: Having spent decades with each other, family members know what type of persons each other are like. "Sons" and "fathers" also apply to the female equivalents.
    • Usage: Character witness in a trial. Despite his/her denial, an honest parent can tell if their children are capable of heinous crimes, like murder.


  • 我听见 我忘记; 我看见 我记住; 我做 我了解。 (pinyin: wǒ tīng jiàn wǒ wàng jì. wǒ kàn jiàn wǒ jì zhù. wǒ zuò wǒ liǎo jiě)
    • Literally: I hear and I forget; I see and I remember; I do and I understand.
    • Moral: You can only understand something by trying it yourself.
    • Revised: Telling me and I [will] forget. Showing me and I [will] remember. Involving me and I [will] understand.
    • Also: You can't understand until you walk a mile in someone else's shoes.


  • 虎父无犬子 (pinyin: hǔ fù wú quǎn zǐ)
    • Literally: A tiger father has no canine sons.
    • Moral: The son of a great man is of no less valor than his father.


  • 人算不如天算 (pinyin: rén suàn bù rú tiān suàn)
    • Literally: Man's schemes are inferior to those made by heaven.
    • Figuratively: Man proposes and God disposes.
    • Compare: The best laid plans of mice and men go oft awry.


  • 有錢能使鬼推磨 (pinyin: yǒu qián néng shǐ guǐ tuī mò)
    • Literally: If you have money you can make the devil push your grind stone.
    • Note: English equivalent: When money talks, bullshit walks.


  • 八仙过海,各显神通 (pinyin: bā xiān guò hǎi gè xiǎn shén tōng)
    • Literally: like the Eight Immortals crossing the sea, each one displaying his/her special feats.
    • Moral: Everyone has his/her own powers.


  • 一言既出,驷马难追; (pinyin: yī yán jì chū, sì mǎ nán zhuī)
    • Literally: When something has been said, a team of four horses cannot overtake it. (Horses cannot chase back the words you have said).
    • 驷马: Four horse-drawn wagon, fastest land transportation at ancient time
    • Meaning: Once you have make a promise or say something, you cannot take it back.
    • Moral: People have to be responsible for what they say. Only speak after careful thought; do not speak without thinking of the consequences.


  • 八字没一撇 (pinyin: bā zì méi yì piě)
    • Literally: The character "eight" (八) does not have one stroke yet.
    • Figuratively: It takes two strokes to write the character "eight".
    • Moral: A particular thing hasn't even taken shape.


  • 不到黄河心不死 (pinyin: bù dào huáng hé xīn bù sǐ) (or 不见黄河不落泪)
    • Literally: Not having arrived at the Yellow River, the heart is not dead.
    • Figuratively: Feeling despair only when one arrives at the Yellow River.
    • Moral: Only when there is no road left does one finally feel despair.
    • Similarly: 不见棺材不掉泪, meaning no tears until one sees one's own coffin.


  • 一將功成萬骨枯 (yí jiàng gōng chéng wàn gǔ kū) (one+general+accomplishment+succeed+myriad+bones+dry up)
    • Literally: Tens of thousands of bones will become ashes when one general achieves his fame.
    • Meaning: A great person needs others to sacrifice themselves to build his success.
    • Moral: Before admiring someone's achievement, remember to look at the negative effects that he had delivered
    • Compare: To make an omelette you have to break eggs.


  • 十年樹木,百年樹人。(shí nián shù mù, bǎi nián shù rén)
    • Literally: Grow a tree for ten years; grow men for a hundred.
    • Meaning: Nurturing and educating human talent is the key to prosperity.


Four and more characters in idioms

Wikipedia has an article on Four-character idioms These idioms are known as "成语" in Mandarin.


  • 指鹿為馬 (zhǐ lù weí mǎ) (point+deer+as+horse)
    • Translation: Point at a deer and call it a horse
    • Meaning: Deliberately twisting the truth for ulterior motives.
    • Source: Zhao Gao, the chief advisor of Emperor Qin Er Shi, was attempting to completely control the government. Thus, he devised a test of loyalty of the officials. Once, at a formal imperial gathering, he brought a deer in front of the stupid officials and called it a horse. Naturally, Qin Er Shi disagreed, but thought Zhao was joking. Some officials followed the emperor's lead, while some followed Zhao's lead. Zhao then took steps to eliminate the officials who refused to call the deer a horse.


  • 指桑罵槐 (zhǐ sāng mà huái) (point+mulberry tree+blame+locust tree)
    • Translation: Reviling a locust tree when pointing at a mulberry tree.
    • Meaning: While one might appear to be criticizing someone or something, the intended criticism might refer to someone or something else completely.


  • 不耻下问 (bù chǐ xià wèn) (not+shame+down+inquire of)
    • Literally and morally: No shame in asking those of lower status.


  • 骄兵必败 (jiaō bīng bì baì) (arrogant+soldier+certain+be defeated)
    • Literally: The arrogant army will lose the battle for sure.
    • Moral: anyone who is arrogant/over-confident about their own abilities will fail indeed.
    • Compare: Pride comes before the fall.


  • 掩耳盗铃 (yán ěr daò líng) (conceal+ear+rob+bell)


  • 画蛇添足 (huà shě tiān zú) (draw+snake+add+foot)
    • Literally: Adding legs when painting a snake.
    • Moral: Don't overdo something.
    • English equivalent: to gild the lily.


  • 以毒攻毒/(yǐ dú gōng dú) (with+poison+attack+poison/)
    • Literally: Fight poison with poison.
    • Meaning: Fight fire with fire, magic must defeat magic.


  • 以牙還牙 (yǐ yá huán yá) (with+teeth+return+teeth)
    • Literally: A tooth for a tooth.
    • Meaning: An eye for an eye; to seek revenge in a manner in which one was injured.


  • 自相矛盾 (zì xiāng maó dùn) (self+each other+spear+shield)
    • Literally: piercing one's shield with one's spear.
    • Meaning: Self-contradiction.
    • The story about this is that a man was selling shields and spears at a marketplace. He raised up one of his spears and shouted, "This spear can pierce through any wall!" Then, he raised up one of his shields and shouted, "This shield can deflect anything." When he was asked what would happen if he pierced his own shield with his own spear, he was speechless, since he had contradicted himself.


  • 三人成虎 (sān rén chéng hǔ) (three+people+become+tiger)
    • Literally: Three people can make up a tiger.
    • Meaning: If an unfounded premise or urban legend is mentioned and repeated by many individuals, the premise will be erroneously accepted as the truth; see Three men make a tiger.
    • See also: Appeal to the majority.


  • 萬念俱灰 (wàn niàn jù huī) (ten thousand+thought+are all+ashes)
    • Literally: the thousands of thoughts have turned into ashes.
    • Meaning: All is lost. A hopeless situation.


  • 千里之行,始于足下 (qiān lǐ zhī xíng, shǐ yú zú xià) --Tao Te Ching
    • Literally: A journey of a thousand miles began with a single step
    • Meaning: Even the longest journey begins with a single step
    • Variant: Even the longest journey must start from where you stand


  • 一炮而红 (yi pao er hong)
    • Literally: One bang famous
    • Meaning: To become famous overnight



  • 杯弓蛇影 (bei1 gong1 she2 ying3)
    • Meaning:to be overly suspicious

Unknown translation/origin requested

  • 'He who asks is a fool for five minutes. But he who does not ask remains a fool forever.'
    • Meaning: By asking a question, you'll feel foolish for a while, because you lack the knowledge. By not asking and continuing to lack the knowledge, you will remain a fool indefinitely.
    • Note: " It's best to regret what you have done than to regret what you haven't"
  • "The absence of proof is not the proof of absence."
    • Meaning: Just because there is no proof of something, this does not mean that it does not exist.

The above sentence is quoted in Michael Crichton's The Lost World, the Book, not the movie, probably (most certainly actually) not the source, but he might have quoted the source there.


  • "He who go to bed early, wake up early."
    • Literally: Anyone that goes to bed early, will wake up early.
    • Meaning: "The sooner anyone starts doing something, the sooner will finish it."
  • "The mountains are high and the emperor is far away"
    • Meaning: "It's easy to do things that someone doesn't like only when that one is not present."

External links

  • Chinese sayings and proverbs Largest collection of Chinese Proverbs translated to English.
  • Oneaday.org One Chinese idiom a day (simplified and traditional characters) with pinyin transliteration and English translation.
  • peaceandpower.net Simple part-translation of Laozi's Dao De Jing - famous for sharing some of the wisest teachings known to man.