Chinese Proverbs

1. 事实胜于雄辩。 (Shìshí shèng yú xióngbiàn)

Facts beat eloquence.

From Lu Xun’s “Hot Wind” (鲁迅《热风题记》), it’s like, “Actions speak louder than words.”

2. 一言既出,驷马难追。(Yìyán jì chū, sìmǎ nán zhuī / ‘a word already produced, team-of-4-horses difficult chase’)

A team of horses will struggle to chase down a spoken word.

From “The Analects of Yan Yuan” (《论语·颜渊》), it means a word spoken can never be taken back, or a promise must be kept.

3. 路遥知马力,日久见人心。(Lùyáo zhī mǎlì, rìjiǔ jiàn rénxīn / ‘road distant know horse strength, days old see man heart’)

As distance tests a horse’s strength, time reveals a person’s character.

From the anonymous work “Fight Gratitude” (《争报恩》) of the Yuan Dynasty (1279–1368), when Mongol horsemen ruled China, this saying tells us that a long period of testing is needed to understand someone’s nature and capabilities.

4. 无规矩不成方圆(Wú guīju bù chéng fāngyuán / ‘no standards not become perimeter’)

Without standards, no boundaries are set.

From the works of Mencius and his students (《孟子·离娄上》), it means: nothing can be accomplished without norms or standards; or: without rules, we’re nothing but savages.

5. 惩前毖后。 (Chéngqiánbìhòu / ‘punish before prevent after’)

Punishing those who come before stops those who come after from doing something.

From “Sacrificial Odes of Zhou” (《周颂》) in the Confucian classic “Book of Songs” (《诗经》), it means: to criticize former mistakes firmly to prevent them happening again; or: learn from past mistakes to avoid future ones.

6. 三思而后行。 (Sānsī ér hòu xíng / “three thoughts and after act”)

Think thrice before you act.

From “The Analects” (《论语》), it’s like: “Look before you leap.”

7. 良药苦口。 (Liángyào kǔ kǒu / ‘good medicine bitter mouth’)

Good medicine tastes bitter.

It means: frank criticism is hard to swallow.

8. 有理走遍天下,无理寸步难行。(Yǒulǐ zǒubiàn tiānxià, wúlǐ cùnbù nánxíng / ‘have truth walk all land-under-heaven; no truth cun [Chinese inch; 1/30 m] step difficult walk’)

With truth on your side, you can go anywhere; without truth, you can’t take a tiny step.

From the philosophical work “White Horse Thesis” (白马论) by Gong Sunlong (公孙龙), this stresses the fact that righteousness will see you through all difficulties, whereas without it your progress will be hampered from the very start.

9. 当局者迷,旁观者清。(Dāngjúzhě mí, pángguānzhě qīng / ‘player confused; spectator clear’)

The player is lost; the watcher is lucid.

From the “Biography of Yuan Xingchong” in the Old Book of Tang (《旧唐书·元行冲传》), this points out that a person involved in a matter usually does not have a comprehensive overview of it, due to too much concentration on the details, while the onlookers, who have a calmer and more objective attitude, have a better grasp of what is going on.

10. 十年树木,百年树人。 (Shínián shù mù, bǎinián shù rén / ’10 years cultivate wood, 100 years cultivate man’)

Ten years to cultivate wood, a hundred years to cultivate a man.

From the work of Guan Zhong (《管子·权修 第三》) who was a politician in the Spring and Autumn Period, it means that (though 10 years to grow a tree that’s ready to be used as wood is a long time,) a person’s education is a life-long process or most time-consuming.

11. 民以食为天。 (Mín yǐ shí wéi tiān / ‘Subjects think food is heaven’)

Food is the first priority of the people.

From “Records of the Grand Historian” (《史记》), it means ‘hunger breeds discontent’, and its full form is “王者以民人为天,而民人以食为天。” — ‘Kings treat the people as heaven, moreover, people treat food as heaven.’ … meaning a ruler’s first priority is his subjects; the subjects’ first priority is food.

12. 善有善报。 (Shàn yǒu shànbào / ‘good have good recompense’)

Repay good with good.

From the Southern Dynasties work “New Wine and Meat” (《新酒肉文》) by Emperor Wu of Liang (464–549), it means: virtue has its rewards; or: one good turn deserves another.

13. 顾左右而言他。(Gù zuǒyòu ér yán tā/ ‘deliberately approximate and talk something else’)

Deliberately vague and deflective.

From “King Hui of Liang” in the Book of Mencius (《孟子·梁惠王下》), it means to be vague and elusive under questioning.

14. 几家欢喜几家愁。(Jǐjiā huānxǐ jǐjiā chou / ‘few families happy few families worried’)

While some are happy, some are anxious.

It means: one man’s disaster is another man’s delight.

15. 人过留名,雁过留声。(Rén guò liúmíng, yàn guò liúsheng / ‘man passes leaves name, swallow passes leaves sound’)

A person leaves a reputation, as a swallow leaves its call.

From the 32nd chapter of Legend of Heroes (《儿女英雄传》), it means that someone’s reputation is easily remembered.

16. 万事俱备,只欠东风。(Wànshì jù bèi, zhǐ qiàn dōngfēng / ‘all are ready, only lack east wind’)

Everything’s ready except the east wind.

From the “Romance of the Three Kingdoms” (《三国演义》), this means that everything is ready except what is crucial.

17. 麻雀虽小,五脏俱全。(Máquè suī xiǎo, wǔzàng jù quán / ‘sparrow although small, five organs entirely complete’)

Small as it is, the sparrow has all the vital organs.

From Qian Zhongshu’s work “Fortress Besieged” (《围城》), it means that although something looks small, its content is very comprehensive.

18. 桂林山水甲天下。(Guìlín shānshuǐ jiǎtiānxià / ‘Guilin mountains-and-water best under-heaven ‘)

Guilin’s scenery’s best on earth.

It was written by the Song Dynasty governor of Guilin, Wang Zhenggong (王正功,1133–1203) as part of a poem in 1201, and has been so often quoted in Chinese culture that Guilin has become the image of scenic beauty in China.

19. 哑巴吃饺子,心里有数。 (Yǎba chī jiǎozi, xīnlǐ yǒushù / ‘mute eats dumplings, heart inside has number’)

When a mute eats dumplings, he knows how many he has eaten.

This is used to point out that someone knows the situation quite well, yet says nothing… as is common in Chinese culture. Chinese tend to keep their thoughts to themselves… see more on Chinese and Western Thought >>>

20. 人逢喜事精神爽。 (Rén féng xǐshì jīngshén shuǎng / ‘man meet happy-occasion spirit invigorated’)

A happy occasion gladdens the spirit.

From “Journey to the West” (《西游记》), it means that everyone likes a happy occasion.

21.一举两得。(Yī jǔ liǎng dé / ‘one move two gains’)

Two benefits from one action.

Variously attributed to “History of the Later Han Dynasty” (c. 200), “The Book of Jin” (420), “Stories to Caution the World” (1624, Feng Menglong), and Lu Xun’s collected letters, this is the Chinese version of “to kill two birds with one stone” (一石二鸟。Yīshíèrniǎo/ ‘one stone two birds’), possibly of Ovid.

22. 如坐针毡。 (Rú zuò zhēnzhān / ‘like sit needle felt’)

Like sitting on a carpet of needles.

It means to feel tense and uneasy.

23. 逆来顺受。 (Nì lái shùn shòu / ‘adversity come follow receive’)

When adversity comes, receive it favorably.

It means to take things as they come.

24. 化干戈为玉帛。 (Huà gāngē wéiyùbó / ‘change shield spear for jade silk’)

Replace weapons with jade and silk.

From the first chapter of the “Huainanzi” (《淮南子·原道训》), i.e. to “bury the hatchet” and work for peace.

25. 此地无银三百两。 (Cǐ dì wú yín sānbǎi liǎng / ‘this ground no silver 300 taels’)

This ground doesn’t have 300 taels of silver.

It comes from a folk story about a man who buried a lot of silver and, because people suspected that’s what he had done, put up a sign saying, “300 taels of silver are not in this ground.” His neighbor King Two then stole the silver and put up a sign saying: “Your neighbor King Two did not steal it.”

It means to reveal what one intends to hide, i.e. don’t try to prove what people suspect, or you’ll make your guilt still more obvious.

26. 兵不厌诈。 (Bīng bù yàn zhà)

Soldiers don’t hate deceit.

From an ancient Chinese political philosopher Master Han Fei’s work “Han Feizi” (《韩非子》), it means: nothing is too deceitful in war, or: there can never be too much deception in war, or: all’s fair in war

27. 木已成舟,生米煮成熟饭。 (Mù yǐ chéng zhōu, Shēngmǐ zhǔ chéng shúfàn / ‘timber already become boat;raw rice boiled into cooked rice’)

The timber’s already a boat; the rice is cooked.

It means: what’s done cannot be undone.

28. 身体力行。 (Shēn tǐlì xíng/ ‘body physical-strength acts’)

A body acts according to physical strength.

From the “Huainanzi” (《淮南子·原道训》), it means to practice what you preach.

29. 大智若愚。 (Dàzhì ruò yú / ‘great wisdom seem stupid’)

Great wisdom can seem foolish.

From “Laozi” (《老子》), it means: great intelligence may appear to be stupidity, and is sometimes used to describe a situation where “he knows most who speaks least”.

30. 捷足先登。 (Jiézú xiān dēng / ‘quick foot first climb’)

The quick-footed climb first.

From the Historical Records (《史记》), i.e. “first come, first served”, or “the early bird gets the worm”, this is the old version of “先到先得” (Encouragement #14 above).

Chinese Proverbs About Love (10 Sayings)

Love is an eternal theme for sayings, and it’s no different in China. Here are some Chinese idioms about love and romance.

These old sayings usually espouse love or commitment to love.

1. 一见钟情。 (Yíjiàn zhōngqíng / ‘one look fall-in-love’)

Love at first sight.

It’s generally used for people, but you can also use it for other physical things/activities…

2. 愿得一人心,白首不相离。(Yuàndé yīrénxīn, báishǒu bùxiānglí / ‘wish get a person’s heart, white head not one-another apart’)

Long for a heart, never be apart.

3. 执子之手,与子偕老。 (Zhí zǐ zhī shǒu, yǔ zǐ xiélǎo / ‘grasp your hand, with you grow-old-together’)

Hold hands with you, grow old with you.

Like 2., this expresses lifelong commitment in love.

4. 爱不是占有,而是欣赏。 (Ai bú shì zhànyǒu, ér shì xīnshǎng / ‘love isn’t having, but is appreciating’)

Love isn’t about having, it’s about enjoying (what you have).

5. 爱屋及乌。(Ai wū jí wū / ‘love house and crow’)

Love the house and its crow.

It means that love encompasses everything connected with somebody: “Love me, love my dog.”

6. 萝卜青菜,各有所爱。 (Luóbo qīngcài, gè yǒu suǒ ài / ‘radishes greens, each has that-which loves’)

Radishes and greens, each has those who love them.

I.e. “one man’s meat is another man’s poison” or “each to his own”.

7. 在天愿作比翼鸟,在地愿为连理枝。 (Zài tiān yuàn zuò bǐyìniǎo, zài dì yuàn wéi liánlǐzhī / ‘in sky wish be fly-wing-to-wing birds; on earth, wish to be grow-together branches’.)

Birds flying in the sky as one; branches growing on the earth as one.

This is a wish for conjugal bliss.

8. 有情人终成眷属。 (Yǒuqínɡrén zhōnɡ chénɡ juànshǔ / ‘in-love people finally become spouses’)

People in love become spouses in the end.

I.e. love will find a way.

9. 情人眼里出西施。 (Qínɡrén yǎnlǐ chū xīshī / ‘lover eye inside appears Xishi [name; foremost of the Four Legendary Chinese Beauties]’)

In a lover’s eye is the foremost Beauty.

“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”

10. 有情饮水饱,无情食饭饥。 (Yǒuqínɡ yínshuǐbǎo, wúqínɡ shífànjī / ‘Have affection drink water full; no affection eat food hungry’)

With love water is enough; without love, food doesn’t satisfy.

It’s similar to Proverbs 15:17 — “Better is a dinner of herbs where love is, than a stalled ox and hatred therewith.”

Chinese Proverbs About Success (21 Sayings)

Positive phrases that make us visualize success are the foundation of morale. In Chinese, there are many old sayings to encourage others to continue (to work hard) despite (or because of) the trials of life.

Chinese Proverbs About Success

1. 冰冻三尺,非一日之寒。 (Bīngdòng sān chǐ, fēi yīrì zhī hán / ‘freeze 3 chi [3 chi = 1 meter], not one day’s cold’)

It takes more than one cold day for a river to freeze a meter deep.

This means: “Rome wasn’t built in a day.” I.e. If you keep working you’ll achieve your goal.

2. 机不可失,时不再来。(Jī bùkě shī, shí búzài lái/ ‘Opportunity can’t lose, time not again come’)

Don’t miss opportunities: time doesn’t come round again.

Opportunity knocks but once.

3. 人心齐,泰山移。(Rénxīn qí, Tàishān yí / ‘people heart together, Mount Tai move’)

When people work with one heart, they can even move Mount. Tai.

4. 万事开头难。(Wànshì kāitóu nán/ ‘everything starts difficult’)

All things are difficult at the start.

I.e. Things always get easier if you persevere.

5. 失败是成功之母。(Shībài shì chénggōng zhī mǔ / ‘failure is success’s mother’)

Failure is the mother of success.

6. 只要功夫深,铁杵磨成针。 (Zhǐyào gōngfū shēn, tiěchǔ móchéng zhēn / ‘just need effort deep, iron rod grind become needle’)

It just needs hard work to grind an iron rod into a needle.

This proverb encourages us to persevere to succeed.

7. 水滴石穿,绳锯木断。 (Shuǐ dī shí chuān, shéng jù mù duàn / ‘water drop stone pierce, rope saw wood sever’)

Water drops pierce stone; rope saws cut wood.

Patience and persistence can break through anything, no matter how great the difficulty. Similar to Ovid’s “Dripping water hollows out stone, not through force but through persistence.”

8. 一日之计在于晨。 (Yīrì zhī jì zàiyú chén / ‘a day’s plan lies in dawn’)

A day’s planning is done at dawn.

I.e. make your plans early, or get up early, as this will affect the whole day/undertaking.

9. 千里之行,始于足下。(Qiānlǐ zhī xíng, shǐyú zúxià / ‘1,000-li [500 km or a long way] journey, start with the foot down. ‘)

A thousand-li journey starts with a footfall.

10. 否极泰来。 (Pǐ jí tài lái / ‘evil extreme peace come’)

Peace replaces extreme evil.

I.e. all nightmares end.

11. 青出于蓝而胜于蓝。 (Qīng chūyú lán ér shèngyú lán / ‘green come-from blue moreover surpasses blue’)

Green is from blue, and better than blue.

This is used to describe when a disciple has surpassed his master.

12. 老骥伏枥,志在千里。 (Lǎojì fúlì, zhì zài qiānlǐ / ‘old warhorse lie stable, ambition at 1,000 li [500 km; a long way]’)

An old warhorse in the stable still longs to gallop a thousand li.

This describes one who still cherishes high aspirations in spite of age. Or: “You’re never too old to live your dream.”

13. 吃得苦中苦,方为人上人。 (Chī dé kǔzhōngkǔ, fāng wéi rénshàngrén / ‘eat gain pain in pain, method for man on man’)

Enduring deepening pain is how man ascends.

I.e. “No pain, no gain.”

14. 先到先得。 (Xiān dào xiān dé / ‘first arrive first get’)

— The first to arrive is the first to succeed.

I.e. “the early bird catches the worm.”

15. 守得云开见月明。 (Shǒu dé yún kāi jiàn yuèmíng / ‘keep-watch gain cloud open see moonlight’)

Watch till clouds part to see the moonlight.

I.e. “Every cloud has a silver lining” or trouble will pass.

16. 逆境出人才。 (Nìjìng chū réncái / ‘adversity produces talented-person’)

Adversity yields flair.

17. 吃一堑,长一智。(Chī yīqiàn, zhǎng yízhì / ‘eat a moat, grow a wisdom’)

Suffer a moat, grow in wisdom.

Having gone through a setback, one will have gained experience and wisdom, which will be useful if only one can take warning and learn something from the setback. “A fall in a pit, a gain in your wit.”

18. 不能一口吃成胖子。(Bùnéng yīkǒu chī chéng pàngzi / ‘can’t one mouthful eat become fat-person’)

You can’t get fat with one mouthful.

I.e. Some things aren’t accomplished in a moment. Don’t give up!

19. 风无常顺,兵无常胜。(Fēng wú chángshùn, bīng wú chángshèng / ‘wind not always favorable; soldiers not always win’)

Wind isn’t always favorable; soldiers aren’t always victorious.

This proverb urges us to be fully prepared for difficulties and setbacks: it is impossible to have smooth sailing all the time.

20. 星星之火,可以燎原。 (Xīngxīng zhī huǒ, kěyǐ liáoyuán / ‘star’s fire, can shine far’)

Starlight shines far.

Translated as: “A single spark can start a prairie fire.” Seemingly small actions have far-reaching consequences.

21. 哀兵必胜。 (Āibīng bì shèng / ‘sorrowful soldiers must win’)

An aggrieved army is sure to win.

It means an army burning with righteous indignation is bound to win.

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Chinese Proverbs About Wisdom (26 Sayings)

Chinese people have traditionally been good at drawing lessons from the ordinary things of life. Below are some of the most common wisdom sayings that give practical life advice.

The most time-honored and popular Chinese sayings present wisdom or a concept in a short pithy idiom. Many have just four Chinese characters.

Chinese Proverbs About Wisdom

1. 不作不死。(Bù zuò bù sǐ / ‘Not do not die.’)

If you don’t do stupid things you won’t end up in tragedy.

This Chinese web saying is recorded in the Urban Dictionary. It’s like: “Don’t poke the bear.”

2. 塞翁失马,焉知非福。(Sài Wēng shī mǎ, yān zhī fēi fú / ‘Sai Weng [legendary old man’s name] lost horse, how to know not blessing’.)

Blessings come in disguise.

According to the book “Huainanzi — Lessons of the Human World”, an old man living in a border region lost his horse and people came to comfort him. But he said, “This may be a blessing in disguise, who knows?” Indeed, the horse later returned to the man and brought him a better horse.

3. 小洞不补,大洞吃苦。(Xiǎodòng bù bǔ, dàdòng chī kǔ / ‘small hole not mend; big hole eat hardship’)

If small holes aren’t fixed, then big holes will bring hardship.

This proverb tells us that if a trivial problem is not solved in time, it will become a serious and knotty one. Similar to: “A stitch in time saves nine.”

4. 水满则溢。(Shuǐmǎn zé yì / ‘water full but overflows’)

Water flows in only to flow out.

Similar to “what comes up must come down”, this proverb points out that: things reverse when they reach their extremes. It’s from the 18th-century novel “A Dream of Red Mansions”.

5. 读万卷书不如行万里路。 (Dú wànjuànshū bù rú xíng wànlǐlù / ‘reading 10,000 books, not as good as walking 10,000 li road’)

It’s better to walk thousands of miles than to read thousands of books.

I.e/ ‘doing beats reading’ or ‘experience beats theory ‘.

6. 三个和尚没水喝。 (Sān gè héshàng méi shuǐ hē / ‘three monks have no water to drink’)

Too many cooks spoil the broth.

I.e. if too many people try to do something, like three monks trying to carry one bucket of water, they make a mess of it.

7. 一笑解千愁。 (Yī xiào jiě qiānchou / ‘one smile undoes 1,000 worries’)

A smile dispels many worries.

8. 笑一笑,十年少。 (Xiào yī xiào, shínián shào / ‘laugh,ten years younger’)

Happiness is the best cosmetic.

9. 美名胜过美貌。 (Měimíng shèng guò měimào / ‘beautiful name beats beautiful looks’)

A good name is better than a good face.

10. 不善始者不善终 (Bú shànshǐzhě bù shànzhōng / ‘not good starter not good end’)

A bad beginning makes a bad ending.

11. 大处着眼,小处着手。(Dàchù zhuó yǎn, xiǎochù zhuó shǒu/ ‘big points apply eye; small points apply hand’)

Keep the general goal in sight while tackling daily tasks.

This proverb advises us to always keep the overall situation in mind, and be far-sighted, while we set our hands to mundane business.

12. 一步一个脚印。 (Yībù yīgè jiǎoyìn / ‘one step one footprint’)

Every step makes a footprint.

Work steadily and make solid progress.

13. 一个萝卜一个坑儿。 (Yīgè luóbo yīgè kēngr / ‘one turnip one hole’)

Each has his own task, and nobody is dispensable.

I.e. “each to his own”, “horses for courses”, or “every kettle has its lid”.

14. 留得青山在,不怕没柴烧。 (Liú dé qīngshān zài, búpà méi chái shāo / ‘remain green hills present, not fear no firewood burn’)

While there are green hills, there’ll be wood to burn.

I.e. “Where there is life, there is hope.”

15. 一鸟在手胜过双鸟在林。 (Yī niǎo zài shǒu shèng guò shuāng niǎo zài lín / ‘one bird in hand beats pair birds in forest’)

A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.

16. 人无完人,金无足赤。(Rén wú wánrén, jīn wú zúchì / ‘man lack perfect man; gold lack enough red’)

No man is a perfect man; no gold is sufficiently bare.

It is as impossible to find a perfect man as it is to find 100 percent pure gold. I.e. “no-one’s perfect”.

17. 千军易得, 一将难求。 (Qiānjūn yìdé, yī jiàng nánqiú / ‘thousand armies easy obtain; one general hard request’)

It is easy to find a thousand soldiers, but hard to find a good general.

This proverb notes the difficulty of finding an outstanding leader.

18. 宰相肚里好撑船。 (Zǎixiànɡ dùlǐ hǎo chēnɡchuán / ‘prime minister stomach inside good-to pole boat’)

A prime minister’s mind should be broad enough for polling a boat.

This can be used to praise someone a magnanimous person. The saying is from the novel “Officialdom Unmasked” (官场现形记) by Li Baojia (李宝嘉1867–1906)

19. 难得糊涂。 (Nándé hútu / ‘hard get confusion’)

Ignorance is bliss.

Or: “Where ignorance is bliss, it’s folly to be wise.”

20. 祸从口出。 (Huò cóng kǒu chū/ ‘disaster from mouth exits’)

Disaster comes from the careless talk.

21. 三人一条心,黄土变成金。(Sānrén yìtiáoxīn, huángtǔ biàn chéng jīn / ‘three people one heart; yellow earth become gold’)

If people are of one heart, even loess can become gold.

This proverb tells us that as long as people are unified, any goal can be achieved.

22. 身正不怕影子斜。(Shēnzhèng búpà yǐngzi xié / ‘body straight not fear shadow slanting’)

One who stands straight doesn’t fear a crooked shadow.

Similar to: “A straight foot is not afraid of a crooked shoe.” I.e. A righteous man is not afraid to seem unrighteous.

23. 有借有还,再借不难。(Yǒu jiè yǒu huán, zài jiè bùnán / ‘Have loan have repayment; again loan not hard.’)

Timely return of a loan makes it easier to borrow a second time.

24. 蜡烛照亮别人,却毁灭了自己。 (Làzhú zhàoliàng biérén, què huǐmiè le zìjǐ / ‘candle illuminates others, yet destroys itself’)

A candle lights others and consumes itself.

This refers to self-sacrifice for the benefit of others.

25. 种瓜得瓜, 种豆得豆。 (Zhòngguā dé guā, zhòngdòu dé dòu / ‘sow melons reap melons; sow beans reap beans’)

You reap what you sow.

This proverb warns that one receives just returns for one’s actions; good for good and evil for evil. It’s similar to the Biblical: “…whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.”

26.欲速则不达。 (Yù sù zé bùdá / ‘Desire speed but not attain.’)

Those who just want speed don’t succeed.

This saying from “The Analects of Confucius” teaches that patience and the right method achieve the right result, where trying to do the same thing too quickly (by cutting corners) does not. It’s similar to: “More haste, less speed.”