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Chinese proverbs




Chinese proverbs

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.


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.


Literally: If a single member of a family eats, the whole family will not feel 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.


福(fú)無(wú)重(chóng)至(zhì), 禍(huò)不(bú)單(dān)行(xíng)
Literally: A person is blessed once, but his troubles never come alone.
Meaning: There are never enough blessings, but there are too many troubles.


冰(bīng)冻(dòng)三(sān)尺(chǐ),非(fēi)一(yī)日(rì)之(zhī)寒(hán)(ice+freeze+three+units(~feet),not+one+day's(7th and 8th)+chill)
Literally: A single day of sub-zero temperature is not enough to create 3 feet of ice.
Moral: Great things cannot be accomplished in a short period of time.
Compare: Rome was not built in a day (Roma non fu fatta in un giorno, Italian proverb).


大(dà)水(shuǐ)冲(chōng)了(le)龙(lóng)王(wáng)庙(miào)(big+water+poured over+finish+dragon+king+temple)
Literally: The Dragon-King's temple is flooded.
Moral: You can be harmed by the things you control.
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).


Literally: If the wind comes from an empty cave, it's not without a reason.
Moral: There is no smoke without fire.


老(lǎo)骥(jì)伏(fú)枥(lì), 志(zhì)在(zài)千(qiān)里(lǐ)(old+thoroughbred+hidden+stable,determined+be+thousand+distance (unit))
Literally: The old horse in the stable still yearns to run 1000 li 1.
Moral: Everybody, no matter the inexperience, yearns to achieve great deeds. 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 500 meters.


路(lù)遥(yáo)知(zhī)马(mǎ)力(lì), 日(rì)久( jiǔ)见(jiàn)人(rén)心(xīn)
Literally: Over a long distance, you learn about the strength of your horse; over a long period of time, you get to know what's in a person's heart.
Moral: Character can be revealed by time.
Usage: This can be used positively to praise a true friend; or negatively to criticize friends that could not stand a test.


人(rén)要(yào)脸(liǎn), 树(shù)要(yào)皮(pí)
Literally: a person needs a face; a tree needs bark.
Meaning: Reputation is extremely important.
Note: Face here is used metaphorically as the face (social custom). The Chinese, especially in ancient times, value reputation highly, thus creating this proverb.
Usage: when someone behaves dishonorably (once or repeatedly), it can be said directly to that person as admonishment (as parents to a child).


肉(ròu)包(bāo)子(zi)打(dǎ)狗(gǒu) (meat+bun(2nd and 3rd)+hit+dog)
Literally: To hit a dog with a meat-bun.
Interpretation: Punishment with a reward never works.
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: You must persevere to accomplish seemingly impossible tasks.
Moral: Everything can be done with enough perseverance.
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 often used to describe fair-weather friends.


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 having 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)
Explanation: In business, the first generation works extremely hard, so that the second generation reaps the benefits. By the time the third generation arrives, the wealth is squandered.
三十年河东三十年河西 (san shi nian he dong san shi nian he si)
Literally: Thirty years the east bank, thirty years the west bank
Meaning: One's luck and one's destiny will change over time.


十年风水轮流转 (shi nian feng shui lun liu zhuang)
Literally: Luck will change in 10 years.
Meaning: Luck will turn around every ten years.


窮则变,变则通 (qiong ze bian, bian ze tong)
Literally: If you're poor, change and you'll succeed.
Meaning: When out of means, seek change. Then opportunities will come.


一颗老鼠屎坯了一锅粥 (yi ke lao shu shi huai le yi guo zhou)
Literally: One mouse dropping ruins the whole pot of rice porridge
Equivalent English saying: One bad apple can spoil the whole bunch
防人之心不可无 (fang ren zhi xin bu ke wu)
Literally: Careful with others is a must have
Meaning: Be cautious of people that may hurt you intentionally


害人之心不可有 (hai ren zhi xin bu ke you)
Literally: Do not harbour intentions to hurt others
Note: This is usually use after 防人之心不可无(see above)


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


以古讽今 (yi gu fen jin)
Literally: Joke about the present by referring to the past.
Meaning: The past may be better than the present.


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 shang mei shui he)
Literally: Three monks have no water to drink
Meaning: Too many cooks spoil the broth.


做一天和尚撞一天盅 (zhou yi tian he shang zhuang yi tian zhong)
Literally: one day a monk, beat the bell one day
Meaning: Do things only when one needs to.


一厢情愿 (yi xiang qing yuan)
Literally: Enthusiastic, but unable to.
Meaning: The person wants to do it, but is unable to.


剃头摊子一头热 (ti tou tan zi yi tou re)
Literally: Barber one side hot (old time, one side hot water, ...)
Meaning: If only one partner is willing while the other isn't, it will not 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: Nature can help and harm you.
Equivalent English saying: The knife cuts both ways.
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:
A natural interpretation: Some rules, like those natural forces of the Universe, are unbendable, regardless how much you may want it to change.
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 problem can cause.
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)
variant: 狗熊掰苞米 (pinyin: gǒu xióng ba bāo mǐ)
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: Nothing is perfect. (English equivalent).
Example: Your boss wants you to work harder but doesn't want to pay you more.
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 must be chiseled before it can be considered 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.
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).
Compare: If a job is worth doing, it's worth doing properly


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.
Originally by Confucius.


虎父无犬子 (pinyin: hǔ fù wú quǎn zǐ)
Literally: A tiger father has no canine sons.
Moral: People that are closely related are similar
English Equivalent: A chip off the old block.
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. Money makes the world go round.

Meaning: Money can make life better.


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.(In terms of talents)


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 consist of one stroke.
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.


[edit] Four and more characters in idioms
Wikipedia has an article on Four-character idioms These idioms are known as "成语" in Mandarin.


爱屋及乌 (ai wu ji wu)
Translation: Love for house (pron. wu) extends to love for black (pron. wu)
Meaning: Love of a person cannot be partial.
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.
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 as they were loyal to the king.


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.(Sarcasm)


不耻下问 (bù chǐ xià wèn) (not+shame+down+inquire of)
Literally and morally: No shame in asking questions, even to people 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 in life.
Compare: Pride comes before the fall.


掩耳盗铃 (yán ěr daò líng) (conceal+ear+rob+bell)
Literally: Covering one's own ears while stealing a bell
Moral: Ignoring the facts is only fooling oneself.
Meaning: Pretending something is not happening when it is.
Compare: Elephant in the room, The Emperor's New Clothes.


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: Using poison to defeat poison.(Usually used with medicine fighting bacteria)

Compare: Fight fire with fire


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 shield!" 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: 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


Literally: Big fish eat small fish
English equivalent: A dog-eat-dog world.


杯弓蛇影 (bei1 gong1 she2 ying3)
Literally: See the reflection of a bow in the cup and think it's a snake
Meaning: To be overly suspicious.(Paranoid)

[edit] Unknown translation/origin requested

'He who asks is a fool for five minutes. But he who does not ask remains a fool forever.'
愚者不問,問者不愚。 The fool does not ask, he who asks is no fool

"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."

Early to bed, early to rise
早起的鸟儿有虫吃。 Early bird gets the worm

"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."
山高皇帝远。 The mountains are high and the emperor is far away – used as in carefree (lawless)

“Make happy those who are near, and those who are far will come.”*

Confucius: near De Yue, far from making. (The Analects of Confucius)

02:52 PM Aug 08 2009 |

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大鱼吃小鱼 Literally: Big fish eat small fish

English equivalent: A dog-eat-dog world.



In Italy we use to tell the Chinese version. I've never heard that English equivalent!

09:36 PM Aug 09 2009 |




大鱼吃小鱼 Literally: Big fish eat small fish

English equivalent: A dog-eat-dog world.

LATin version : CANIs Cadem Edit…..... ???

04:58 AM Aug 10 2009 |



very useful  proverbs.

thank you very very very much

06:47 PM Aug 10 2009 |




thanks popi for your latin traslation but this doesn't help us to understand what

Big fish eat small fish

hase to do withthe English equivalent

 A dog-eat-dog world. Innocent

09:50 AM Aug 15 2009 |





very useful for Chinese to learn translation

04:07 AM Aug 18 2009 |

Raul Alexander

Dominican Republic

Don´t go where the path may lead. Go instead where there is no path and leave a trial.

04:38 PM Sep 27 2011 |




thanks a lot for your sharing

02:38 AM Oct 06 2011 |