There’s nothing like a Chinese proverb to learn Chinese. Chinese proverbs are short, easy to remember and reflect the philosophy and art of living in the Chinese way. The use of Chinese proverbs allows you to create a real connection with your Chinese friends, and to make yourself 100% understood.
Chinese proverbs are broadly categorized as either 谚语 yànyǔ (proverbs or ‘familiar saying’) or 成语 chéngyǔ (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.
Read More: How to use Chengyu properly
There are also the 俗语 súyǔ which are popular sayings and the 歇后语 xiēhòuyǔ 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.
This article is perfect for learners who are advanced in Chinese, but beginners and intermediates are also welcome. Learning Chinese proverbs is always fun and interesting! Let’s see now 15 common Chinese proverbs
授人以魚，不如授人以漁 SHÒU RÉN YǏ YÚ, BÙRÚ SHÒU RÉN YǏ YÚ
English equivalent: Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.
人生何处不相逢 RÉNSHĒNG HÉ CHÙ BÙ XIĀNGFÉNG
English equivalent: It’s a small world (used when you run into someone you haven’t seen for a long time).
塞翁失马，焉知非福 SÀIWĒNGSHĪMǍ, YĀN ZHĪ FĒI FÚ
English equivalent: A blessing in disguise (the old man lost his mare, but it all turned out for the best). Used when something bad that happened to you actually brings you something good (e.g. You miss your plane but meet the love of your life on your way back home).
百闻不如一見 BǍIWÉN BÙRÚ YĪJIÀN
English equivalent: One look is worth a thousand words / Seeing by yourself is a hundred times better than hearing from others
活到老，学到老 HUÓ DÀO LǍO, XUÉ DÀO LǍO
English equivalent: It’s never too old to learn (lit. study as long as you live).
曾经沧海难为水，除却巫山不是云 CÉNGJĪNGCĀNGHǍI NÀN WÉI SHUǏ, CHÚQUÈ WŪSHĀN BÙSHÌ YÚN
English equivalent: One who has seen the world doesn’t stop at small things (lit. There are no rivers to one who has crossed the ocean and no clouds to one who has passed Mount Wu). Mount Wu (巫山Wushan), located in Chongqing, is famous for its Little Three Gorges (小三峡).
欲速则不达 YÙ SÙ ZÉ BÙ DÁ
English equivalent: Haste brings no success (lit. Don’t try to run before you can walk)
English equivalent: A slow sparrow should make an early start (lit. Clumsy birds have to start flying early). Meaning that people who struggle to learn need to work harder than the “smart” ones to compensate.
三十年河东，三十年河西 SĀNSHÍ NIÁN HÉDŌNG, SĀNSHÍ NIÁN HÉXĪ
English equivalent: Life has ups and downs (i.g. Time changes)
由俭入奢易，由奢入俭难 YÓU JIǍN RÙ SHĒ YÌ, YÓU SHĒ RÙ JIǍN NÁN
English equivalent: It is easy to go from frugality to extravagant, but difficult to go from extravagance to frugality (e.g. it is easy to go from poor to rich than from rich to poor).
城门失火，殃及池鱼 CHÉNG MÉN SHĪHUǑ, YĀNGJÍCHÍYÚ
English equivalent: A fire in the city gates is also a calamity for the fish in the moat (idiom); the bystander will also suffer (fig. You can’t escape responsibility for your actions).
路遥知马力，日久见人心 LÙ YÁO ZHĪ MǍLÌ, RÌ JIǓ JIÀN RÉNXĪN
English equivalent: As a long road tests a horse’s strength, so a long task proves a person’s heart (lit. Distance tests a horse’s stamina；Time reveals a man’s heart).
物以類聚，人以群分 WÙYǏLÈIJÙ, RÉN YǏ QÚN FĒN
English equivalent: Birds of a feather flock together.
English equivalent: Where there’s smoke, there’s fire, meaning there’s always some reason for a rumor (lit. No wind, no waves).
严以律己，宽以待人 YÁNYǏLǛJǏ, KUĀN YǏ DÀIRÉN
English equivalent: Be strict with yourself. Be lenient with others.
We hope you enjoy learning these famous Chinese proverbs and learn the story behind some of them. Don’t hesitate to share on the comments which one is your favorite and what other proverbs do you know.
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