There’s a good chance you use proverbs every now and then to enrich your daily conversations. Proverbs are classic sayings taken from literature, history, famous people, or even stories. They’re used to offer wisdom or advice in a nutshell, and they can be fun, powerful, or even life-changing if you ponder over them.
Chinese proverbs are called 谚语 (yànyŭ) in Chinese. There are many ancient Chinese proverbs from thousands of years ago, encapsulating our ancestors’ life-long lessons. These proverbs express all kinds of philosophies and ideas, so learning a few yourself will help you become more familiar with Chinese culture and society. Who knows? You may even be able to use a couple yourself to lighten a conversation!
Table of Contents
- Other Chinese Proverbs
Learning is a life-long journey.
What better way to begin our list than with a few Chinese proverbs about learning and education?
Pinyin: Xué rú nì shuǐ xíng zhōu, bú jìn zé tuì.
Literal Translation: “Learning is just like sailing against the current; if you don’t advance, you will be driven back.”
Meaning: We should never stop learning.
Usage in Context: You used to be very good at playing basketball, but you’ve been lazy and haven’t practiced it in a long time. At some point, you realize “学如逆水行舟，不进则退” and decide to start practicing again.
Pinyin: Shì shàng wú nán shì, zhǐ pà yǒu xīn rén.
Literal Translation: “Nothing in the world is difficult for one who is determined enough to achieve it.”
Close English Proverb: “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.”
Meaning: We can overcome any difficulty as long as we put our heart into it.
Usage in Context: You’re trying to learn how to code, but you’ve become upset because it seems very hard. Your friend sees your frustration and encourages you by saying: “世上无难事，只怕有心人。”
Pinyin: Huó dào lǎo, xué dào lǎo.
Literal Translation: “Learn no matter how old you grow.”
Close English Proverb: “Live and learn.”
Meaning: We should continue learning new things for the rest of our lives.
Usage in Context: Your dad stays at home and kills time all day; he has lost interest in growing a hobby or learning something new. You try to motivate him to do so by saying: “活到老，学到老。”
Philosophy comes from our daily lives.
We all experience and perceive life differently, but there are some universal words of wisdom we can all use to guide us or to express our feelings. With that in mind, here are a few Chinese proverbs about life and philosophy!
Pinyin: Guāng yīn sì jiàn, rì yuè rú suō.
Literal Translation: “Light travels like an arrow, and time like a shuttle.”
Close English Proverb: “Time flies.”
Meaning: We need to cherish the time we have since it goes by so fast.
Usage in Context: You’ve just had your twenty-first birthday and your parents feel like you’ve grown up overnight, so they say “光阴似箭，日月如梭” to describe their feelings.
Pinyin: Qiáng niǔ de guā bù tián.
Literal Translation: “When you force a melon from the vines, it won’t be sweet. “
Meaning: It’s not productive to force something to be done.
Usage in Context: You know that someone you like doesn’t like you back, so you try really hard to win his/her heart. Your friend advises you to give it up by saying: “强扭的瓜不甜。”
Pinyin: Zhòng guā dé guā, zhòng dòu dé dòu.
Literal Translation: “A man who plants melons will harvest melons, and a man who plants beans will harvest beans.”
Close English Proverb: “What goes around comes around.” / “You reap what you sow.”
Meaning: You’ll always get what you’ve worked for.
Usage in Context: Your friend has worked very hard and received a good grade on a test; on the contrary, you have been slacking off and received a bad grade. You would then describe the situation by saying: ” 种瓜得瓜，种豆得豆。”
Pinyin: Zèng rén méi guī, shǒu yǒu yú xiāng.
Literal Translation: “Fragrance will be lingering over your hands when you give out flowers.”
Meaning: If you help others, they will greatly appreciate you.
Usage in Context: You gave a beggar a sandwich; he seemed very touched by the gesture and thanked you for it. You feel very good about the situation and want to describe the happiness of helping others with the phrase: “赠人玫瑰，手有余香。”
Pinyin: Yǐn shuǐ sī yuán.
Literal Translation: “When you drink the water, remember the spring as the source of the water.”
Meaning: We need to appreciate the ones who originally gave us what we have.
Usage in Context: You have a very decent life and never need to worry about anything. You’ve never thought about why you have so much to enjoy, until you remember the proverb “饮水思源” and realize it’s because your parents worked hard for it.
Pinyin: Jī bù kě shī, shī bú zài lái.
Literal Translation: “Don’t let an opportunity slip, it won’t come again.”
Close English Proverb: “Opportunity seldom knocks twice.”
Meaning: We need to cherish every single opportunity we have, otherwise we may lose it forever.
Usage in Context: You saw that your dream company is hiring, and you’ve worked hard to revise your resume because you’re aware that ” 机不可失，失不再来。”
Pinyin: Bú pà yī wàn, jiù pà wàn yī.
Literal Translation: “We are not scared of ‘ten thousand,’ we are scared of the ‘just in case’.”
Meaning: We need to have a second plan, just in case.
Language Note: In Chinese, “ten thousand” is the reverse of “just in case.”
Usage in Context: The weather is cloudy but it says it won’t rain today. You decide to bring your umbrella just in case. You could describe this situation as: “不怕一万，就怕万一。”
Pinyin: Chī yī qiàn, zhǎng yī zhì.
Literal Translation: “Every time you fail, you grow wiser.”
Close English Proverb: “A fall into a pit, a gain in your wit.”
Meaning: Learn from your mistakes.
Usage in Context: You fell for a scam and lost money, so you say “吃一堑，长一智。” to show that you have learned your lesson and will be more cautious next time.
Pinyin: Jiāng hái shì lǎo de là.
Literal Translation: “Aged ginger is more powerful and spicy.”
Meaning: The older you grow, the wiser and stronger you get.
Usage in Context: You tried to trick your dad with a prank and failed. Your dad laughs and tells you: “姜还是老的辣。”
Pinyin: Wù yǐ lèi jù, rén yǐ qún fēn.
Literal Translation: “Objects are categorized with those that are alike, humans are grouped together with those who are similar.”
Close English Proverb: “Birds of a feather flock together.”
Meaning: People who have similar traits or interests get along with each other.
Usage in Context: You often see a group of teenagers bully people at school. You could use “物以类聚，人以群分” to describe the situation.
Pinyin: Dī shuǐ zhī ēn dìng dāng yǒng quán xiāng bào.
Literal Translation: “The favor of a drip of water should be reciprocated by a gushing spring.”
Meaning: We should return small favors with much larger ones, and be grateful for even the smallest amount of help.
Usage in Context: Your friend lends you a pencil to take a test when you don’t have one. It seems like a small favor, but later on, you return the favor by lending him lots of money when he needs it. You could describe this situation as: “滴水之恩定当涌泉相报。”
Success is never easy, but it’s always worth it.
We all want to achieve success, whether it be professionally or in our personal lives. To motivate and inspire you, here are some Chinese proverbs about success. You can always write them down on sticky notes and place them around your home or workspace!
Pinyin: Shí jiàn chū zhēn zhī.
Literal Translation: “Knowledge is tested from practice.”
Close English Proverb: “Practice makes perfect.”
Meaning: We can learn from experimenting and practicing.
Usage in Context: After college, you begin working as an intern at a company. After some time on the job, you realize how important it is to apply what you learned in class to the real world. You could describe this lesson as: “实践出真知。”
Pinyin: Liáng hǎo de kāi duān shì chéng gōng de yī bàn.
Literal Translation: “A good beginning is half of the success.”
Close English Proverb: “Well begun is half done.”
Meaning: A strong beginning is crucial to later success.
Usage in Context: You just went to your very first drawing class and you feel very confident about it. You’re proud of what you’ve done for a good beginning and further motivate yourself by saying: “良好的开端是成功的一半。”
Pinyin: Shī bài nǎi chéng gōng zhī mǔ.
Literal Translation: “Failure is the mother of success.”
Meaning: We can always learn from failures to eventually succeed.
Usage in Context: You’ve tried so many times to bake a cake and have failed for different reasons every time. You eventually succeed by recognizing all of the mistakes from your failures, because “失败乃成功之母。”
Pinyin: Yǒu zhì zhě, shì jìng chéng.
Literal Translation: “You will be able to achieve your goals as long as you have determination and ambition.”
Close English Proverb: “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.”
Meaning: “People who are ambitious and determined enough will be able to succeed.”
Usage in Context: You have a dream of becoming a ballet dancer, and your friend encourages you to pursue it by saying: “有志者，事竟成。”
Pinyin: Shéng jù mù duàn, shuǐ dī shí chuān.
Literal Translation: “Constant dripping wears away a stone.”
Meaning: Willpower will make the impossible possible.
Usage in Context: You used to be very overweight and no one believed you could ever get in shape. However, after five years of constant healthy diet and exercise, you now have a perfect body shape. You knew you could achieve this because: “绳锯木断，水滴石穿。”
Pinyin: Bīng dòng sān chǐ, fēi yī rì zhī hán.
Literal Translation: “It takes more than one cold day for the river to freeze three feet deep.”
Meaning: Excellence comes from the accumulation of consistent, day-to-day hard work.
Usage in Context: You want to play the piano as well as your piano teacher does, but you’ve practiced only a week and feel like you can never achieve your teacher’s level. Your teacher then tells you, “冰冻三尺，非一日之寒。” to imply the years of hard work he’s dedicated to playing the piano.
Do you have friends that you want to cherish for a lifetime?
Friends are some of the dearest people in our lives, and there’s much to be said about them. Following are a few Chinese proverbs about friendship that offer useful wisdom and insight on the topic.
Pinyin: Yǒu yuán qiān lǐ lái xiàng huì, wú yuán duì miàn bù xiàng féng.
Literal Translation: “You will meet people who are thousands of miles away if it’s meant to be, otherwise you will never meet each other although you live just next door.”
Meaning: Fate brings people together no matter how far apart they may be.
Usage in Context: You made a friend during a trip abroad and never got his contact information. Incredibly, you met him again when you came back to your country. You could describe this situation as: “有缘千里来相会，无缘对面不相逢。”
Pinyin: Qiān lǐ sòng é máo, lǐ qīng qíng yì zhòng.
Literal Translation: “Travel a thousand miles to bestow a goose feather; the gift may be small, but it’s a token of a profound friendship.”
Meaning: Gifts given from the heart are priceless.
Usage in Context: You have a friend who is very poor, and she wants to thank you for helping her out financially before. She then uses the best ingredient she has to make a meal to treat you; although it’s not a fancy meal, you feel her gratitude toward you and say “千里送鹅毛，礼轻情意重。” to describe how grateful you feel for such a wonderful meal.
Pinyin: Huàn nàn jiàn zhēn qíng.
Literal Translation: “Misfortune tests the sincerity of friends.”
Meaning: True friends will be there for you through a difficult time.
Usage in Context: Your luggage was stolen when you were abroad by yourself. You called many friends to ask for help, and only your best friend immediately transferred you some emergency money. You’re very touched and would like to say “患难见真情。” to describe how you feel about your friendship.
Pinyin: Yǒu fú tóng xiǎng, yǒu nàn tóng dāng.
Literal Translation: “To enjoy blessings and endure misfortune together.”
Meaning: True friends share not only the good times, but also the hard times.
Usage in Context: You used to earn lots of money and would always support your friends who were in need of it, but one day you went broke. Your friend is now in a better situation than you are, so he tries to help you out although his life is difficult as well. You could use “有福同享，有难同当。” to describe this friendship.
Pinyin: Lù yáo zhī mǎ lì, rì jiǔ jiàn rén xīn.
Literal Translation: “Just as distance tests a horse’s strength, time can reveal a person’s heart.”
Meaning: Time will reveal the true nature of humans.
Usage in Context: You have been best friends with Jack for ten years, and every time you need help he will be there for you; many of your other friends have grown distant with time. You realize how great your friendship with Jack is and use “路遥知马力，日久见人心。” to describe your feelings.
It may take some time to integrate proverbs into your heart.
5. Other Chinese Proverbs
Here are just a few more Chinese sayings and proverbs you may want to memorize!
Pinyin: Shuō Cáo Cāo Cáo Cāo dào.
Literal Translation: “Every time when you speak of Cao Cao, Cao Cao will be here.”
Close English Proverb: “Speak of the devil.”
Meaning: The person whom you were speaking about happens to come along.
Language Note: Cao Cao was a Chinese poet and warlord, and he was made a character in the novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms. This proverb is from the novel.
Usage in Context: You were just complaining about someone’s bad behavior to your friends, and the person you were complaining about happens to pass by. You tell your friends: “说曹操曹操到。”
Pinyin: Nǐ jìng wǒ yī chǐ, wǒ jìng nǐ yī zhàng.
Literal Translation: “You give me one foot of respect and I will return you ten times.”
Meaning: We should return even more respect and kindness than what we’ve received.
Usage in Context: You’re in a business meeting, and your potential partner seems to respect you a lot and has shown much courtesy. He left a good impression by doing so, and you decide to be even more respectful to him. You could describe this situation as: “你敬我一尺，我敬你一丈。”
Pinyin: Bǎi wén bù rú yī jiàn.
Literal Translation: “Seeing for oneself is a hundred times better than hearing from others.”
Meaning: Seeing something with your own eyes can be more effective than only hearing about it.
Usage in Context: My grandmother has never seen the beach in her life, and she has always heard that it’s pretty. When we took her to the actual beach, she was stunned by the beauty of the beach and couldn’t help using “百闻不如一见。” to describe her feelings.
Pinyin: Hèn tiě bù chéng gāng.
Literal Translation: “Wish iron could turn into steel once.”
Meaning: To wish that someone could reach one’s own expectations.
Usage in Context: You’ve failed your test again and your parents are disappointed in you, so they use “恨铁不成钢” to describe their feelings.
Pinyin: Ruì xuě zhào fēng nián.
Literal Translation: “Snowing indicates a good harvest.”
Language Note: This is from a traditional Chinese belief that a time-appropriate snow implies a good harvest for the next year.
Usage in Context: A farmer sees snow not long before the harvest time, so he says “瑞雪兆丰年。” to express hope for a great upcoming harvest.
Now, how many Chinese proverbs can you remember?
Chinese proverbs are worth pondering over as they comprise many people’s experiences and lend us useful wisdom for our day-to-day lives. They’re always simple to say, but hard to apply. That said, we should still try to learn from them!
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