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List of Chinese proverbs

These are the humble beginnings of a collection of Chinese proverbs (歇後語 in pinyin: xie4 hou4 yu3; 諺語 yan4 yu3) and idioms, given in (and sorted by) pinyin transcription. Formulaic saying/expressions (成語 cheng2 yu3 -- "to become a saying") are known as four-character idioms (exceptions exist in the number of characters, though the majority are four).

Wide differences in pronunciation exist between the dialect-languages for the more or less uniform writing system in the Chinese languages. Some proverbs and idioms come from written documents, and thus would be accessible to most Chinese today. Many other expressions, however, develop around a rhyme or rhythm of intonation, and because the verbal distinction is tied to the regional dialect, such a proverb or idiom would not necessarily be understood or used outside of that region. But there are no clear geographical boundaries of dialect (particularly so today as the Chinese population becomes increasingly mobile), so it is difficult to sort the following proverbs by region.

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.

Table of contents
1 Mandarin proverbs
2 Cantonese proverbs
3 Hakka proverbs
4 Taiwanese language proverbs

Mandarin proverbs

The following proverbs are sorted alphabetically by their pinyin. If you know the literary source, please add it! Also add other pronunciations if you know them.

百世修来同船渡,千载修得共枕眠 (pinyin: bai3 shi4 xiu1 lai2 tong2 chuan2 du4, qian1 zai4 xiu1 de gong4 zhen3 mian2)
  • Literally: It takes hundreds of reincarnations to bring two persons to ride on the same boat; it takes a thousand eons to bring two persons to share the same pillow.
Moral: It is fate and yuanfen that brings two persons together, value an encounter and treasure a relationship.
Note: These two phrases do not rhyme, but have parallel grammatical structure, i.e, subject to subject, verb to verb, etc.
Usage: Sometimes used in marriage counselling to advise the couples having problems to resolve it, before making any hasty decisions.

冰封三尺,绝非一日之寒 (pinyin: bing1 feng1 san3 chi3, jue2 fei1 yi2 ri4 zhi1 han2)
  • Literally: Three feet of ice does not result from one day of cold weather.
Moral: Trouble, for example, in a relationship, indicates a long history of problems.

此地无银三百两,隔壁阿二不曾偷 (ci3 di4 wu2 yin2 san1 bai3 liang3, ge2 bi4 a1 er4 bu4 ceng2 tou1)
  • Literally: There isn't a stash of three hundred liang [Chinese unit] of silver below this spot; your neighbor Ah-er did not steal them
Moral: A nervous heart is prone to mistakes; overkill will worsen a situation rather than bettering it.
Note: The original story concerns a man who had hid several piles of silver beneath the earth with the only indication being that of a sign suggesting that no silver was buried here. Naturally, the silver was stolen overnight, and the man awoke next morning to find a dug-up pile of dirt and a sign explaining why his neighbor could not be the culprit.

大水冲了龙王庙 (pinyin: da4 shui3 zhong1 ne long2 wang2 miao4)
Moral: Misunderstandings may bring about adverse and unforseen consequences.
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 his temple being destroyed by the very forces which he controls is a situational irony.

画蛇添足 (pinyin: hua4 she2 tian1 zu2)
  • Literally: Adding legs when painting a snake.
Moral: Don't ruin your work by an unnecessary addition.
English: Guilding the Lily (a Lily having its own natural beauty would not be improved by gold-plating).
空穴来风未必无因 (pinyin: kong1 xue4 lai2 feng2 wei4 bi4 wu2 yin1)
  • Literally: if wind comes from an empty cave, it's not without a reason.
Moral: Most seemingly strange events and actions have logical explanations.

老骥伏枥,志在千里 (pinyin: lao3 ji4 fu2 li4, zhi4 zai4 qian1 li3)
  • Literally: The old horse in the stable still wants to run 1000 li 1.
Moral: Don't underestimate those with experience, people of great age may possess great ambitions and potential.
Note: 'stable' and 'li' rhyme in Mandarin
1 li: a Chinese unit of linear measure which corresponds to about a half kilometer

路遥知马力,日久见人心 (pinyin: lu4 yao2 zhi1 ma3 li4, ri4 jiu3 jian4 ren2 xin1)
  • Literally: Over a long distance, you learn about the strength of your horse; over a long time, you learn about the true 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.

人要面,树要皮 (pinyin: ren2 yao4 lian3, shu4 yao4 pi2)
  • 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 an child).

肉包子打狗;一去不回头 (pinyin: rou4 bao1 zi da3 gou3, yi2 qu4 bu4 hui2 tou2)
  • Literally: hit a dog with a meat bun, it does not return.
Interpretation: the dog is driven away, but the bun is also gone.
Moral: don't act rashly to preserve what you have, you lose some of it anyway
Usage: when something is loaned away and one doesn't expect to get it back, or something is given in some exchange, but nothing is expected in return.

世上无难事,只怕有心人 (pinyin: shi4 shang4 you3 nan2 shi4 zhi3 pa4 you3 xing1 ren2)
  • 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.

树倒猢狲散 (pinyin: shu4 dao3 hu2 sun1 san4)
  • Literally: when a tree falls, the monkeys scatter.
Usage: When a leader loses power, his followers become disorganized. This proverb is anti-anarchistic.

水能载舟亦能覆舟 (pinyin: shui3 neng2 zai4 zhou1, yi4 neng2 fu4 zhou1)
  • Literally: Not only can water can float a craft, it can sink it also.
Moral: There are opposite aspects of any tool or power.
Note: This concept is related to yin-yang.

司马昭之心, 路人皆知 (pinyin: si1 ma3 zhao1 zhi1 xin1, lu3 ren2 jie1 zhi1)
  • Literally: Even the pedestrians know the ambitions of Sima Zhao.
Moral: Evil plots of an ambitious person are widely known.
Usage: Showing disapproval of an ambitious person.
Source: Biography of the "Duke of Noble Town" (Gongguixiang Gong Zhuan) in the Chronicles of the Three Kingdoms. Cao Mao, emperor of the Kingdom of Wei, raged to his few trusted officials about Sima Zhao's ambition to take the throne.

天下乌鸦一样黑 (pinyin: tian1 xia4 wu1 ya1 yi2 yang4 hei1)
  • 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: xing1 xing1 zhi1 huo3 ke3 yi3 liao2 yuan2)
  • 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 spread.

熊瞎子摘苞米,摘一个丢一个 (pinyin: xiong2 xia1 zi zhai1 bao1 mi3, zhai1 yi2 ge4 diu1 yi2 ge4)
  • Literally: blind bear picks corn, picks one and throws one
Meaning: Inability to appreciate what you have.

掩耳盗铃 (pinyin: yan3 er3 dao4 ling2)
  • Literally: covering one's ear when pilfering a bell
Moral: Fooling oneself by ignoring the facts.
Note: this is an example of a four-character idiom. The story behind it said a stupid thief covered his ear when he stole a bell, believing that no one could hear the bell when he could not.

也要马儿好,也要马儿不吃草 (pinyin: ye3 yao4 ma3 er2 hao3, ye3 yao4 ma3 er2 bu4 chi1 cao3)
  • Literally: want the horse to be the best, also want the horse not to eat any hay
Moral: You can't have your cake and eat it too (English equivalent)
Usage: someone has an unrealistic expectation.
Note: 'best' and 'hay' rhyme in Mandarin

有志者,事竟成 (pinyin: you3 zhi4 zhe, shi4 jing4 cheng2)
  • Literally: If a person has stamina, things will be accomplished
Moral: If you keep working, you will have success.

玉不琢不成器 (pinyin: yu4 bu4 zhuo2 bu4 chen2 qi4)
  • Literally: Jade requires chiselling before becoming a gem.
Moral: a person needs training and discipline to build character.

斩草不除根,春风吹又生 (pinyin: zhan3 cao3 bu4 chu2 gen1, chun1 feng1 chui1 you4 sheng1)
  • Literally: If the roots are not removed during weeding, the weeds return next spring.
Moral: It is essential to finish a task thoroughly or the effort would be wasted, or a stitch in time saves nine (approximate English equivalent).

知子莫若父 (pinyin: zhi1 zi3 mo3 ru2 fu4)
  • 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 others are. "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.

Cantonese proverbs

sorted alphabetically by the
penkyamp, a Cantonese Romanization.

好心冇好報,好柴燒爛灶 (penkyamp: How2 samp1 mow5 how2 bow3, how2 cai4 siu1 lan6 zow3)
  • Meaning: Good deeds may not be rewarded; even good firewood may ruin the stove.
Note: 'reward' and 'stove' rhyme in Cantonese.

寧教人打仔,莫教人分妻 (penkyamp: Nenk4 gau3 yant4 fant1 cay1, mog6 gau3 yant4 da2 zay2)
  • Literally: It is okay to teach someone how to discipline a child, but don't teach how to divorce one's wife.
Note: 'child' and 'wife' rhyme in Cantonese

妻賢夫禍少,損友狗不如 (penkyamp: Cay1 yin4 fu1 wo6 siu2, sont2 yaw2 gaw2 bat1 yeu4)
  • Literally: With a good wife, the husband won't get in trouble; a bad wife is worse than a dog.

千金難買心頭好 (penkyamp: Cin1 gamp1 nan4 mai5 samp1 taw4 how2)
  • Literally: A thousand pieces of gold may not buy you what you like.
Moral: Money isn't everything.

事急馬行田 (penkyamp: Si6 gap1 ma5 hang4 tin4)
  • Literally: In case of emergency, the horse (馬) can move in the field (田).
Explanation: This is in reference to the rules in Chinese Chess. Normally the horse piece can only move in the 'sun' character (日 or a 1x2 rectangle) pattern.
Moral: In an emergency, one can break the rules.

狗上瓦坑有條路 (penkyamp: Gaw2 seong5 nga5 hang1 yaw5 tiu4 low6)
  • Literally: When a dog climbs to the roof, it takes its usual path.
Meaning: A villain uses his usual tricks, or behaves like any other villain.
Usage: often used to imply an improper relationship, such as adultery.

天上雷公地下舅公 (penkyamp: Tin1 seong6 loy4 gonk1, dey6 seong6 kaw5 gonk1)
  • Literally: In heaven, there is the thunder god; on earth, there is brother of your mother.
Explanation: In the old Chinese social hierarchy, one can be disciplined by the brothers of one's mother. Even the parents could not spoil a child in front of that uncle.

樹大有枯枝,族大有乞兒 (penkyamp: Seu6 dai6 yaw5 fu1 zi1, zok6 dai6 yaw5 hat1 yi1)
  • Literally: On a big tree, there are dead branches; in a big clan, there are beggars.
Note: 'branch' and 'beggar' rhyme in Cantonese

秤不離鉈 (penkyamp: Cenk3 bat1 ley4 to4)
  • Literally: a steelyard always goes with the weights.
Usage: X always goes with Y.

落地喊三聲,好醜命生成 (penkyamp: Log6 dey6 ham3 sam1 seng1, how2 caw2 meng6 sang1 seng4)
  • Literally: When a baby is born, after the third wail, its good or bad fate is determined.
Moral: There is no free will, your fate is pre-determined.
Note: The last syllable of the two phrases rhyme in Cantonese

風吹雞蛋殼,財散人安樂 (penkyamp: Fonk1 coy1 gay1 dan2 hog3, coi4 san3 yant4 ngon1 log6)
  • Literally: Like wind blows on egg shells, when the money is gone a person feels light (at ease).
Moral: Money is a burden.
Usage: This is usually used by a gambler who just lost all his money, but needs a philosophy to make themselves feel better.
Note: the last syllables of the two phrases rhyme in Cantonese

冤豬頭都會遇到聞鼻菩薩 (penkyamp: Yeun1 zeu1 taw4 dow1 wui5 yeu6 dow2 mank4 bey6 pow4 sad3)
  • Literally: Even a rotten pig head for offering will someday meet a bodhisattva with stuffed nose.
Moral: Regardless of any shortcoming, there will be someone who doesn't mind.
Usage: Usually used in the context of matchmaking.

夫妻本是同林鳥,大難臨頭各自飛 (penkyamp: Fu1 cay1 bun2 si6 tonk4 lamp4 niu5, dai6 nan6 lamp4 taw4 gog3 zi6 fey1)
  • Literally: Husband and wife are like birds in the woods, when trouble comes, they flee separately.
Explanation: This view reflects the lack of love in arranged marriages in ancient China.

兒女眼前冤,夫妻渡客船 (penkyamp: Yi4 noy5 ngan5 cin4 yeun1, fu1 cay1 dow6 hag3 seun4)
  • Literally: Children are eye sores; marriage is like an encounter on a ferry.
Meaning: Marriages sometimes lead to disasters.
Note: 'eye sore' and 'boat' rhyme in Cantonese

兄弟如手足,夫婦如衣服 (penkyamp: Henk1 day6 yeu4 saw2 zok1, fu1 fu5 yeu4 yi1 fok6)
  • Literally: Brothers are like arms and legs; husband and wife are like clothing
Meaning: You're stuck with your family, but it's easy to change your spouse.
Note: 'leg' and 'clothes' rhyme in Cantonese

Hakka proverbs

Hakka proverbs are sorted by the number of strokes (few to many). Please add Hakka pronunciations\

Initial source: 客家諺語 (Hakka Proverbs)

  • Literally: When the thunder rumbles once, all the world under heaven immediately knows.
Moral: When one acts, s/he shouldn't expect that it will be kept a secret forever.

  • Literally: Having an official in one generation would cause misfortune for the next three generations.
Moral: Regardless how virtuous an official is, s/he is bound to offend some people, and hence causing his/her descendants hardship.

  • Literally: Poor man sings folk songs.
Moral: Poverty does not mean an absolute lack of joy.

  • Literally: Big-eyed lady doesn't see the stove.
Moral: Everyone, even the best of us, can be careless sometimes.

Usage: Self-destructive thoughts or acts; looking purposefully for an unfortunate end.

  • Literally: Bamboo containers without the joints.
Explanation: Empty on both ends; the container can't hold anything without the joints
Usage I: getting busy all over nothing.
Usage II: Jook-sing

  • Literally: Provide the offspring with bodies, but not the hearts.
Moral: Even though one is born of parents, his/her thoughts are his/her own, not of the parents. Parents can only influence their children to a certain extent.

  • Literally: walk don't visit prostitutes; sit don't gamble.
Moral: Be virtuous not just in public, but in private as well.

  • Literally: You have the first day of the month, I the fifteenth.
Moral: Everyone has their own talent that will be useful one day or another.
comment: (Similar to the English proverb of "Every dog has his day".)
comment: Similar to (Everyone gets) 15 minutes of Fame (Andy Warhol).
  • Literally: Wife virtuous, son filial, father lenient.
Moral: The proper behavior of each family member to the others is determined by blood relationship.

  • Literally: Eating two yellow beans, then wanting to go up to heaven like the others.
Usage: when someone is setting unrealistic goals without regard to their ability; or someone is exaggerating their ability to others (boasting)

  • Literally: When chopping the bones, there isn't even a circle (?).
Usage: There is not one bit of substance.

  • Literally: Virtuous official finds it hard to pass judgements on domestic affairs.
Moral: In a domestic disagreement, neither party is ever clearly right or clearly wrong.

  • Literally: Using hempen cloth to make gowns.
Usage: Easily seen-through, transparent actions or objects.

  • Literally: Buy a salted fish and set it free.
Usage: so ignorant that they can't tell dead from alive.

  • Literally: Wander, wander; wild, wild.
Usage: someone has nothing to do and wanders around.
English: (perhaps) Footloose and fancy-free (without life commitments or lifestyle constraints).

Moral: Excessive enthusiasm can be counterproductive despite its good intention.

  • Literally: Cheat the ghosts by wearing clothes made of leaves.
Usage: warn others that someone is not easily deceived. (?)

  • Literally: Mud doesn't support the wall.
Moral: Some people who are ill-equipped by nature are just not destined for greatness
Usage: be realistic.

  • Literally: Broken drums can save moons as well.
Moral: Even the aged people and objects have purposes.

  • Literally: Grasp gold from beneath the head.
Usage: Having practical purpose. (?)

  • Literally: Change head, change face.
Usage: Very angry.

  • Literally: Poor men don't stop feeding the pigs, rich men don't stop studying.
Usage: don't drop the skill and means that can keep your livelihood.

Taiwanese language proverbs

Initial source: 台語俗諺 (Taiwanese language proverbs)

惡馬惡人騎,胭脂馬遇著關老爺 (ok1 ve4 ok1 lang6 kia2, en6 zi6 ve4 du1 dior3 guan6 lor1 ia2)
  • Literally: Vicious horses have vicious riders; a rogue horse encounters Lord Guan Qingtian.
Usage: No matter how ferocious -- or untamed for an animal -- you are, there is always a match who excels you, and often, controls your life.

一句毋知,百項無代 (zit5 gu4 m3 zai1, ba4 hang6 vor6/3 dai6)
  • Literally: Ignorant of one phrase, and there won't be anything [wrong] with the hundreds of the matters
Usage: Some people think that by accepting no responsibility, they would not get into troubles with the law.

父母疼囝長流水,囝想父母樹尾風 (be3 vu4 tiann4 giann4 dng6 lau6 zui4, giann4 siunn3 be3 vu4 ciu3 vue1 hong1)
  • Literally: The parental love for children is lengthy like the stream, but the children only think of the parents like the wind on the edge of a tree.
Usage: Filial piety is often not as reciprocal and as much as the parental love, especially when the children are young and unappreciative.
English (similar): "How sharper than a serpent's tooth is an ungrateful child" - Shakespeare.

打虎親兄弟 (pa4 ho4 cin6 hiann6 di6.)
  • Literally: To club a tiger, it takes blood brothers.
Usage: With family, one can accomplish even the most difficult task.
Note: Heroes defeating ferocious tigers that eat livestock and even human beings is the theme to various Chinese literature, such as The Water Margin.

惦惦較冇虻 (diam3 diam6 ka4 vr6 vang4)
  • Literally: Accompanied with silence is less mosquitoes.
Usage: If what one wishes is little attention, talk little. To avoid getting into an unnecessary quarrels, do not speak more than you need to. Perseverance is productive.
English: A closed mouth gathers no flies.
English: Even a fool, when he holdeth his peace, is counted wise: and he that shutteth his lips is esteemed a man of understanding. (The Holy Bible: King James Version, The Proverbs 17:28)

做甲流汗 嫌甲流瀾 (zor4 ga4 lau6 guann6,hiam6 ga4 lau6 nuann6.)
  • Literally: It takes sweat to work on things, but it only takes saliva to criticize things.
Usage: Criticism of others' hard work should be considerate, constructive and limited, and not free-flowing, since by not physically doing it, one cannot appreciate the difficulty of a task.

See also: