Chinese proverbs (谚语, yànyǔ) are colloquial and summarized sentences that people often mention in their daily conversations. The proverbs are usually passed down by ancient Chinese or literature, and thus they contain wisdom, experiences, values, and thoughts from the ancients. Although proverbs are mostly historical, Chinese are still familiar with many of them and using them in life nowadays.
The quotes from Chinese ancients teach us important lessons in life and give suggestions about common situations we would encounter. The purposes of the proverbs are to admonish, enlighten, or educate. Through these proverbs, we can understand parts of the Chinese values, beliefs and moral principles.
You may know some Chinese chengyu and wonder what’s the difference between chengyu and proverbs. Some of the Chengyu teaches us Chinese values, too. However, Chengyu has four characters while proverbs are always longer. Today, we’ll tell you some of the common and famous Chinese proverbs that Chinese have learned since childhood.
Life lessons from Chinese proverbs
1. 一分耕耘，一分收获 (Yī fēn gēngyún, yī fēn shōuhuò)
Meaning: No pain, no gain.
Literally, this proverb means that if you reap for one point (一分), you can sow one point back. It also has a synonym proverb 种瓜得瓜，种豆得豆 (zhǒng guā dé guā, zhǒng dòu dé dòu). “As a man sows, and shall he reap.” On the surface, 瓜 means squash and 豆 means beans. Hence, you’ll get exactly what you’ve planted, and the harder you work, the more you’ll get.
2. 人不可貌相 (rén bùkě màoxiàng)
Meaning: Don’t judge a book by its cover.
Just like the meaning shows, it’s a common proverb in daily lives. We use this proverb to prevent ourselves not to judge people by their appearances.
3. 情人眼里出西施 (qíngrén yǎn lǐ chū xīshī)
Meaning: Beauty lies in the lover’s eyes.
In the proverb, 西施(Xi Shi) is one of the extremely beautiful women in Chinese history. Therefore, nowadays if there’s 西施 in Chinese, it represents beauty. If you had seen the movie “Shallow Hal”, you would perfectly understand what this proverb means.
“Shallow Hal” features an originally shallow man Hal, who always looks girls on their appearances, one day he was “enchanted” and met a beautiful-hearted Rosemary. Although in reality, people don’t see Rosemary as beauty at all, Hal sees only her inner beauty and deeply in love with her. One of the Chinese translation for this movie is exactly “情人眼里出西施”.
4. 塞翁失马, 焉知非福 ( sàiwēngshīmǎ, yān zhī fēi fú)
Meaning: A setback may turn out to be a blessing in disguise.
Similar to the saying in English “There are always silver linings behind every dark cloud”, this Chinese proverb indicates a positive and optimistic concept. The core meaning is that there may be a blessing in a seemingly bad thing, or the unfortunate thing brings a blessing with it. People love to take this proverb as an example to encourage others who are having a hard time.
The original story of the proverb is a farmer “塞翁”, who loses his old horse at the beginning and the series of incidents happened after that. People usually and judge the event as a good or bad thing right at the moment. However, things can never be one-sided and definite. Also, a synonym chengyu here is “因祸得福 (yīnhuòdéfú)”, to benefit from a misfortune.
5. 善有善报，恶有恶报 (shàn yǒu shàn bào, è yǒu è bào)
Meaning: Do good, reap good; Do evil, reap evil.
This is a really common proverb warning people not to misbehave or do harm to others. In Chinese drama, you can always hear this line when the good people are warning the villains. Literally, it means that the good(善) deeds you do would get paid(报) by good results, and vice versa.
Usually, it can be a longer proverb, just add “不是不报，时候未到” (bùshì bù bào, shíhòu wèi dào) behind. It means that some people haven’t get paid by their good/evil deeds not because they are not responsible for it, but just because the timing hasn’t come yet.
6. 己所不欲，勿施于人 (jǐ suǒ bù yù, wù shī yú rén)
Meaning: Treat others as you would like them to treat you.
It’s also an important value that don’t give others something you don’t want to own. It comes from Confucian Analects and quotes Yen Yûan, a famous disciple of Confucius. If you don’t want others to treat you impolitely, be polite to others first.
Famous Chinese proverbs about success
1. 失败为成功之母 (Shībài wéi chénggōng zhī mǔ)
Meaning: Failure is the mother of success.
The proverb usually used to encourage people who failed to do something. In addition, we are familiar with the story of Thomas Alva Edison, who failed so many times before he successfully invented light bulbs. Both the Western and Eastern world would’ve agreed to this proverb.
2. 一寸光阴一寸金，寸金难买寸光阴 (Yīcùn guāngyīn yīcùn jīn, cùn jīn nán mǎi cùn guāngyīn)
Meaning: Time is money, but it’s difficult to buy the time with money.
We are taught the importance of time (光阴), so there are many proverbs related to time. If we could seize every minute and make good use of time management, we could be successful. Therefore, the minimum unit (一寸) of time values gold (金), but once you lose the time, you cannot buy it with gold.
Chinese sayings about learning
1. 青出于蓝而胜于蓝 (qīngchūyúlán ér shèng yú lán)
Meaning: The students have surpassed their teachers.
Literally, the proverb shows “indigo blue (青) is extracted from the indigo plant, but the color is bluer than the plant it comes from”. Good teachers would be proud of the students who are hard-working to surpass them from their training and education.
2. 活到老，学到老 (huó dào lǎo xué dào lǎo)
Meaning: It’s never too old to learn.
It’s the proverb to teach us to keep learning (学) even when we are old(老) in the future. If you see grandparents are learning how to use smartphones with their grandchildren, you can say these grandparents just give a model to their grandkids.
Friendship and family in Chinese proverbs
1. 患难见真情 (huàn nàn jiàn zhēn qíng)
Meaning: A friend in need is a friend indeed.
Only when you are broke or meet some misfortune in your life would you find out who are your true friends and who are just fair-weather friends. Also, speaking of friends, “有福同享，有难同当 (yǒufú tóng xiǎng, yǒu nán tóng dāng)” is another common proverb, meaning that friends would share all the happiness together and help each other from suffering.
2. 有其父必有其子 (Yǒu qí fù bì yǒu qí zi)
Meaning: Like father, like son.
You can replace the third word “father”(父) and the final word “son” (子) with “mother” (母) or “daughter” (女). Just like in English, “Like mother, like daughter” or “Like mother, like son”.
3. 近朱者赤，近墨者黑 (jìn zhū zhě chì, jìn mò zhě hēi)
Meaning: One takes on the color of one’s company.
Friends can take an important part in our personalities. This proverb emphasizes how our friends influence our behavior. So literally it means “stays near Vermilion(朱) gets stained red, and stays near ink(墨) gets stained black.” So be careful when choosing your friends!
Chinese proverbs shape our value concepts. Not only in our daily conversations but also in Chinese TV programs and books. Many of the Chinese proverbs have corresponding ones in English and other languages too! Now that proverbs’ core meanings are worldwide, you should know more about these useful and enlightening proverbs.