Chinese is a rich language. Chinese proverbs and sayings will not just teach you about life; they’ll teach you about China itself, and give you a richer lens into the culture than proverbs in saying in other languages normally would.
Unlike most of our language learning, which is quite functional, for Chinese I went deep. I didn’t stop at being able to communicate. I embraced the rich complexity, and saw beauty in the depth of the language. I became an acolyte for studying characters and believe that Romanization shouldn’t happen (and don’t see it happening in my hopefully very long lifetime).
One of my favorite part of studying Chinese is the idioms, sayings, and proverbs. These aren’t for the new learner, because they’re hard to parse out. They’re all super abbreviated. Like, take the English expression “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t teach it to drink.” If this were written Chinese style, it’d be something like “Lead horse easy, teach drink hard.” You can only understand it when it’s written down and you examine each word, not if someone says it at a fast pace.
Why Chinese Proverbs will help you learn about China
There are, loosely speaking, three kinds of Chinese idioms, and they’ll each teach you something different about Chinese culture and people.
Chinese War idioms will teach you about Chinese business (and war)
These are idioms that come from one of two major sources of Chinese battle philosophy, the 36 Stratagems and Lao Tzu’s The Art of War. These were primarily written about battle, but now they’re considered to be the bibles for how to conduct modern warfare in business. For example, someone explained to me while working in Groupon, in China, that competitive businesses would readily employ the strategy of “Sacrifice the plum tree to preserve the peach tree”, burning cash in short term losses to make everyone else lose money, knowing they could then win due to their ample reserves, having bankrupted all the competition.
Classic Chinese proverbs (成语, chengyu) will teach you the Chinese/Sino-Asian mindset
These are often derived from poetry, a large number of them from the Analects of Confucius, but also from other sources. They were poetic in style. The first of these I learned was “Of three men walking, one could be my teacher”, which was part of a longer story. You technically have to know the full story, but the meaning in this case is obvious: one can learn anything from anyone.
They also often employ imagery, like animals or geographic features, like mountains. For example “The mountain is high, the Emperor is far away”. It means that in a large, distributed organization, HQ has no control over the provinces. It served me well in understanding how modern operations organizations work!
Modern Chinese idioms (俗语, suyu) will teach you language (and earn you points)
Everyone loves a good proverb, but in Eastern cultures, I’ve found that not only are there more proverbs, they’ll get you more mileage. They’re also not very hard to learn. One I learned once, while considering leaving my job at Groupon, was “骑驴找马”. Literally “ride a donkey to find a horse”, implying that it’s easier to find a job when you already have one. (Not for me, but definitely appeals to a risk-intolerant mindset that many have.) Or another one: “入乡随俗”, literally “if you enter a village, do as is customary”. Correlates to “When in Rome” in English/western languages. Using these in everyday conversation goes a long way.
A surprising number of what I thought of as proverbs/sayings are actually just common idioms. Shows how poetic the culture is!
My Favourite Chinese Proverbs
“To have a close friend in distant lands makes far-flung realms seem as next door”
《海内存知己，天涯若比邻》– Wang Zi 王子
Pronunciation: hǎinèicúnzhījǐ, tiānyáruòbǐlín
This classic quotation from Wang Zi is part of a longer poem, and is an oft-cited Chinese proverb on friendship. It captures so much of the beauty of having friends all over the world, making the world seem as if it’s next door. I’m mentioning it first here because it’s this, more than any other quotation, that captures the spirit of Discover Discomfort and what we’re trying to do—to see the world through others’ eyes and come to see everyone as the same. I don’t know of an English language equivalent to this.
“Know yourself, know your enemy; a hundred battles won.”
《知彼知己，百战不殆》– Lao Tzu 老子
From Lao Tzu, this classic Chinese war idiom is saying it’s important to study your own character and that of your opponent before going into battle. Even if you’re not going into battle (I, personally, hope not to), knowing yourself and know the challenges of what you’re attempting will give yourself the best chance of success.
“Of any three men, one could be my teacher”
《三人行必有我师》– Confucius 孔子
From the Analects of Confucius. Literally “Of three man walking, one could be my teacher.” Means you can learn something from anyone. My Chinese teacher taught me this, after I struggled to express it repeatedly. I found that in daily life in China I’d learn something about myself from unlikely interactions, and was constantly inspired to learn more.
“The mountain is high and the Emperor is far away”
《山高皇帝远》– Unknown – from Zhejiang province
This is a nicely summarized version of how distributed organizations work. There’s headquarters, and then there are all the provinces. In each province the local manager is the emperor, knowing they can often do whatever they like and the emperor, far away over the mountains in San Francisco, will never be the wiser. Also, the emperor’s word has little weight out in the regions; the local GM is king.
“Clear water has no fish”
《清水无鱼》– Idiom (unknown source)
A reference to the fact that one can profit from the chaos and confusion of muddy waters. This idiom exists in other cultures around the world too, like in English “Fish in troubled waters”. I like the imagery of the negative though; it almost references the expression in The Art of War to “disturb water to catch a fish” (“渾水摸魚”), i.e. a suggestion to create chaos. It was also the inspiration for the name of Muddy Waters Research, a company that researched fraudulent Chinese companies (and shorted them, and profited.)
“An old man loses his horse; who knows what good fortune is to come?”
《塞翁失马，焉知非福》– Huai Nan Zi 淮南子 (a compilation of classical stories)
This Chinese proverb is part of a long story, the likes of which exist in many cultures (I’ve heard similar ones from Middle Eastern cultures too). It goes something like this:
An old man’s horse runs away from the village. The neighbors from the village commiserate, but old responds saying: “Yes, I’ve lost a horse. But it is not necessarily a bad thing; let’s wait and see what happens.”
A few days later, the horse returns, bringing with it a young foal. The neighbours hear and congratulate the old man. What good fortune, a free horse! The old man is circumspect, suggesting they wait and see what happens.
The foal grows up, and the old man’s son goes riding. But the foal bucks and causes the son to break his leg badly. The whole town says “What bad luck! I bet you wished your horse never ran away now.” The old man politely suggest they wait and see.
Sure enough, a war soon breaks out and everyone is drafted into the army. Everyone but the old old man’s son, anyway, as he can’t fight with a broken leg. Good fortune again!
Later, some hoodlums break into the old man’s house and steal his television and eat the leftovers he was going to have for lunch. But the television wasn’t even 4K and the thieves got upset stomachs, anyway, probably from the leftovers. The jury is out as to whether or not this is related to the horse.
“The path to Dao is long and winding”
《任重而道远》– Zeng Zi 曾子
This proverb is about how every journey is difficult and long. There are no shortcuts in life. (Just hacks. But they don’t make the path shorter; just more efficiently travelled.)
“Just as one fears they have lost the winding road, a glimmer of hope will appear”
《山重水复疑无路，柳暗花明又一村》– Lu You 陆游
This is one of the most poetic of Chinese proverbs. The full quote actually translates to: “As you pass endless mountains and waterways and fear you have lost the road, the shade of willow trees and the bright flowers will tell you that your destination is year”. I can’t put that in the title. It’s so poetic. It’s also quite long even in Chinese, and often just abbreviated to an excerpt of four characters, “柳暗花明”.
“Just as flowers cannot remain red, people cannot remain noble”
《花无百日红，人无千日好》– Yang Wen Kui 杨文奎
This proverb is a little bleak, but basically is a reference to everything we’ve learned about psychology in the last fifty years: that in the vast majority of cases, sheer willpower (to be good, for example) is not reliable. So we need controls in place: rules, bosses, and a system.
The full translation is “Flowers don’t remain red for a hundred days; people do not remain good for a thousand days.”
“Sharpening the axe won’t delay the work”
A proverb, expressed in many cultures (but pretty nicely in Chinese) that one never will regret good preparation. It comes from a longer story. I only found out of the English equivalent when searching for the Chinese source: “A beard well lathered is half shaved.” Well, I’m off to lather my beard then… 80/20!
“The mighty dragon cannot crush the snake on the ground”
《强龙不压地头蛇》– Wu Cheng En 吴承恩
This is a classic proverb is used in startup culture in China, referring to giants from overseas never being able to beat a company that has strong ground operations in China. There are lots of other reasons companies like Amazon, eBay, Groupon and Uber struggled in China, but definitely one of them was this underpinning cultural belief, that probably manifested itself into reality in many ways.
“A good horse doesn’t return to old pastures”
This Chinese proverb (more of an idiom) refers to the fact that one can never go back to the same place, e.g. return to an old position, company or country. It’s a metaphor for the way we wander, but also it leaves open (in my opinion) the fact that that one does not return home as the same person, nor to a place in the same way.
“A stupid bird must take flight first”
This is a nice self-deprecating phrase to use when talking about yourself being hard working, saying that if someone isn’t very smart, that they must get up earlier and try harder. If someone congratulates you on being early to work, it’s a good time to say this.
Want more? Benny Lewis compiled his favorite quotations for language learners here. I love this list. Got any others? Know any awesome expressions in other languages? Note them down… we love these compilations!