Chinese is a rich language, full of florid phrasing and proverbs. One of the most beautiful parts of the language is the vast quantity of Chinese proverbs.
Knowing a few famous well-known Chinese proverbs not only lets you communicate better with Chinese people; it also helps you understand more about China itself. Proverbs give you a rich lens into any culture, because they tie day to day life into historic stories and legends.
These Chinese proverbs below are best suited for the intermediate or advanced Chinese learner. They’re a little hard to parse character-by-character.
See also: Chinese Idioms you Need to Know for Everyday Conversation. This is a much simpler list, perfect for beginners in Chinese, even if you’ve only been studying for a month or so.
Summary table of Chinese Proverbs
See below for more detail of each proverb, what they mean, and a little context.
|《海内存知己，天涯若比邻》||《hǎi nèi cún zhī jǐ, tiān yá ruò bǐ lín》||“To have a close friend in distant lands makes far-flung realms seem as next door”|
|《知彼知己，百战不殆》||《zhī bǐ zhī jǐ, bǎi zhàn bú dài》||“Know yourself, know your enemy; a hundred battles won.”|
|《三人行必有我师》||《sān rén xíng bì yǒu wǒ shī》||“Of any three men, one could be my teacher”|
|《山高皇帝远》||《shān gāo huángdì yuǎn》||“The mountain is high and the Emperor is far away”|
|《清水无鱼》||《qīng shuǐ wú yú》||“Clear water has no fish”|
|《塞翁失马，焉知非福》||《sàiwēng shī mǎ, yān zhī fēi fú》||“An old man loses his horse; who knows what good fortune is to come?”|
|《任重而道远》||《rèn zhòng ér dào yuǎn》||“The path to Dao is long and winding”|
|《山重水复疑无路，柳暗花明又一村》||《shān chóng shuǐ fù yí wú lù, liǔ àn huā míng yòu yī cūn》||“Just as one fears they have lost the winding road, a glimmer of hope will appear”|
|《花无百日红，人无千日好》||《huā wú bǎi rì hóng, rén wú qiān rì hǎo》||“Just as flowers cannot remain red, people cannot remain noble”|
|《磨刀不误砍柴工》||《mó dāo bù wù kǎn chái gōng》||“Sharpening the axe won’t delay the work”|
|《强龙不压地头蛇》||《qiáng lóng bù yā dìtóushé》||“The mighty dragon cannot crush the snake on the ground”|
|《好马不吃回头草》||《hǎo mǎ bù chī huí tóu cǎo》||“A good horse doesn’t return to old pastures”|
|《笨鸟先飞》||《bèn niǎo xiān fēi》||“A stupid bird must take flight first”|
“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
《hǎi nèi cún zhī jǐ, tiān yá ruò bǐ lín》
This classic quote 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.
This Chinese proverb really touches me. I don’t know an English language equivalent to it. If there’s one I’d ever get artwork of, it’d be this one.
“Know yourself, know your enemy; a hundred battles won.”
《知彼知己，百战不殆》– Lao Tzu 老子
《zhī bǐ zhī jǐ, bǎi. zhàn bú dài》
From Lao Tzu, this classic Chinese proverb / 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
《sān rén xíng bì yǒu wǒ shī》
This Chinese Proverb is from the Analects of Confucius. Literally “Of three men walking, one could be my teacher.” It 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
《shān gāo huángdì yuǎn》
This Chinese proverb is a reference to the fact that when the boss is away — or when you’re away from the boss — then you have free reign.
I like using this one at work. It lets local Michael Scotts of the world know that even though they technically work as part of a big organisation, because the “emperor is far away”, in their own kingdom, they can do more or less what they like.
“Clear water has no fish”
《清水无鱼》– Idiom (unknown source)
《qīng shuǐ wú yú》
This Chinese proverb is 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 idiom “Fish in troubled waters”.
I like the imagery of the negative in the Chinese version 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.
Also, both those concepts were the inspiration for the name of Muddy Waters Research, a company that researches fraudulent Chinese companies (and shorts them, and profits.)
This idiom exists in every culture we’ve studied so far, so it’s a universal theme.
“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)
《sàiwēng shī mǎ, yān zhī fēi fú》
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 neighbours 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 suggests they wait and see.
Sure enough, a war soon breaks out and everyone is drafted into the army. Everyone but the 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
《rèn zhòng ér dào yuǎn》
This Chinese 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
《shān chóng shuǐ fù yí wú lù, liǔ àn huā míng yòu yī cūn》
This is one of the most poetic of Chinese proverbs. The full quote in Chinese actually translates to: “Just 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”.
Obviously, I can’t put that in the title, as it’s so long. It’s very poetic. It’s also quite long even in Chinese, and often just abbreviated to an excerpt of four characters, “柳暗花明” (liǔ àn huā míng).
“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
《huā wú bǎi rì hóng, rén wú qiān rì hǎo》
This Chinese 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”
《mó dāo bù wù kǎn chái gōng》
This is a Chinese proverb (that also exists in many cultures) that one never will regret good preparation. It comes from a longer story.
I only found out of the English equivalent of the Chinese proverb when searching for the Chinese source: “A beard well lathered is half shaved.” (Well, I’m off to lather my beard then…)
“The mighty dragon cannot crush the snake on the ground”
《强龙不压地头蛇》– Wu Cheng En 吴承恩
《qiáng lóng bù yā dìtóushé》
This is classic Chinese proverb is used in entrepreneurship culture in China, referring to giants from overseas never being able to beat a company that has strong China roots.
There are lots of other reasons that major international companies mostly failed in China, but 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”
《hǎo mǎ bù chī huí tóu cǎo》
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 people 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”
《bèn niǎo xiān fēi》
This Chinese proverb 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, with a smile!
Why these Chinese Proverbs will help you learn about China
You might also like this article on 20+ fast and fun facts about the Chinese language.
There are, loosely speaking, three kinds of well-known Chinese quotes, and they’ll each teach you something different about Chinese culture and people.
Chinese War quotes 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 the 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 a tech company in Beijing, 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 quotes (成语, chengyu) 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 I learned when trying to express that you can learn something from anyone. The proverb is part of a longer story, but the meaning here is obvious without knowing the longer story.
Chinese proverbs 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 organisation, headquarters has no control over the provinces. It served me well in understanding how modern organisations work, both in China and in the West!
Modern Chinese quotes/idioms (俗语, suyu) will teach you language (and earn you points)
Everyone loves a good proverb, but in Eastern cultures, not only are there more proverbs, they’ll also get you more mileage. They’re also not very hard to learn. So learning Chinese proverbs gets you quite far for the money.
For example, when I was considering leaving my job in China, someone advised me that “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.
Another Chinese idiomatic proverb I used regularly was: “入乡随俗”, literally “if you enter a village, do as is customary”, which has the same meaning as “When in Rome…” in English/western languages.
Using these proverbs/idioms 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!