Chinese Proverbs: Learn Mandarin through Chinese Sayings

The Most Common Chinese Proverbs Revealed and Explained

So what are Chinese proverbs (谚语 yànyŭ in Chinese)?

In a nutshell…

Chinese Proverbs (or Chinese Idioms) are sayings which originate from famous Chinese philosophers and writers.

Learn Chinese Proverbs with LTL
Learn Chinese Proverbs with LTL

Confucius is probably the most well-known Chinese philosopher to whom many proverbs are attributed. There are hundreds of popular proverbs which usually give the reader an inspirational or motivational thought for the day.

These sayings address all aspects of traditional Chinese society but are very applicable to modern day life, from education and work to relationships and personal goals.

And remember each 10,000 mile journey begins with just 1 step (千里之行,始於足下 Qiānlǐ zhī xíng, shǐyú zú xià. Laozi.)

They’re also a great way to expand your Chinese vocabulary when you’re learning mandarin.

So before getting stuck into the best Chinese proverbs we wanted to give you our Chinese Proverb of the Day… come back every day for a new pearl of wisdom from the Chinese Language!

Huò cóng kǒu chū

祸从口出

Disaster comes from careless talk

So we’ve put together a list of some of our favourites to get you started with a short explanation of the tricky vocabulary and the meanings.

Chinese Proverbs #1 – Dig the well before you are Thirsty

Chinese Proverbs #2 – Teach a Man to Fish

Chinese Proverbs #3 – By Falling We Learn to Go Safely

Chinese Proverbs #4 – Be Not Afraid of Growing Slowly

Chinese Proverbs #5 – Opportunity Knocks at the Door Only Once

Chinese Proverbs #6 – Learn to Walk Before You Run

Chinese Proverbs #7 – Teachers Open the Doors. You Enter by Yourself

Chinese Proverbs #8 – Questions

Chinese Proverbs #9 – BONUS: 3 More Chinese Proverbs

1. Chinese Proverbs – Dig the Well Before You Are Thirsty

Learn Chinese through proverbs

Proverb in Chinese: 未雨绸缪

Pin Yin: Wèiyǔchóumóu

English Translation: This proverb is a figurative way of saying: plan ahead, or be prepared.

Here 未雨 (wèiyǔ) means before it rains. 未 (wèi) usually refers to something in the future, i.e. something that hasn’t happened yet, so in this case the rain. 绸缪 (chóumóu) means to bind something with silk.

So in this case, the proverb literally means repair (bind with silk) your house before the rain comes, make sure that you are prepared for a rainy day.

The English meaning is sometimes equated to the saying ‘dig the well before you are thirsty‘.

2. Chinese Proverbs – Teach a Man to Fish

Learn Chinese: Teach a Man to Fish

Proverb in Chinese: 授人以鱼不如授人以渔

Pin Yin: Shòu rén yǐ yú bùrú shòu rén yǐ yú

English Translation: This is a very well-known proverb, meaning that in the long-term it’s much more effective to teach someone how to do something for themselves than to simply do it for them. In Chinese the saying can be literally translated to ‘Giving a man a fish is not equal to teaching a man to fish’.

In English is most often translated as ‘Give a man a fish and you feed him for one day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime’.

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3. Chinese Proverbs – By Falling We Learn to Go Safely

Learn Mandarin through Proverbs: Falling Safely

Proverb in Chinese: 吃一堑,长一智

Pin Yin: Chī yī qiàn, zhǎng yī zhì

English Translation: This proverb is all about learning from your experiences or mistakes. The Chinese word 堑 (qiàn) literally means moat or pit. So eat one pit/moat, grow one knowledge point.

There are several translations we can choose from in English. Here we’ve used: ‘By falling we learn to go safely’.

But more literal translations could be: ‘fall into the pit, a gain in your wit’ or ‘fall into the moat and you’ll be wiser next time’.

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4. Chinese Proverbs – Be Not Afraid of Growing Slowly

Learning Chinese: Growing Slowing

Proverb in Chinese:不怕慢, 就怕停

Pin Yin: bù pà màn, jiù pà tíng

English Translation: This proverb means that the only thing we should be afraid of is stopping completely. It reminds us to be patient and that some things take time, slow progress is still progress after all.

This best translates into English as: ‘be not afraid of growing slowly, be afraid of standing still’.

5. Chinese Proverbs – Opportunity Knocks at the Door Only Once

Learn Chinese - Opportunity

Proverb in Chinese: 机不可失,时不再来

Pin Yin: Jī bùkě shī, shí bù zàilái

English Translation: This proverb reminds us that we really need to seize opportunities when they present themselves. 

Here 机(jī) means 机会 (jīhuì) opportunity, 不可失 (bùkě shī) referring to something that we can’t miss. 时不再来 – the time (时 shí) won’t come again another time.

In English this saying best translates to: ‘Opportunity knocks at the door only once’.

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6. Chinese Proverbs – Learn to Walk Before You Run

Learn Chinese - walk before you run

Proverb in Chinese: 一口吃不成胖子

Pin Yin: Yīkǒu chī bùchéng pàngzi

English Translation: The Chinese and English, when taken in literal terms, are quite different for this proverb. In Chinese 一口 means one mouthful, 吃 (chī) eat, 不成 (bùchéng) impossible, and 胖子 (pàngzi) means a fat person (fatty). Altogether, it’s impossible to become fat with just one mouthful.

The meaning here is to take things slowly, don’t try to stuff your face at the start, and in English is best translated to: ‘learn to walk before you run’.

7. Chinese Proverbs – Teachers Open the Doors. You Enter by Yourself

Proverb in Chinese:师父领进门,修行在个

Pin Yin: Shīfu lǐng jìnmén, xiūxíng zài gèrén

English Translation: This idiom translates into English quite easily. Teachers open the doors: teachers (here 师傅 Shīfu) lead you to enter the door (领进门 lǐng jìnmén).

You enter by yourself: here 修行 (xiūxíng) literally means practise Buddhism or Daoism), but here refers to ‘the action of opening the door’. 在个人 (zài gèrén) means ‘is on the individual’.

In other words, the act itself is up to the individual.

8. Chinese Proverbs – Questions

Chinese quotes - question

Proverb in Chinese: 请教别人一次是5分钟的傻子,从不请教别人是一辈子的傻子

Pin Yin: Qǐngjiào biérén yīcì shì 5 fēnzhōng de shǎzi, cóng bù qǐngjiào biérén shì yībèizi de shǎzi

English Translation: He who asks a question is a fool for five minutes; he who does not ask a question remains a fool forever.

This Chinese proverb is very well known too. It encourages the reader to be curious and ask questions about what they don’t know.

In Chinese 请教 (qǐngjiào) means to ask someone for advice, 5 分钟的傻子 (fēnzhōng de shǎzi) means a 5 minute fool, whereas 一辈子的傻子 (yībèizi de shǎzi) means a fool for life.

9. Chinese Proverbs – Just 3 more…

It’s difficult to know when to draw the line and just stop, we could write on and on and on… there are thousands of proverbs after all and we love teaching you them but for now, it’s time to take stock, learn the ones above and give you just three more which might be useful in day-to-day life.

Let’s take a look

There we have it 11 great Chinese proverbs to learn.

These are great not just for day-to-day speech but also for learning useful vocabulary and basic (or advanced) Chinese grammar.

For now, we leave you with one of our other really popular blogs, take a look…

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Chinese Proverbs – FAQ’s

How do you say Chinese proverbs in Chinese?

Chinese Proverbs in Chinese is 谚语 yànyŭ.

Is it useful to learn Chinese proverbs?

Yes, proverbs are used in day-to-day speech, all the time. Learning these, when you get to an advanced level of Chinese, is a very smart thing to do and will help your spoken Chinese greatly.

Where did the first Chinese proverbs come from?

Confucius is probably the most well-known Chinese philosopher to whom many proverbs are attributed.

There are hundreds of popular proverbs which usually give the reader an inspirational or motivational thought for the day.

What are other good ways to Learn Chinese?

Aside from getting to grips with the local lingo using proverbs, listening to Chinese music, watching Chinese movies and subscribing to Chinese podcasts are a great way to improve your skills fast.

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  • LTL Avatar Johan Brandal
    Johan Brandal, Student Advisor

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