Chinese Proverbs || 11 of our Favourites (with Bonus Proverb Quiz)

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.

Some of the most famous Chinese proverbs are 成语 (chéngyǔ) — these are proverbs that are four characters long, occasionally six.

For those longer, these proverbs are called 谚语 (yányǔ).

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.

Chinese-proverbs

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 one step.

千里之行,始於足下
qiānlǐ zhī xíng, shǐyú zú xià

Laozi (Chinese philosopher)

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!

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 || Dig the Well Before You Are Thirsty

Chinese Proverbs || Teach A Man to Fish

Chinese Proverbs || One Only Learns From One’s Mistakes

Chinese Proverbs || It Is Better to Make Slow Progress

Chinese Proverbs || Opportunity Knocks But Once

Chinese Proverbs || Learn to Walk Before You Run

Chinese Proverbs || The Master Leads You to the Door

Chinese Proverbs || He Who Asks A Question

BONUS || 3 More Chinese Proverbs

Chinese Proverbs || FAQs

Let’s learn some slang whilst we are here as well

1. Dig the Well Before You Are Thirsty

Chinese proverb: dig the well before you are thirsty; plan ahead.

Proverb in Chinese: 未雨绸缪

Pinyin: wèiyǔchóumóu

English translation: dig the well before you are thirsty. Plan ahead.

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.

Here, 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. Teach a Man to Fish

Proverb in Chinese: 授人以鱼不如授人以渔

Pinyin: shòu rén yǐ yú bù rú shòu rén yǐ yú

English translation: This is a very well-known proverb, meaning that it’s much more effective to teach someone how to do something for themselves than to simply do it for them in the long-term.

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, it 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”.

3. One Only Learns From One’s Mistakes

Proverb in Chinese: 吃一堑长一智

Pinyin: 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: “One only learns from one’s mistakes”.

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”.

3. It’s Better to Make Slow Progress Than No Progress at All

Proverb in Chinese: 不怕慢就怕站

Pinyin: bù pà màn, jiù pà zhàn

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 to…

“Be not afraid of growing slowly, be afraid of standing still”.

Wise words there!

5. Opportunity Knocks But Once

Proverb in Chinese: 机不可失,时不再来

Pinyin: jī bù kě shī, shí bù zài lái

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

Here, 机 (jī) means opportunity (机会, jīhuì), and 不可失 (bùkě shī) refers to something that we can’t miss. 

时不再来 means the time (时 shí) won’t come again another time.

In English, this saying best translates to: “Opportunity knocks but once“.

COOL BLOG ALERT – Want to learn how to swear in Shanghainese…?!

6. Learn to Walk Before You Run

Proverb in Chinese: 一口吃不成胖子

Pinyin: yī kǒu chī bù chéng 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) translates to eat, 不成 (bùchéng) to impossible, and 胖子 (pàngzi) means a fat person.

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.

In English is best translated to “Learn to walk before you run”.

7. The Master Leads You to the Door, the Rest is Up to You

Proverb in Chinese: 师父领进门,修行在个人

Pinyin: shī fu lǐng jìn mén, xiū xíng zài gè rén

English translation: This idiom translates into English quite smoothly.

Masters open the doors (师父领进门).

You enter by yourself: here, 修行 (xiūxíng) literally means practising Buddhism or Daoism, but actually refers to the action of opening the door. 在个人 (zài gè rén) means “is on the individual”.

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

FANCY LEARNING TWO BONUS IDIOMS? Check out Anastaciia’s video with us below.

8. He Who Asks A Question

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

Pinyin: qǐng jiào bié rén yī cì shì wǔ fēnzhōng de shǎzi, cóng bù qǐng jiào biérén shì yī bèizi 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, 分钟的傻子 (wǔ fēnzhōng de shǎzi) means a “five-minute fool”, whereas 一辈子的傻子 (yī bèizi 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.

If you want to discover even more Chinese idioms and sayings, check out our other article.

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

HOW ABOUT TRYING SOMETHING NEW? We even wrote an article about some of the most commonly used Vietnamese proverbs and also the top Korean proverbs to know.

Come and see how they compare to these Chinese ones.

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

Chinese Names 🤩 A Simple and Easy Guide to Understanding Names in China Thumbnail

Chinese Names 🤩 A Simple and Easy Guide to Understanding Names in China

Follow our guide to Chinese names to discover the most popular names in China (for boys and girls). Ever wanted your own Chinese name? We can help.


Ready to try your hand at our Chinese Proverbs quiz?

We’ve prepared a quick-fire quiz to see how much you really know about Chinese Proverbs.

Take our Chinese Proverbs quiz here.

Chinese Proverbs || FAQs

How do you say Chinese Proverbs in Mandarin?

Chinese proverbs 4 characters long (sometimes 6) are called 成语 (chéngyǔ).

Those longer are called 谚语 (yànyŭ).

What are Chinese Proverbs?

Chinese proverbs (or Chinese idioms) are sayings which originate from famous Chinese philosophers and writers.

What is an ancient Chinese proverb?

An ancient Chinese proverb is 师父领进门,修行在个人 (shī fu lǐng jìn mén, xiū xíng zài gè rén).

This translates to “the master leads to you to the door, the rest is up to you.”

What are some other Chinese sayings?

不怕慢,就怕站 (bù pà màn, jiù pà zhàn) means it’s better to make slow progress than no progress at all.

授人以鱼不如授人以渔 (shòu rén yǐ yú bù rú shòu rén yǐ yú) translates to “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”

速则不达 (yù sù zé bù dá) means haste makes waste.

If you want to discover more Chinese sayings and idioms check this post out.

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 beneficial 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 some great techniques 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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    Alexander Krasnov , Vice CEO

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