Chinese Proverbs: Learn Mandarin through Chinese Sayings
So what are Chinese proverbs (谚语 yànyŭ in Chinese)?
In a nutshell…
Chinese Proverbs are sayings which originate from famous Chinese philosophers and writers.
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.
They’re also a great way to expand your Chinese vocabulary when you’re learning mandarin. 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.
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.)
1. Chinese Proverbs – Dig the well before you are thirsty
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
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’.
3. Chinese Proverbs – By Falling We Learn to Go 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’.
4. Chinese Proverbs – Be Not Afraid of Growing Slowly
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
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’.
6. Chinese Proverbs – Learn to 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
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.
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