There’s a good chance you use proverbs every now and then to enrich your daily conversations. Proverbs are classic sayings taken from literature, history, famous people, or even stories. They’re used to offer wisdom or advice in a nutshell, and they can be fun, powerful, or even life-changing if you ponder over them.
Chinese proverbs are called 谚语 (yànyŭ) in Chinese. There are many ancient Chinese proverbs from thousands of years ago, encapsulating our ancestors’ life-long lessons. These proverbs express all kinds of philosophies and ideas, so learning a few yourself will help you become more familiar with Chinese culture and society. Who knows? You may even be able to use a couple yourself to lighten a conversation!
Learning is a life-long journey.
What better way to begin our list than with a few Chinese proverbs about learning and education?
Pinyin: Xué rú nì shuǐ xíng zhōu, bú jìn zé tuì.
Literal Translation: “Learning is just like sailing against the current; if you don’t advance, you will be driven back.”
Meaning: We should never stop learning.
Usage in Context: You used to be very good at playing basketball, but you’ve been lazy and haven’t practiced it in a long time. At some point, you realize “学如逆水行舟，不进则退” and decide to start practicing again.
Pinyin: Shì shàng wú nán shì, zhǐ pà yǒu xīn rén.
Literal Translation: “Nothing in the world is difficult for one who is determined enough to achieve it.”
Close English Proverb: “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.”
Meaning: We can overcome any difficulty as long as we put our heart into it.
Usage in Context: You’re trying to learn how to code, but you’ve become upset because it seems very hard. Your friend sees your frustration and encourages you by saying: “世上无难事，只怕有心人。”
Pinyin: Huó dào lǎo, xué dào lǎo.
Literal Translation: “Learn no matter how old you grow.”
Close English Proverb: “Live and learn.”
Meaning: We should continue learning new things for the rest of our lives.
Usage in Context: Your dad stays at home and kills time all day; he has lost interest in growing a hobby or learning something new. You try to motivate him to do so by saying: “活到老，学到老。
Pinyin: Guāng yīn sì jiàn, rì yuè rú suō.
Literal Translation: “Light travels like an arrow, and time like a shuttle.”
Close English Proverb: “Time flies.”
Meaning: We need to cherish the time we have since it goes by so fast.
Usage in Context: You’ve just had your twenty-first birthday and your parents feel like you’ve grown up overnight, so they say “光阴似箭，日月如梭” to describe their feelings.
Pinyin: Qiáng niǔ de guā bù tián.
Literal Translation: “When you force a melon from the vines, it won’t be sweet. “
Meaning: It’s not productive to force something to be done.
Usage in Context: You know that someone you like doesn’t like you back, so you try really hard to win his/her heart. Your friend advises you to give it up by saying: “强扭的瓜不甜。”
Pinyin: Zhòng guā dé guā, zhòng dòu dé dòu.
Literal Translation: “A man who plants melons will harvest melons, and a man who plants beans will harvest beans.”
Close English Proverb: “What goes around comes around.” / “You reap what you sow.”
Meaning: You’ll always get what you’ve worked for.
Usage in Context: Your friend has worked very hard and received a good grade on a test; on the contrary, you have been slacking off and received a bad grade. You would then describe the situation by saying: ” 种瓜得瓜，种豆得豆。”
Pinyin: Zèng rén méi guī, shǒu yǒu yú xiāng.
Literal Translation: “Fragrance will be lingering over your hands when you give out flowers.”
Meaning: If you help others, they will greatly appreciate you.
Usage in Context: You gave a beggar a sandwich; he seemed very touched by the gesture and thanked you for it. You feel very good about the situation and want to describe the happiness of helping others with the phrase: “赠人玫瑰，手有余香。”
Pinyin: Yǐn shuǐ sī yuán.
Literal Translation: “When you drink the water, remember the spring as the source of the water.”
Meaning: We need to appreciate the ones who originally gave us what we have.
Usage in Context: You have a very decent life and never need to worry about anything. You’ve never thought about why you have so much to enjoy, until you remember the proverb “饮水思源” and realize it’s because your parents worked hard for it.
Pinyin: Jī bù kě shī, shī bú zài lái.
Literal Translation: “Don’t let an opportunity slip, it won’t come again.”
Close English Proverb: “Opportunity seldom knocks twice.”
Meaning: We need to cherish every single opportunity we have, otherwise we may lose it forever.
Usage in Context: You saw that your dream company is hiring, and you’ve worked hard to revise your resume because you’re aware that ” 机不可失，失不再来。”
Pinyin: Bú pà yī wàn, jiù pà wàn yī.
Literal Translation: “We are not scared of ‘ten thousand,’ we are scared of the ‘just in case’.”
Meaning: We need to have a second plan, just in case.
Language Note: In Chinese, “ten thousand” is the reverse of “just in case.”
Usage in Context: The weather is cloudy but it says it won’t rain today. You decide to bring your umbrella just in case. You could describe this situation as: “不怕一万，就怕万一。”
Pinyin: Chī yī qiàn, zhǎng yī zhì.
Literal Translation: “Every time you fail, you grow wiser.”
Close English Proverb: “A fall into a pit, a gain in your wit.”
Meaning: Learn from your mistakes.
Usage in Context: You fell for a scam and lost money, so you say “吃一堑，长一智。” to show that you have learned your lesson and will be more cautious next time.
Pinyin: Jiāng hái shì lǎo de là.
Literal Translation: “Aged ginger is more powerful and spicy.”
Meaning: The older you grow, the wiser and stronger you get.
Usage in Context: You tried to trick your dad with a prank and failed. Your dad laughs and tells you: “姜还是老的辣。”
Pinyin: Wù yǐ lèi jù, rén yǐ qún fēn.
Literal Translation: “Objects are categorized with those that are alike, humans are grouped together with those who are similar.”
Close English Proverb: “Birds of a feather flock together.”
Meaning: People who have similar traits or interests get along with each other.
Usage in Context: You often see a group of teenagers bully people at school. You could use “物以类聚，人以群分” to describe the situation.
Pinyin: Dī shuǐ zhī ēn dìng dāng yǒng quán xiāng bào.
Literal Translation: “The favor of a drip of water should be reciprocated by a gushing spring.”
Meaning: We should return small favors with much larger ones, and be grateful for even the smallest amount of help.
Usage in Context: Your friend lends you a pencil to take a test when you don’t have one. It seems like a small favor, but later on, you return the favor by lending him lots of money when he needs it. You could describe this situation as: “滴水之恩定当涌泉相报。”