Chinese Sayings


天下無不散之筵席

There is no never ending banquet under the sun.

五十步笑百步

The (soldier who retreated ) 50 paces jeered at the one who (retreated) 100 paces.

當局者迷

The participant’s perspective are clouded while the bystanders’ views are clear

各花入各眼

Different flowers look good to different peole

禍不單行

Good luck seldom comes in pairs but bad things never walk (occur) alone.

以毒攻毒

Fight poison with poison.

花開堪折直需折

Pick the flower when it is ready to be picked

歲月不留人

Age and time do not wait for people.

家家有一本難念的經

Each family has its own difficult scripture to recite.

虎父虎子

Tiger father begets tiger son.

人算不如天算

Man’s schemes are inferior to those made by heaven.

有錢能使鬼推磨

If you have money you can make the ghosts and devils turn your grind stone..

好事多磨

Good must go through many trials and tribulations The course of true love never runs smooth.

大丈夫能屈能伸

A great man can bend and stretch.

不入虎穴,焉得虎子

If you don’t go into the cave of the tiger, how are you going to get its cub.

又要馬兒好,又要馬兒不食草

You want you horse to look good but you also want it not to have to eat grass.

無風不起浪

There is no wave without wind. 

入鄉隨俗

Follow the local custom when you go to a foreign place.

物以類聚

Things of the same characteristics congregate together.

 醉翁之意不在酒

The drunken gentleman’s desire is not about the wine.

牛不飲水,不能按牛頭低

You cannot push a cow’s head down unless it is drinking water by it’s own will.

 驕兵必敗

The arrogant army will lose the battle for sure. 

一箭雙雕

Shoot two birds with one single arrow. Kill two birds with one stone. 

本性難移

It’s is impossible to change your basic characteristics.

三個和尚擔水無粥食

3 monks fetching water resulted in no rice to eat.

一將功成萬骨枯

Tens of thousands of bones will become ashes when one general achieves his fame.

一刻被蚊咬終日怕蚊叮

Once bitten by a mosquito, you worry about mosquitoes all day.

金玉其外, 敗絮其中

Golden coloured on the outside, but rotten inside.

 欲速則不達

If you are in a hurry you will never get there.

打鐵趁熱

Strike while the iron is hot.

 狡兔有三窟

The crafty rabbit has three different entrances to it’s lair.

老婆是別人的靚

Your neigbour’s wife looks prettier than your own.

女人心海底針

A woman’s heart is like a needle in the bottom of the ocean.

以攻為守

Use attack as the tactic of defense. 

英雄所見略同

The views of heroes are roughly the same. 

以身作則

Set yourself as the standard.

婚姻是戀愛的墳墓

Matrimony is the grave of romance.

將軍難免陣上亡

It is not unusual for a general to meet his death in battle. 

上得山多終遇虎

When you go up to the mountain too often, you will eventually encounter the tiger.

玉不琢不成器,人不學不成才

Jade must be carved and polished before it becomes an ornament, man must be educated before he can achieve great things.

童言無欺

A child’s words have no guile. Similar to: “from the mouths of babes.”

有麝自然香

When you have musk, you will automatically have fragrance.

夜長夢多

Lots of dreams can occur over a long night.

遠水不能救近火

You cannot fight a fire with water from far away.

狗口不出象牙

Elephant tusks cannot grow out of a dog’s mouth.

紙包不著火

Paper cannot wrap up a fire.

天下烏鴉一樣黑

All crows are of the same blackunder the sky.

為人不作虧心事,夜半敲門也不驚.

If you have a clear conscience, you won’t worry about a knock on your door at night.

樹大有枯枝,族大有乞兒

Big trees have rotten branches and large clans have beggars.

猛虎不及地頭虫

The fierce tiger is inferior to the local worm.

虎落平陽被犬欺.

When the tiger comes down from the mountain to the plains, it is bullied by the dogs.

龍游淺水被蝦戲.

In shallow waters, shrimps make fool of dragons. similar to

趕狗入窮巷

Don’t chase a dog into a blind ally.

樹大召風

Big trees attract strong wind.

人怕名﹐豬怕壯

Men should worry about fame just as pigs about being fat.

忠言逆耳, 良藥苦口.

Honest opinions go against your ear while good medicine tastes bitter.

巧婦難為無米灶.

Even the most resourceful housewife cannot create miracles from a riceless pantry.

井底蛙之見

The view of a frog residing at the bottom of a well.

十隻手指各有長短.

Ten fingers. all of different lengths.

 

57 書中自有顏如玉,書中自有黃金屋

In textbooks you will find girls with complexions like jade and houses made of gold. Through studying you will gain success and fortunes will follow.

 

58. 種瓜得瓜, 種豆得豆

If you plant melons , you get melons; if you plant beans, you get beans. you reap what you sow.

 

59. 冰生于水已寒於水,青出于藍已勝於藍

Indigo is derived from blue but is more pleasing than blue; ice is formed out of water but is colder than water The master is surpassed by the apprentice.

 

60a. 三個臭皮丈,一個諸葛亮

Three shoemakers equal to one Kuon Ming Kuon Ming is the legendary strategist in the Chinese historic period known as ” The Three Kingdoms ” period. This proverbs says that 3 ordinary people putting their heads together can come up with good ideas.

 

60b. 一人計短,二人計長.

Literally: One person’s plans(or schemes) are short(i.e. ineffective)but those made by two people are long (i.e. much better, or more effective.) Similar to: Two heads are better than one.

 

61 覆水難收

Water thrown out is hard to put back into the container. What is done cannot be undone.

 

62. 一言(),駟馬難追.

Once a word leaves your mouth, you cannot chase it back even with a “chariot drawn by 4 horses.” You cannot take back what you have said.
Similar to :
A word spoken is past recalling. Or: A slip of tongue cannot be recalled.
Or: A word once let go cannot be recalled.

 

63. 病從口入,禍從口出

Sickness goes in through the mouth and trouble comes out of the mouth. physical illness is usually caused by something you eat or inhale but trouble is usually caused by what you say.( Careless talk leads to trouble.)

 

64. 樹高千丈﹐落葉巋根

Even for a tree of 10000 feet, it’s leaves return to the root when they fall. Many older people, no matter how far they roam, or how successful they become, want to go back to their homeland to pass their remaining years.

 

65 路遙知馬力﹐日久見人心

When there is a lot of distance to cover, you’ll know how good your horse is.The heart of others will be revealed over a long period of time. A hard task separates the weak from the strong and time will tell the truthful from the guile.

 

66. 有心栽花花不長, 無心插柳柳成蔭

The flower that you spent time to care for does not grow while the willow that your accidentally planted flourishes and gives shade.

Two nice ones: “A watched flower never blooms, while a carelessly planted willow grows into shade. ” Follow love, and it will flee; flee love, and it will follow.

Sometimes something we spend a lot of time on would not work out, but the project we have unintentionally started, and have not paid much attention to, flourishes and bears fruit.

 

67。路是人踏出來的

Road is made by people walking on the ground . (The solution to something) or (the road to success) etc.. is made by you walking through places where there were no roads before.

 

68 解鈴還須繫鈴人

The proper person to remove the bell should be the one who who originally tied it on. The proper person to unravel a misunderstanding (or a mistake etc..) is the one who committed such an error to start with.

 

69.留得青山在﹐不怕無柒燒

If you managed to save the green mountain, you won’t worry about having no fire wood to burn. (i) If you don’t kill the golden goose, you will still get a golden egg everyday.
(ii) He who fights and run away, may live to fight another day.

 

70.天無絕人之路

The sky (or heaven) (meaning whatever supreme being that oversees us) does not make dead end streets for people. When god closes one door he/she/it opens another.

 

71. 學如逆水行舟,不進則退.

Studying is like rowing against the current, if you are not moving forward, you are moving backward. meaning clear enough. No annotation needed.

 

72. 三人行必有我師焉

3 people walking abreast, my teacher must be amongst them. (By Confucius) Although usually quoted in its short form, the actual text, from Confucius’s Analects says ” 3 people walking abreast. My teacher must be amongst them. Choose the one with good character and learn form him. Observe the one with the bad character and avoid being like him. Who is the third person in the party ? You may ask. Yourself, of course !

 

73.水能載舟,水能覆舟.

Water can float a boat; it can also overturn a boat Something that can help you to success usually carries with it great risks.

 

74. 少壯不老力,老大徒悲傷.

If you do not work hard; you will be sorry when you grow old. Meaning clear enough. However, one must consider the idea of “working hard ” as more of a generic term for ” not wasting your time away “. In life, it’s not just a matter of working hard that counts, sometimes working ” smart ” is just as, if not more, important.

 

75. 貪字變貧字

The word greed becomes the word poor. In Chinese, the word greed ( ) and the word poor () look almost the same. This essentially says that greed leads to poverty. This is similar to the saying ” Grab all , lose all .”

 

76. 患難見真情

True nature (or real commitment) is revealed in time of difficulty. Similar to ” A friend in need is a friend indeed. ”

 

77. 鐵柱磨成針

An iron rod can be ground down to become a needle Persistence pays off. Similar to ” Little strokes fell great oaks ” 78. . 無官一身輕. You feel like a weight has been lifted off your body when you are no longer a government official. Free from office, free from care.

 

79.飛鳥盡良弓藏,獵物盡走狗()

When the birds are all gone, the best bow is stored away. When the preys are gone; your hunting dog is cooked for a meal. A drastic way of saying that after you make use of your tools (or worker, assistance etc..), you put them away. (It’s like Y2K specialist after Jan 1,2000)

 

80. 成者為王, 敗者為寇

The one who wins the war becomes king and the loser is relegated in the history book as the bandits. My son suggested this interpretation: Those who win the revolution write the history books.

 

81. 海中無魚蝦子大

When there is no fish in the sea, the shrimps reign supreme. When there is no ” big guys “, the little guys rule.   The mediocrity shines in an arena where there are no real talents around.

 

82. 無事獻慇懃, 非奸即盜.

When someone comes to pay compliments and be specially helpful without cause, he is either a crook or a thief. People who are overly friendly, flattering and/or give you unsolicited hospitality usually have an evil intention in mind.

This is somewhat similar to the English expression of : Beware of Greeks bearing gifts

 

83. 杇木不可雕.

Rotten wood cannot be carved.

Confucius made this comment when one of his students/disciples was found wanting : this chap seems to be interested only in eating and sleeping.

The equivalent English expression would be: (i) You cannot make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. or  (ii) You cannot make filet mignon out of chopped liver. 84. 人不可貌相. You cannot judge a person from how s/he looks. Similar to ” You cannot judge a horse by its saddle. “Or You cannot judge a book by its cover.

 

85.一人得道,雞犬皆升.

When a person achieve ultimate enlightenment and goes to heaven, his chicken and dog go with him. Kind of a ” Halo Effect ” . When one guy gets promoted, his associates all get promoted. (Especially in an environment of rampant nepotism.)

 

86. 十年樹木,百年樹人.

To cultivate trees, you need 10 years. To cultivate people, you need 100 years. It takes a long time to produce a generation of educated and cultured population.

There are some disagreement as to what, in Chinese, the “100 years to cultivate people” realy means. If you can read Chinese, here is one reference for this disucssion

 

87. 君子喻于義,小人喻于利.

The perfect gentleman thinks and acts in terms of what is right while the shyster is motivated only by profit. This is a quotation from The Analects and is attributed to Confucius.

 

88 相見好,同住難.

Easy to socialize, much harder to live together. From simple sharing rooms with friends to the shark infested world of marriage, ain’t this the truth !!

 

89. 酒後吐真言.

After one has a few drinks, s/he tends to tell the truth. Wine loosen our tongues
Suggestion from a Mr.Tony D.
In vino veritas

 

90. 一鳥在手勝過百鳥在林.

A bird in your hand is better than 100 in the forest. A bird in hand is worth two in the bush.

 

91.一生兒女債,半世老婆奴.

We are indebted to our children for the whole of our lives and, for half our lives, the slave of our wives (or spouses.) The traditional version is”..slave of our wives” . In the old days, only the man works, nowadays, more often than not, the wife also works. In many cases, the wife not only have a career to take care of, but also the family to care for. More often than not, the wife now ends up being the “slave” part of the relationship.

 

92. 一寸光陰一寸金,寸金難買寸光陰.

An inch of time is worth an inch of gold; but it’s hard to buy one inch of time with one inch of gold. Time is money but , more often than not, even when you have money, you may not be able to buy the time you need.

 

93. 國家興亡,匹夫有責.

Every ordinary person is responsible for the rise and fall of his country. The fault, dear Brutus…

Every individual is ultimately responsible for the causes leading to the prosperity or decay of his/her country.

 

94. 賜子千金,不如賜子一技 Giving your son a skill is better than giving him one thousand pieces of gold. Similar to: ” Give a man a fish and he will eat for one day; teach him how to fish and he will eat for a lifetime.”

 

95. 一失足成千古恨.

One step in the wrong direction will cause you a thousand years of regret. This is best illustrated by 4 line’s from the poem Upon the Valley’s Lap by Franics Bourdillon
So, often in the course,
Of life’s few fleeting years,
A single pleasure costs,
The soul a thousand tears.

 

96. 書到用時方恨少. (Literally) Books, when you need them, you will find you have too little of them. You will only regret how little you have learnt when you need to utilize what you have learnt,

 

97 久別勝新婚 A little separation is better than newly wedded. The English equivalent would be Absence makes the heart grow fonder.

 

98。至哀莫大於心死 The saddest thing is the death of the heart Ms. TX on the CE-forum suggested the following translation : There is no greater sorrow than a heart that never rejoices.

 

99 真金不怕溶爐火

Real gold is not afraid of the fire of the crucible In other words, real gold (or real man, real woman etc..) can stand the trial by fire .

 

100。差之毫厘﹐謬之千里

If you are off by a tiny bit in the beginning, you will end up being off by thousands of li(s) (Li is a Chinese mile=1000 chinese feet) I am sure Chaos Theorist will agree wholeheartedly with this one. I guess a similar English saying would be :Off by an inch, off by a mile

 

101。斬草不徐根﹐春風吹又生。

If you cut grass (or weed for most North American sub-urbanites) without removing its root, it will flourish once again when the spring wind blows . The grass in this expression is usually used to refer to negative things like crime, sickness etc.. It suggests that you need to deal with the root of evil instead of its manifestation. Unless and until you remove the root of the problem, it will not go away and will come back to haunt you when the condition is favourable again.

 

102。衣食足則知榮辱。

Only after one is fully fed and clothed will he know the difference between honour and shame. This is a quotation from the Chinese philosopher-political scholar Kuen Zi’s treatise on the Cultivation of People

The idea is similar to Maslow’s (a few centuries later !!!) theory of Hierarchy of Needs

A people in a state of hunger and destitution would not pay much heed to higher ideals. Their primary goal is to survive and will do anything, whether they be right or wrong, to achieve that,

 

103 其身不正﹐其令不行。

If your body is not upright, your orders will not be followed. If you yourself is not morally upright, your preaching will not be credible.
Or If you yourself do not follow the law, the laws you enacted will not be followed.

 

104 近朱者赤﹐近墨者黑。

If you are near the dye vermilion, you will be stained red, if you are close to black ink, you will be stained black. This is from the story about Mencius (known as the second Sage of Confucianism; the first Sage being Confucius himself). When Mencius was young, his mother, a widow, had to move 3 times in order to get him to start studying. The third time being as the neighbour of a scholar.

This expression essentially says that we are influenced by our immediate surroundings and the company we keep.

A similar English expression is : He that touches pitch shall be defiled.
or: he who lies down with dogs gets up with fleas.

 

105 學而不思則罔﹐思而不學則殆。

Learning without reasoning leads to confusion (or unclear in the concept); thinking without learning is wasted effort. This is perhaps the most quoted saying on learning by Confucius from the book of Analects. I wonder what Piaget has to say about this .   Confucius said that if you only learn (spoon feeding) without thinking over what you had learned, then you have learned nothing. ( Spoon feeding leads only to regurgitation of undigested knowledge.) On the other hand, if you do ” idle-thinking ” without the basis of solid facts from learning , you will end up nowhere.

 

106。冰凍三尺﹐非一日之寒。 A cold 3 feet of ice is not due to 3 days of cold weather. 3 feet thick ice is not formed due to a mere 3 days of cold weather. In other words : big nasty problems do not evolve overnight, they must have been brewing for sometime.

 

107。寧為太平狗﹐不做亂世人。

I rather be a dog in peaceful times, then live as a man (woman) in turbulent times. (I added this one in after learning that the expression “may you live in interesting times” has become very popular.).  Although the expression “may you live in interesting times” is often referred to as a “popular Chinese curse”, I do not recall having heard that, at least not in that form. After giving it some thought, I speculated that it may be a variant of ” not wanted to be a man in turbulent times.”.

 

108。來說是非者﹐便是是非人。

The guy who comes to gossip (spread rumour) is him/her-self the culprit of such foul deeds. Similar to the English expression of “What Peter says about Paul tells more about Peter than Paul

 

109. 老骥伏枥,志在千里 lǎo jì fú lì, zhì zài qiān lǐ 

still aspires to gallop a thousand li, (fig.) old people may still cherish aspirations high

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6 responses to “Chinese Sayings

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