5,000 years of wisdom

A selection of our 21 favourite Chinese proverbs

Chinese proverbs elegantly distill some 5,000 years of wisdom. They are still used commonly today, dropped into speech and frequently being used to make an eloquent point at a business meeting or during Chinese banquets. Here we choose a few of our favourites.

Most proverbs are pithy. But some do require a little context i.e. about their historical back story. So we will start with one where that is very much the case:

塞翁失马,焉知非福

The literal meaning is ‘When Old Man Sai lost his horse, it was hard to judge whether it was a good thing or bad thing’.

The story behind it came from ancient times when an old man living in Sai-shang lost his horse. His neighbour pitied him but he replied: “Don’t worry. Who knows that this is not a good thing?” A few days later, his horse returned with a herd of beautiful horses. The neighbours congratulated the old man, but he replied: “I’m not sure this is a good thing.”

Sure enough, the old man’s son was thrown off the back by one of the new horses and broke his leg. Others pitied him again but he said: “I am not upset since this could turn out to be good.” Shortly afterwards, a war broke out and all young males were drafted except the old man’s son due to his broken leg. As most of the young men from his village died in the war, the broken leg saved the son’s life.

This proverb teaches people to maintain a balanced mood and always try to see potential risk in successes and seek silver-linings in disasters.

The other 19 proverbs we have selected – many of which are ideal for a business context – are more easy to grasp. In each case we include the original Chinese characters, our literal translation into English, and a small explanatory note.

病从口入,祸从口出 Illness enters via the mouth, disaster comes out of the mouth. / Too much or careless talk can cause a lot of grievances.

打狗看主人 Before hitting a dog, you’d better think about its owner. / Before you attack somebody, you’d better first find out who else you may offend.

得人滴水之恩,须当涌泉相报 If one receives a water drop of kindness, one should repay with a flowing spring. / People should repay several fold kindness that he/she received in times of difficulty.

对牛弹琴 Don’t play a flute to a cow. / Don’t waste your time trying to explain things to fools.

独木不成林 A single tree doesn’t make a forest. / One alone cannot accomplish much.

多个朋友多条路,多个冤家多堵墙 One more friend, one more road; one more enemy, one more wall. / It is wiser to make friends than enemies.

两虎相斗,必有一伤 When two tigers fight, one is sure to be wounded. / When two powerful people fight, one is sure to get hurt.

过了这个村,就没这个店 Past this village there will be no more inns like this one. / Don’t pass up a good chance, as it will not come again.

虎死留皮,人死留名 When a tiger dies, it leaves its skin behind; when a person dies, they leave their reputation behind. / People should take their legacy seriously.

近水楼台先得月 The balconies closer to the water get the moonlight first. / Those with powerful “connections” get preferential treatment.

老将出马,一个顶俩 When an old general goes into action, he is as effective as two people. / An experienced hand can get twice as much done

千军易得,一将难求 It’s easy to acquire a thousand soldiers but hard to find one good general. / It’s more difficult to hire a good manager than a thousand employees.

虱子多了不痒,债多了不愁 When somebody has too many lice, they don’t itch; when a person has too much debt, they stop worrying about repaying it./ Equivalent to English phrase ‘too big to fail’.

新官上任三把火 A new official that assumes office often sets three fires. / People assuming new positions like to make a few major changes to impress people.

新来的和尚好撞钟 A newly arrived monk likes to ring the bell. / Newcomers like to work more owing to their enthusiasm.

一寸光阴一寸金,寸金难买寸光阴 One inch of time is like one inch of gold, however one inch of gold cannot buy one inch of time. / Time is the most precious thing

一遭被蛇咬,十年怕井绳 Once bitten by a snake, you fear ropes for 10 years. / Once harmed by something, you will always scared of it (i.e. once bitten, twice shy).

一言既出,驷马难追 Once a word has been said, even a team of four horses cannot overtake it. / What has been said cannot be unsaid.

十个指头不一般齐 The 10 fingers are not equal in length. / All people are not the same.

山中无老虎,猴子称大王 When there is no tiger in the mountain, the monkey becomes king. / In the absence of capable people, less capable ones are in charge.

Finally, we want to share a last idiom, which yet again requires some explanation but is widely used by Chinese when they want to praise someone’s ingenuity or the ability to utilise another’s resources for your gain. It involves Zhuge Liang, the military strategist from the Chinese classic The Romance of the Three Kingdoms. He is challenged with finding 100,000 arrows in 10 days by a rival commander, a task thought impossible. He offers to do it in three days and comes up with a novel scheme to dupe the enemy forces, which are located on the other side of the Yangtze River. In fog, he sends across a fleet of 20 small boats filled with straw men and with a thatched roof. The enemy’s 3,000 archers think an invasion is underway and begin firing at the boats. Their hails of arrows are absorbed by the straw, and when Zhuge’s boats return to shore he is able to recycle them for his own army’s use. This idiom is known as 草船借箭 or ‘To borrow arrows with thatched boats”.


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