Proverbial wisdom

For our 300th issue Mei selects 300 Chinese idioms

300 proverbs cover

During its five thousand years of civilisation, China has created tens of thousands of proverbs which capture the essence of the nation’s history, culture and prevailing philosophy. Many of them contain Confucian wisdom, Taoist and Buddhist philosophy, social etiquette, as well as success and survival tactics.

Some of the proverbs are clearly obsolete given changes in Chinese society in recent decades, i.e. those that are derogatory to dogs, feel odd to the country’s many dog owners. Some are just outright outdated, i.e. the many that discriminate against women (one of the worst: “An unschooled girl is a virtuous one”). However, some still hold their value and are used by modern Chinese every day.

One of the proverbs that I often use while talking to my Western friends is 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.

For this 300th issue of Week in China, I have selected 300 proverbs that I believe are most commonly used and reflective of the Chinese mentality and philosophy, both in the fields of business and daily life. I might have missed some brilliant ones (if I have please feel free to email me at [email protected]) but nevertheless I hope you find some of the Chinese wisdom included here interesting, helpful or even enlightening.

I’ve mostly arranged the proverbs in two or three parts: the original Chinese (in simplified characters), the direct translation to English, and where necessary what the idiom means.

I hope you enjoy reading them!

You can download the proverbs in PDF format from the books section of our website:


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