Ancient Chinese Proverbs to Improve Your Vocabulary & Get Wise
China probably has more proverbs than any other place in the world. Though the origins of most of these Chinese quotes have been lost in the mist of time, they remain central components of their language and culture.
Chinese proverbs are thought-provoking sayings aimed at imparting inherited wisdom, ancient tales, and even moral enlightenment.
By learning Chinese proverbs, you get to learn a lot of words for concepts that are essential to Chinese people.
Below, you will find the most inspiring Chinese quotes about success, love, friendship, and more.
Pinyin: shòu rén yǐ yú bùrú shòu rén yǐ yú.
English translation: Give someone a fish and you feed them for one day. Teach them to fish and you feed them for a lifetime.
Like most Chinese proverbs, this saying has something very profound to say about how Chinese people see the world. For them, success is not about easy rewards, but about acquiring the knowledge and skills that you need to achieve lifelong fulfillment. For example, learning to speak Chinese will eventually be much more fulfilling than using a translation app.
Pinyin: yīkǒu chī bùchéng pàngzi.
English translation: To expect to get fat with only one bite.
Chinese proverbs are often deep and thought-provoking, but they can also be quite sassy. This saying is often said in a sarcastic tone to talk about someone who is too impatient for success and is not willing to make any sacrifices.
Everyone who has tried to learn a foreign language, for example, knows that it’s a long process that takes time and effort but is ultimately extremely rewarding. This is especially true about Chinese. It might be a long path, but once you’re able to make your own inspirational Chinese quotes, you’ll see that the rewards are worth the effort.
Pinyin: qíngrén yǎn lǐ chū xīshī.
English translation: In the eyes of a lover, Xi Shi appears.
Like many famous Chinese quotes, this one comes with an interesting historical background. Xi Shi was a woman whose spectacular beauty captivated the hearts of every man in ancient China. Her appeal was so bewitching that she is still remembered as a symbol of infatuation.
To say that Xi Shi appears in the eyes of a lover is to say that, when you’re in love with a person, there’s no one in this world who can beat their beauty, for beauty is in the eyes of the beholder and it is our love that makes them beautiful.
Pinyin: yǒuqíng yǐnshuǐ bǎo, wúqíng shí fàn jī
English translation: If you have love, drinking water will fill you up. If you don’t, even food will leave you hungry.
We’ve all been there, right? We’ve all had our hearts broken at least once. And we all know that when you’re in pain, nothing can make you happy. You might have the best job, a luxurious house, and a supporting family, but you’ll still be sad for a while, and that’s okay. You have to be sad before you are ready to pick up your broken pieces.
Chinese quotes such as this one are also very interesting from a linguistic perspective, as they contain conditional phrases and common prepositions that Chinese people use every day to make logical connections between clauses.
Pinyin: sān rén xíng, bì yǒu wǒ shī
English: If you’re in a group of three people, there will always be at least one person that can teach you something.
The philosopher Confucius left innumerable Chinese quotes about teaching and learning. One of the most famous proverbs from his Confucian Analects, this humbling phrase reminds us to keep an open mind when talking to others, as there are always new things to be learned from interacting with people.
So, if you’re studying Chinese, make as many friends as you can. The more people you interact with, the more things you will learn about the Chinese language and culture.
Pinyin: huó dào lǎo, xué dào lǎo
English meaning: Live until you’re old, and keep on studying even when you’re old.
This is one of our favourite Chinese quotes. Though it’s very common to hear that childhood is the best time to learn new skills, we believe that it’s very important to always keep on learning. Especially when you’re old, as learning keeps your mind sharp, healthy and active.
Many studies have shown that continued learning can stop memory loss by activating brain cells and forcing them to make connections with each other. So, if you think you’re too old to take up a new language, think again, because Chinese proverbs never get it wrong. Old dogs, it seems, can (and should!) be taught new tricks.
Pinyin: guǎng jiāoyǒu, wú shēnjiāo
English translation: If you have a lot of friends, you don’t really have any.
Not all famous Chinese quotes are sweet and pleasant. This one is a harsh reminder that true friendship is much rarer than we would like to admit. A real friend, after all, is someone that you could trust with your deepest fears and secrets. And how many of those do we find in a lifetime? In the end, true friendship is not about quantity, but about quality.
A great way of studying Chinese proverbs is to translate them, analyze their meaning, and find their English equivalents. For example, isn’t this one very similar to “a friend to everyone is a friend to no one”?
English translation: Those who suffer from the same condition commiserate with each other.
Though it’s easy to see this one as an equivalent for “Misery loves company”, its meaning doesn’t have to be petty. It also works as an insightful statement about friendship. After all, finding a real friend is not about finding someone who’s all virtue, talent, and success. A true friend is someone that we can relate to. Someone who can laugh about the same stuff and sympathize with our problems and flaws.
If you’re an anxious person, for example, you’re much more likely to find support and understanding in someone who has been through the same thing! Do you have a different interpretation for this one? Let us know in the comment box.
Pinyin: jiā hé wànshì xīnɡ
English translation: If your family lives in harmony, all your other affairs will prosper.
In Chinese, the word for family and for home (or cave) is the same: 家 (jiā). This character combines two ideas: a group of people and the place where they live and protect each other from the wind and the rain.
No matter how much traditions and old mindsets have changed in modern China, the popularity of this proverb shows just how central the concept of family union is for Chinese people. According to this saying, no matter how successful you are in your personal or professional affairs, if you’re not in harmony with your family you cannot be fully happy. On the other hand, if you and your family support each other, all that love will bring prosperity and success.
Pinyin: jiāchǒu bùkě wàiyáng
English translation: A family’s shame can’t be taken outside/be visible.
Similar to “don’t wash your dirty laundry in public”, this is one of the Chinese proverbs that reveals another important aspect of Chinese culture: they are very protective of their privacy. Whenever a Chinese person is going through a hard time or has even made a serious mistake, it is their family’s duty to help them and support them, but also to make sure that no one outside the family knows what is really happening behind closed doors.
Chinese quotes like the ones we’ve shared with you today have a lot to teach you about the Chinese language and the people who speak it.
However, if you want to go beyond Chinese proverbs and start working on your speaking skills, don’t hesitate to reach out to us. With our personalized, one-to-one lessons taught by native Chinese speakers, you will be able to express your own thoughts and ideas sooner than you might have believed possible. Explore our Chinese courses now!