23 Actually Useful Proverbs (谚语)

Here’s a list of proverbs I’ve come across over the years that I think are actually interesting and useful in both conversation and writing. A translation for each is provided, along with an equivalent English expression where possible.

  1. 熟能生巧 shúnéngshēngqiǎo – Skill comes from practice; practice makes perfect.
  2. 百闻不如一见 bǎiwén bùrú yījiàn – Hearing something 100 times does not measure up to seeing it once; seeing is believing.
  3. 入乡随俗 rùxiāngsuísú – When you enter a village, you should follow its customs; when in Rome, do as the Romans do.
  4. 患难见真情 huànnàn jiàn zhēnqíng – A friend in need is a friend indeed.
  5. 忠言逆耳 zhōngyánnì’ěr – Honest advice grates the ear; good advice is hard to hear.
  6. 求人不如求己 qiúrén bùrú qiújǐ – It’s better to do something yourself than ask someone else for help.
  7. 活到老,学到老 huó dào lǎo, xué dào lǎo – Live till you’re old, learn till you’re old; it’s never too late to learn.
  8. 爱人如己 àirénrújǐ – Love others as you would yourself.
  9. 吃一堑,长一智 chī yī qiàn zhǎng yī zhì – Eat a moat, grow some wisdom; you live, you learn.
  10. 君子报仇,十年未晚 jūnzǐ bàochóu, shí nián wèi wǎn – When a nobleman takes revenge, ten years is not too late; one should bide one’s time and wait for the right opportunity to seek vengeance; similar to “revenge is a dish best served cold”.
  11. 无风不起浪  wúfēng bù qǐ làng – There’s no waves without wind; there’s no smoke without fire.
  12. 英雄所见略同 yīngxióng suǒjiàn lüètóng – The views of heroes are roughly alike; great minds think alike.
  13. 女大不中留 nǚ dà bùzhōng liú – A grown daughter cannot be kept unmarried for long; when a girl grows up, she should not stay at home – she should get married.
  14. 狗改不了吃屎 gǒu gǎibùliǎo chī shǐ – A dog can’t help but eat shit; a leopard can’t change its spots.
  15. 谋事在人,成事在天 móushì zài rén, chéngshì zài tiān – Man does what he can, but luck determines his accomplishments; man proposes, God disposes.
  16. 每天一杯酒,活到九十九 měi tiān yī bēi jiǔ, huó dào jiǔ shí jiǔ – One glass of booze every day will make you live till you’re 99.
  17. 玩火自焚 wánhuǒzìfén – Play with fire and you get burnt.
  18. 男女搭配,干活不累 nán-nǚ dāpèi, gànhuó bù lèi – When men and women work together they don’t feel tired.
  19. 人比人,气死人 rén bǐ rén, qì sǐ rén – You can’t compare myself to other (successful) people; comparisons are odious.
  20. 玉不琢,不成器 yù bù zuó bù chéng qì – If jade is not carved, it doesn’t turn into jewelery; a child needs to be taught.
  21. 笑一笑,十年少;愁一愁,白了头 xiào yī xiào, shí nián shǎo; chóu yī chóu, bái le tóu – Laughing keeps you young; worrying makes you old.
  22. 有志者事竟成 yǒuzhìzhě shì jìngchéng – Where there’s a will, there’s a way.
  23. 饮水思源 yǐnshuǐsīyuán – When drinking water, think of its source; remember past kindness; never forget one’s origins.

14 Comments to "23 Actually Useful Proverbs (谚语)"

  1. Alicia's Gravatar Alicia
    05/12/2010 - 2:01 am | Permalink

    Very helpful list!
    The “闻” in “百闻不如一见” does not refer to smelling, but rather means to hear of, such as news, or by word of mouth.

  2. Ashley's Gravatar Ashley
    13/12/2010 - 8:13 pm | Permalink

    Uh, I am afraid you have got it wrong : having heard about someone all the time and finally comes the pleasure of meeting him/her in person, is the meaning I believe. Hear and smell sound the same (“wen”2) but they have different characters…yeah I know, it is so confusing, I got them wrong all the time when I was a kid…

  3. Ashley's Gravatar Ashley
    13/12/2010 - 8:15 pm | Permalink

    Actually, we can be tipped off by the fact there is the character for ear inside the character for door…

  4. Walter's Gravatar Walter
    06/01/2011 - 8:04 pm | Permalink

    Ashley, 闻 does mean to smell or to hear. I was so worried that I might have gotten it wrong all these time so I went to check it out. 🙂 Or maybe I’ve misinterpreted what you meant?

    • Matt (罗曼修)'s Gravatar Matt (罗曼修)
      05/02/2012 - 8:01 am | Permalink

      I’m wondering if the 闻wen is one of the characters that had the radical later added to distinguish them? I cannot find any difference. Often, I find in looking at various languages that they are originally about sensory concepts and then they gradually get more ‘mentalized’. It is not a stretch to me to conceive of Chinese ‘hear / hear news of /smell’ being about ‘picking up’ some new / important information.

      In Farsi, to say smelling something you say ‘hear a smell’ – the way I conceptualize it is something like ‘pick up through senses’. So the verb for ‘hear something’ and ‘hear a smell’ is actually something like ‘picking up through sense’. It feels to be like hearing and smelling could be about ‘picking up’ something at a distance or sniffing something out.

  5. frieder's Gravatar frieder
    12/01/2011 - 11:12 pm | Permalink

    Last year in Hangzhou I tried to share my experiences about the sexual appetite of two of my redhead exgirlfriends with some (male) colleagues and came up with the following 谚语:

    房顶锈, 地窖湿

    They got it, and roaring laughter ensued….

  6. Wingwing's Gravatar Wingwing
    07/10/2011 - 12:08 am | Permalink

    Thank you for this fantastic post! It’s so beneficial!!!

  7. Anni's Gravatar Anni
    23/03/2012 - 12:48 pm | Permalink

    Brilliant list!! Also the 少 in 笑一笑,十年少 should be in 4th tone (I don’t know why, maybe it indicates young man?).

    • Shuangquan's Gravatar Shuangquan
      14/08/2013 - 1:42 pm | Permalink

      Yeah the 少 in 笑一笑,十年少 is indeed in the 4th tone, but it does not mean “young man”, but “less”. It would make more sense if it were on the 3rd tone, but we say it in the 4th tone even though it means “less”; it is so to rhyme with 笑,which is in the 4th tone.

  8. anna's Gravatar anna
    24/10/2012 - 1:58 pm | Permalink

    Very helpful in my effort to learn English. This rocks!!

  9. 06/04/2017 - 7:24 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the useful information on your website. I really enjoy reading them. Greetings from Singapore. Cheers.

  10. 29/05/2017 - 8:28 am | Permalink

    Thank you very much for the list. I wonder if there is a book for the commonly used Chinese idioms. Iam fluent in Chinese but what to find the equivalent ENglish expressions.



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