Chinese Proverbs

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Annotation And Connotations
The body of a starved camel is still bigger than a living horse.
(Chinese original: 瘦死的骆驼比马大;Chinese Pinyin: Audio Shòu sǐ de luòtuo bǐ mǎ dà.)
Nowadays there's a lot of talking about China's possible takeover as the largest economic power in the world as the United States is struggling with a financial crisis. But you can use this proverb to argue that even the American economy is facing with difficulties, it will still be the largest in the foreseeable future. A camel, though dead, is still bigger than a horse where its skeletal frame is concerned.
You think you lost your horse? Who knows, he may bring a whole herd back to you someday.
(Chinese original: 塞翁失马,安知非福;Chinese Pinyin: Audio Sài wēng shī mǎ, ān zhī fēi fú.)
The story goes that an old man lost his horse. As he was bemoaning, the animal returned bringing at his heels a herd more. It is thus regarded as a "Blessing in disguise." Or "Every cloud has a silver lining." (For a full story, see my book The Magic Lotus Lantern and Other Tales from the Han Chinese.)
Three humble shoemakers brainstorming make a great statesman.
(Chinese original: 三个臭皮匠,凑个诸葛亮; Chinese Pinyin: Audio Sān gè chòu píjiàng, còu gè Zhūgě Liàng.)
The literary translation of the original is "Three smelly leather shoemakers put together can be counted as a Zhuge Liang", who was one of the greatest statesman as well as a military strategist in ancient Chinese history.
Of all the thirty-six stratagems, to know when to quit is the best.
(Chinese original: 三十六计走为上策; Chinese Pinyin: Audio Sān-shí liù jì, zǒu wéi shàng cè.)
The literary translation of the original is "Of the thirty-six stratagems, running away is the best." "The Thirty-Six Stratagems" are believed to have covered almost all the military strategic thinking Sun Zi, another greatest military strategist in ancient Chinese history, expounded in his thirteen chapter monograph, which has been regarded as the bible of the military in Chinese history and has now been seen very useful in business in Asia as well.
Kill a chicken before a monkey.
(Chinese original: 杀鸡给猴看; Chinese Pinyin: Audio Shā jī gěi hóu kàn.)
To warn the many by punishing a few.
Kill a hen to get the egg.
(Chinese original: 杀鸡取卵; Chinese Pinyin: Audio Shā-jī-qǔ-lǚan.)
Same as above.
Good will be rewarded with good and evil with evil; it is only a matter of time.
(Chinese original: 善恶到头终有报,只等来早与来迟; Chinese Pinyin: Audio Shàn è dào tóu zhōng yǒu bào, zhǐ děng lái zǎo yù lái chí.)
"What goes around comes around."
The gate of charity is hard to open nor close; a guest is easy to invite but hard to turn away.
(Chinese original: 善门难开,善门难闭; Chinese Pinyin: Audio Shàn mén nán kāi, shàn mén nán bì.)
When offering charity or help, be cautious of people that may take advantage of you.
The wind sweeping through the tower heralds a rising storm in the mountain.
(Chinese original: 山雨欲来风满楼; Chinese Pinyin: Audio Shānǚ yù lái fēng mǎn lóu.)
Before a big event takes place, there will be a precursory atmosphere.
If you do not study hard when young you'll end up bewailing your failures as you grow up.
(Chinese original: 少小不努力,老大徒伤悲; Chinese Pinyin: Audio Shào xiǎo bù nǔlì, lǎo dà tú shāngbēi.)
Used to encourage children to study hard.
Kill one to warn a hundred.
(Chinese original: 杀一儆百; Chinese Pinyin: Audio Shā-yī-jǐng-bǎi.)
To warn the many by punishing a few.
A life with love is happy; a life for love is foolish.
(Chinese original: 生活有爱幸福,为爱生活愚蠢; Chinese Pinyin: Audio Shēnghuó yǒu ài xìngfú, wèi ài shēnghuó yúchǔn.)
Rice is already cooked. (Chinese Original: 生米煮成饭; Chinese Pinyin: Audio Shēng mǐ zhǔ chéng fàn.)
(Similar proverb:Trees have already been made into a boat. Chinese original: 木已成舟; Chinese Pinyin: Audio Mù-yǐ-chéng-zhōu.)

What is done cannot be undone.
Your fingers can't be of the same length.
(Chinese original: 十个指头不一般齐; Chinese Pinyin: Audio Shí gè zhǐtou bù yī bān qǐ.)
That is true. And that is true with life: we can't expect everything or everybody is perfect.
Ten years of oblivion in school may bring you fame overnight.
(Chinese original: 十年寒窗无人问,一举成名天下知; Chinese Pinyin: Audio Shí nián hánchuāng wú rén wèn, yī-jǔ-chéng-míng tiānxià zhī.)
Used to encourage people to study hard.
It takes ten years for a tree to grow up, but it takes a hundred for talents to be nurtured.
(Chinese original: 十年树木,百年树人; Chinese Pinyin: Audio Shí nián shù mù, bǎi nián shù rén.)
For a country, having well-educated people will go a long way, but education and nurturing take time.
Scholars are invaluable to a nation as the best course to a banquet.
(Chinese original: 士者国中宝,如为席上珍; Chinese Pinyin: Audio Shìzhě guó zhōng bǎo, rú wéi xí shàng zhēn.)
Give one fish and he's fed for only a day. Teach one how to fish and he'll be free from hunger all his life.
(Chinese original: 授人以鱼只解一时之急,授人以渔 则解一生之需; Chinese Pinyin: Audio Shòu rén yǐ yú zhǐ jiù yī shí zhī jí, shòu rén yǐ yú zé jiě yī shēng zhī xū.)
"God help those who help themselves." Wouldn't be better to enable one to help themselves?
Once a tree falls, the monkeys on it will scatter.
(Chinese original: 树倒猢狲散; Chinese Pinyin: Audio Shù dǎo húsūn sàn.)
When a person of influence lost his favor, those associated with him will abandon him.
Water can float a boat and sink it as well.
(Chinese original: 水能载舟,亦能覆舟; Chinese Pinyin: Audio Shuǐ néng zài zhōu, yì néng fù zhōu.)
This proverb is often used to compare people to water and rulers to boat. It says that people can vote a leader into office and kick them out of it if they choose.
Fish cannot survive in absolutely clear water.
(Chinese original: 水至清则无鱼; Chinese Pinyin: Audio Shuǐ zhìqīng zé wú yú.)
One should not demand absolute purity or perfectness.
Fish for the moon in the water.
(Chinese original: 水中捞月; Chinese Pinyin: Audio Shuǐ-zhōng-lāo-yuè.)
It is a useless attempt. A folklore goes that a kingdom of monkeys seeing the refection of the moon in a well thought it fell into it. They formed a monkey chain to fish it, only to find that the moon was still in the evening sky. (For a full story, see my book The Magic Lotus Lantern and Other Tales from the Han Chinese.)
A mouse's vision is an inch long.
(Chinese original: 鼠目寸光; Chinese Pinyin: Audio Shǔ-mù-cùn-guāng.)
If one has such "vision," he sees only short-term benefits that may jeopardize long-term interests.
Diligence is the vehicle on the paths of Mountains of Books; endurance is the vessel on the courses of the Seas of Learning.
(Chinese original: 书山有路勤为经,学海无涯苦为舟; Chinese Pinyin: AudioShūshān yǒu lù qín wéi jìng, xuéhǎi wú yá kǔ zuò zhōu.)
The trees want to remain quiet, but the wind will not stop.
(Chinese original: 树欲静而风不止; Chinese Pinyin: Audio Shù yù jìng ěr fēng bù zhǐ.)
Trouble is brewing in the samblance of peace.
Treating a dead horse as if it's still alive.
(Chinese original: 死马当活马医; Chinese Pinyin: Audio Sǐ mǎ dāng huó mǎ yī.)
Trying the last ditch when in desperation. Sometimes it works though sometimes it doesn't. Trying is better than not at all.


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Last updated: October 13, 2014