Ancient Chinese Proverbs – Pearls of Wisdom

There are many proverbs that have been passed down through generations, and today these are often heard in daily conversations. They have originated mostly from ancient stories and poems. The majority of sayings are strung together with 4 characters and convey a concise meaning. These proverbs will provide insight into how the Chinese express their pearls of wisdom. We will introduce new adages regularly. By clicking on the arrow, you will hear the proverbs in Mandarin. We strongly recommend that you use Google Chrome as your browser in order to view the Chinese characters.

拔 苗 助 长 bá miáo zhù zhǎng : The literal meaning of this proverb is “to pull seedlings to hasten their growth.”  It was derived from a story that happened in the Song Dynasty (a dynasty dating back about 1,000 years). A farmer worked very hard every day in the field but wished his crops would grow faster. One day he thought of a good idea to help the crops grow. He pulled all of the seedlings taller and then went home happily. The next day when he returned to his field the seedlings had withered. Today this adage is used to show that things grow and develop in their natural way and we need to allow nature to take its course.

南 辕 北 辙  nán yuán běi zhé : It means “trying to go south by driving the chariot north.” This story happened in China’s warring states period around 475BC-221BC. In that period, China was divided into dozens of kingdoms. One day, an ordinary person wanted to go to the kingdom of Chu, which was situated south of his home kingdom. But he was driving his chariot northward. When stopped by people who were telling him he was driving in the wrong direction, he did not listen to them but rather explained that he would get to his destination because he had a very fast horse, enough funds, and he could drive the chariot exceptionally well. Of course, he was driving farther and farther from his destination. Today people still use this as an observation when your actions do not support your goals.

滴 水 穿 石 dī shuǐ chuān shí : Its literal meaning is “water that is constantly dripping can wear a hole in the stone.” It demonstrates the importance of perseverance.  By tenaciously working at something, no matter how small the effort may seem, a difficult goal can be achieved.

一言 既 出,     驷马难追    yī yán  jì chū, sì mǎ nán zhuī : It means “once a word has been said, it can not be taken back (overtaken) by a team of four horses.” A promise has to be kept.

留得 青 山在, 不怕 没柴 烧   liú dé qīng shān zài, bú pà méi chái shāo : The literal meaning of this saying is “as long as the green hill remains, there will be wood to burn.” It actually means where there is life, there is hope.

温 故 知 新   wēn gù zhī xīn : “To gain new insights through reviewing old material”  This is a learning approach recommended by Confucius.

刻舟求剑 kè zhōu qiú jiàn : The literal meaning of this saying is “to look for a sword from a mark carved on the boat.” This fable is about someone who lived in the Chu Kingdom around the time of the warring states period we referred to in Lesson 3. One day this man was crossing a river in a boat. When the boat reached the middle of river, his precious sword fell into the water. Other people in the boat felt very sorry for him. However, he was not worried at all. He quickly made a mark on the side of the moving boat at the exact place where his sword fell into the water and then said, “This is where I lost my sword. With this mark, I can get it back.”  When the boat arrived at the bank of the river, he jumped into the water from the exact location of the mark he had carved on the boat to look for his sword, but he couldn’t understand why he couldn’t find it. So the precise meaning of this saying is following the set rules without considering that circumstances have changed.

近朱者赤,  近墨 者黑  jìn zhū zhě chì, jìn mò zhě hēi : The literal meaning is “He who stays near vermilion gets stained red. He who stays near (black) ink gets stained black.” It means that people are affected by the company they keep. If one keeps company with a good person, one will be positively influenced. If one keeps company with a bad person, one will be negatively influenced.

人 无 远 虑, 必有 近忧 rén wú yuǎn lǜ, bì yǒu jìn yōu : This is a famous quote from Confucius. The literal meaning is that “if one has no foresight, one will soon have worries.” This saying is used to emphasis the importance of good long-term planning.


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