Proverbs and Sayings from the Chinese

Happy Chinese New Year and Gōngxǐ Fācái

by Frank YU The Spring Festival is China’s biggest holiday, beloved of the Chinese people. It is a day for reunion and blessing, and a time to wish one another prosperity and good fortune—which makes New Year’s proverbs especially appropriate for this issue on small businesses. The date of Chinese New Year (also known as the Spring Festival) is determined […]

Tie one’s hair on the house beam and prick one’s thigh with an awl (悬梁刺股)

悬梁刺股 Xuán liáng cì gǔ   Translation: Tie one’s hair on the house beam and prick one’s thigh with an awl. Meaning: Take a painstaking effort in one’s study. Story This proverb encompasses two stories. The xuán liáng 悬梁 (tying one’s hair on the house beam) part of the proverb is found in the Han shu 汉书 (Book of Han), […]

To get up when the rooster crows and practice sword fighting (闻鸡起舞)

闻鸡起舞 Wén jī qǐ wǔ Translation: To rise up upon hearing the crow of a rooster and practice with the sword. Meaning: To study hard in order to achieve a lofty goal; or simply to study with diligence and stamina. Story This proverb derives from a biographical chapter found in one of China’s many historical books called the Jinshu 晋书(Book […]

Read by the light of fireflies and reflecting snow (囊萤映雪)

囊萤映雪 Náng yíng yìng xuě Translation: Read by the light of fireflies entrapped in a pouch of thin silk and the reflections given off by the snow on the ground. Meaning: Study hard despite poor conditions. Story This proverb comes from two stories. The story about the fireflies is found in the Jin shu 晋书 (The Book of Jin), one […]

When two dogs strive for one bone, a third runs away with it (鹬蚌相争, 渔翁得利)

鹬蚌相争, 渔翁得利 Yù bàng xiāng zhēng, yú wēng dé lì Translation: A grapple between a snipe and a clamp benefits the fisherman. Meaning: A dispute between two parties may benefit a third party; two dogs strive for one bone, and a third runs away with it. Story During the Warring States period (476 BCE— 221 BCE), the State of Zhao […]

A man from Handan learns how to walk (邯郸学步)

邯郸学步 Hán dān xué bù Translation: A man from Handan learns how to walk. Meaning: By imitating others, one can lose his own individuality. Story This proverb stems from the Zhuangzi 庄子, a collection of Taoist thinking allegedly compiled by Zhuang Zhou, a Chinese philosopher of the 4th century bce. Zhuang Zhou has been popularly known as Zhuangzi, the namesake […]

Pulling up rice shoots to help them grow (揠苗助长)

揠苗助长 Yà miáo zhù zhǎng Translation: Pulling up rice shoots to help them grow. Meaning: Spoil a thing by being over enthusiastic about it. Story The proverb stems from a story told in Gongsun Chou shang (Gongsun Chou I) by Mencius (372-289 BCE), the most famous Confucian next only to Confucius himself. Once, in the state of Song, there was […]

To cut the threads on a loom to encourage learning (断织劝学)

断织劝学 Duàn zhī quàn xué   Translation: To cut the threads on a loom to encourage learning. Meaning: To encourage people to learn. Story The origin of this proverb is found in Le Yangzi qi zhuan (A Biography of Le Yangzi’s Wife), a chapter of the famed Houhan shu 后汉书(History of the Later Han) compiled by Fan Ye (398–445 ce), […]

Looking for the donkey you are riding on (骑驴找驴)

骑驴找驴 Qí lǘ zhǎo lǘ Translation: Looking for the donkey on which one is riding. Meaning: Originally it means that looking for another position while still being in one. Now the connotation is changed to looking for something right under one’s nose. Story The proverb derives from Jingde chuan deng lu (The Transmission of the Lamp), a biographical account of […]

Cutting a wall to steal light (凿壁偷光)

凿壁偷光 Záo bì tōu guāng Translation: Cutting a wall to steal light.  Meaning: Study hard in difficult conditions. Story This proverb comes from a story recorded in the novel Xijing zaji 西京杂记 (Miscellanies of the Western Capital). Its authorship is uncertain: Some historians credit the Western Han 西汉dynasty (206 bce–9 ce) astronomer, historian, and editor Liu Xin (ca. 50 bce–23 […]