22 Inspirational Chinese Proverbs and Quotes (Plus Explanations and Key Vocabulary!)
Have you been feeling down in the dumps lately?
Life can be pretty rough at times, which can make it hard for us to remain positive 100% of the time.
But as the saying goes, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.”
It’s expressions like these that remind us the bumps in the road we sometimes face can be overcome.
Whether you need some motivation to overcome an obstacle in your Mandarin studies or simply need words of encouragement, here are 22 uplifting Chinese proverbs and quotes to get you through tough times!
- Chinese Proverbs About Patience
- Chinese Proverbs About Perseverance
- Chinese Proverbs About Learning
- Chinese Proverbs About Character
- What You Can Learn from Chinese Quotes and Proverbs
Chinese Proverbs About Patience
1. 不怕慢, 就怕站。
Pinyin: bú pà màn, jiù pà zhàn.
English: Be not afraid of growing slowly, only of staying still.
怕 (pà) — to fear, to be afraid
慢 (màn) — slow
站 (zhàn) — to stop, to halt
When literally translated word for word, the saying is actually, “Do not be afraid of slow, only be afraid to stop.”
The main idea here is that the only thing you should fear is staying in one place and never progressing. No matter how slowly you think you’re moving towards a goal, slow progress is always better than no progress at all!
Pinyin: bīng dòng sān chǐ, fēi yī rì zhī hán.
English: Three feet of ice does not form in a single day.
冻 (dòng) — to freeze, to feel cold
非 ( fēi) — incorrect, not; to not be
之 (zhī) — equivalent to 的; it, her, him
寒 (hán) — cold; to tremble
It’s true that there’s a lot you can accomplish in a day, but do not be disappointed when you don’t see any visible progress.
Progress and growth take time, and it’s important to exercise patience with whatever journey you’re currently on.
Pinyin: yù sù zé bù dá.
English: Haste will not get you anywhere.
欲 (yù) — appetite, passion; to desire
速 (sù) — fast, rapid; velocity
则 (zé) — but, then; norm, standard; to imitate
达 (dá) — to attain, to amount to
Literally meaning, “Want something in haste but cannot there,” this Chinese quote emphasizes that speeding up does not mean you will necessarily cross the finish line faster.
We have to stop being in a rush all the time, looking for instant gratification. It’s better that you take your time so your progress is nice, steady and consistent.
It’s like the saying, “Don’t run before you can walk.”
Pinyin: xún xù jiàn jìn.
English: Follow the order to gradually move forward.
循 (xún) — to adhere to, to abide by
序 (xù) — order, sequence
渐 (jiàn) — gradual; gradually
进 (jìn) — to go forward, to advance
Just like you would not skip ahead when following a recipe, take things one step at a time in whatever you’re trying to accomplish. Trying to yield faster results for the sake of convenience won’t do you any good.
Pinyin: [yǔ qí] lín yuān xiàn yú, bù rú tuì ér jié wǎng.
English: [Rather than] approaching the edge (of the water) longing for fish, it is better to take a step back and prepare a net.
临 (lín) — to face, to overlook
不如 (bù rú) — it would be better to
退 (tuì) — to move back, to retreat
结网 (jié wǎng) — weave a net
This quote comes from 董仲舒 (dǒng zhòng shū) — Dong Zhongshu, a politician and philosopher of the Han Dynasty. He used the parable to warn the emperor that if he wanted to manage the country well, it was important to do so in a principled and institutional way.
Important as it is to have a clear objective in mind, it is equally important to have the means to go about achieving that objective, lest it become a delusion. One can always revise their approach to a goal.
Pinyin: jūn zǐ zhī xíng, jìng yǐ xiū shēn, jiǎn yǐ yǎng dé, fēi dàn bó wú yǐ míng zhì, fēi níng jìng wú yǐ zhì yuǎn.
English: A gentleman’s journey is to cultivate character through tranquility, and to cultivate virtue through frugality. Without indifference [to notions like fame and glory], there is no clear ambition; without tranquility, it is not possible to achieve grand aspirations.
君子 (jūn zǐ) — gentleman; person of noble character
德 (dé) — virtue, moral character
淡泊 (dàn bó) — not seek fame and wealth
致 (zhì) — cause, result in
A 君子, in ancient China, was someone highly virtuous and of noble character; someone who represented the ideal personality a man should have.
In order for us to establish a clear direction toward our long-term goals, we must be able to clear our minds of unnecessary distractions—notably the notions of fame and glory. Only by first taking the proper time to cultivate one’s being could a person expect to find success in their endeavors.
Chinese Proverbs About Perseverance
Pinyin: wàn shì kāi tóu nán.
English: The first step is the hardest.
万事 (wàn shì) — all things
开 (kāi) — to start, to establish
头 (tóu) — head, top, beginning, end, first
Whether you’re thinking about taking up a new language or transitioning into a healthier lifestyle, just the idea of getting started can be quite intimidating. We often find excuses for not taking on anything new in our lives.
Once we get over our fear of taking risks, however, we realize that the biggest hurdle is letting ourselves be vulnerable to mistakes, and accepting that failure is part of growth.
Pinyin: yì kǒu chī bù chéng pàng zi.
English: One mouthful will not make a fat man.
成 (chéng) — to finish, to accomplish, to turn into
Here is a quote that’s very similar to, “Rome was not built in a day.”
While the Chinese saying is about not expecting quick results, my personal interpretation is that one setback will not ruin your progress entirely.
Pinyin: shú néng shēng qiǎo.
English: Experience can breed skill.
熟 (shú) — experience, practice
巧 (qiǎo) — skill; skilled; timely
Though some people are naturally gifted, the truth is that practice makes perfect. You have to put the time and work in if you want to master anything, be that Mandarin Chinese, a technical skill or an artistic pursuit.
Pinyin: jīn rì shì, jīn rì bì.
English: Today’s task is for today to complete.
毕 (bì) — to complete; finished
Procrastination is a widely shared setback. Many of us have a tendency to put off even the simplest tasks because we’re either not in the mood or the task itself is not enjoyable.
Leaving everything to the last minute does nothing for you in the long run except build bad habits. Thus, if you set out to accomplish something for the day, then get it done. Or at least, get as much of it done as time permits.
Pinyin: sān jūn kě duó shuài yě, pǐ fū bù kě duó zhì yě.
English: An army can conquer a general, but no man can rob one of his ambition.
帅 (shuài) — commander in chief
也 (yě) — indicates an explanation or a judgment
匹夫 (pǐ fū) — literary term for an ordinary man
志 (zhì) — refers to 志气; ambition, spirit, moral
From “The Analects” of Confucius, this is a firm reminder of the importance of having ambition, or a free spirit. It’s like saying, “You can rob me of all my earthly possessions, but you will never take my spirit.”
This was especially poignant when it was first published, during the empirical dynasties of ancient China. Back then, it wasn’t uncommon for people to have a subservient mindset. Confucius wanted to remind them they could still be strong through individual will.
Pinyin: huò xī fú zhī suǒ yǐ, fú xī huò zhī suǒ fú.
English: Calamity has its roots in prosperity; prosperity has its roots in calamity.
祸 (huò) — disaster; misfortune
福 (fú) — good fortune; happiness
倚 (yǐ) — relies on
伏 (fú) — to conceal
This Chinese proverb comes from legendary philosopher 老子 (lǎo zi) — Lao Tzu, or Laozi. Disaster and good fortune cannot exist without each other. To understand one, you must be aware of its opposite.
One could also understand the quote as a reminder to not take things too seriously—either the good or the bad, as they both come and go easily.
Chinese Proverbs About Learning
Pinyin: shòu rén yǐ yú, bù rú shòu zhī yǐ yú.
English: Giving a man a fish is not equal to teaching him how to fish.
授 (shòu) — to teach, to award, to give
以 (yǐ) — to use; by means of
不如 (bù rú) — inferior to, not as good as
渔 (yú) — to fish; fisherman
We all know the adage, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”
Many have contested the origin of this quote. Some argue it originated from this particular Chinese proverb, while others say it came from the Native Americans or somewhere else.
No matter where the English quote came from, the notion is observed by the Chinese and non-Chinese—there is greater value in learning or being taught rather than just receiving a handout.
Pinyin: xué xí shì yǒng yuǎn gēn suí zhǔ rén de bǎo wù.
English: Learning is a treasure that always follows its owner.
永远 (yǒng yuǎn) — eternal; forever
跟随 (gēn suí) — to follow
No matter how mundane or tedious it can sometimes be when acquiring new skills, everything you learn will follow you for the rest of your life.
Even if you’re not currently studying, you never actually stop learning. This is a privilege you should always cherish and treasure.
Pinyin: bú rù hǔ xué, yān dé hǔ zǐ?
English: If you do not enter the tiger’s den, how will you get the tiger cub?
焉 (yān) — how, where
得 (dé) — to obtain, to gain; suitable; finished
You’ve likely heard the mottoes, “Nothing ventured, nothing gained,” and, “No pain, no gain.”
Although no one in their right mind would actually enter a tiger’s den, the idea here is that you will never get anywhere in life if you don’t take the risk.
Nothing will happen if you always stay in your comfort zone!
Pinyin: shū shì suí shēn xié dài de huā yuán.
English: A book is a garden you carry around with you.
随身 (suí shēn) — to carry on one’s person
携带 (xié dài) — to take along
This is by far one of the most beautiful quotes in Chinese I have ever come across. A book can be many things, but I’d never compared a book to a garden before.
It completely makes sense; a garden is a place of nurturing, growth and love, and we should never underestimate how much we can learn and grow from reading.
Pinyin: bó xué zhī, shěn wèn zhī, shèn sī zhī, míng biàn zhī, dǔ xíng zhī.
English: Learn it eruditely, examine it attentively, think it over carefully, discern it clearly, and practice it sincerely.
博 (bó) — erudite, well-informed
审问 (shěn wèn) — to question, to examine
笃行 (dǔ xíng) — to behave sincerely
From the “Book of Rites,” these five principles represent the stages of learning. You might recognize it as being similar to Bloom’s taxonomy of educational objectives: Knowledge, Comprehension, Application, Analysis, Synthesis and Evaluation.
Pinyin: zǐ yuē: “wú shí yǒu wǔ ér zhì yú xué, sān shí ér lì, sì shí ér bú huò, wǔ shí ér zhī tiān mìng, liù shí ér ěr shùn, qī shí ér cóng xīn suǒ yù, bù yú jǔ.”
English: Confucius said, “When I was fifteen, I was determined to learn; when I was thirty, I was established; when I was forty, I no longer puzzled over decisions; when I was fifty, I understood destiny; when I was sixty, I could hear the positive and negative without being upset; when I was seventy, I followed my heart’s desires without exceeding the rules of the world.”
吾 (wú) — ancient version of I/me
立 (lì) — to establish
惑 (huò) — confused, bewildered
欲 (yù) — desire, longing
Confucius, again in “The Analects,” summarized his life and enlightenment in this short statement. Nowadays, it serves as a guiding principle for the things we might learn and where we might find ourselves at different stages of our lives.
Chinese Proverbs About Character
Pinyin: jūn zǐ zhī xīn bú shèng qí xiǎo, ér qì liàng hán gài yí shì.
English: A gentleman’s heart cares not for its own small desires, but for all that his spirit can endure in a lifetime.
不胜 (bù shèng) — cannot bear or stand
气量 (qì liàng) — tolerance; moral character
涵盖 (hán gài) — to cover, to encompass
一世 (yí shì) — one’s lifetime
This quote is saying that a person should have the ability to tolerate small misdeeds, especially those of other people. They should be generous and accepting of flaws and shortcomings, and forgive others, even when they are undeserving of such forgiveness.
It reminds us that we should aim to serve the greater good and not simply act for our own petty desires.
Pinyin: jí fēng zhī jìng cǎo, bǎn dàng shí chéng chén.
English: The strength of a blade of grass is seen only in tempests; the loyalty of an official is seen only in times of turbulence.
疾风 (jí fēng) — strong wind, gale
劲草 (jìng cǎo) — hardy grass; someone who is loyal despite hardship
诚 (chéng) — sincere; true
臣 (chén) — state official; minister
This Chinese proverb is somewhat similar to one in English: “A friend in need is a friend indeed.” Only when facing difficulty can you know who is truly loyal and who isn’t.
Pinyin: lǎo wú lǎo, yǐ jí rén zhī lǎo; yòu wú yòu, yǐ jí rén zhī yòu.
English: Honor our own elderly [relatives] and those of others; nurture our children and others’ children as well.
老 (lǎo) — the elderly
幼 (yòu) — children
This quote comes from 孟子 (mèng zǐ) — Mencius. It reminds me of one of Jesus’ parables: “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” Even if we aren’t related, the mere fact that we are friends, neighbors or just fellow humans means we should respect and look after each other’s loved ones in the same way we would our own.
Pinyin: dàn yuàn rén cháng jiǔ, qiān lǐ gòng chán juān.
English: I wish for us a long life, and to share the beauty of the moonlight despite a thousand miles of separation.
但愿 (dàn yuàn) — I wish; if only
共 (gòng) — share; together
婵娟 (chán juān) — literary term for the moon
This is a small portion of the 水调歌头 (shuǐ diào gē tóu) — “Water Song.” The author is expressing his world views and observations using people and the moon as metaphors. The philosophical component aside, the phrases are beautifully worded in Chinese.
What You Can Learn from Chinese Quotes and Proverbs
First and foremost, proverbs are opportunities to pick up new terms that might not appear in a typical Mandarin lesson or textbook. Additionally, many quotes also include chengyu (Chinese idioms).
Chengyu are a natural part of everyday speech. For example, Chinese speakers may use color-specific idioms to describe everyday situations, or phrases about love to describe beauty and feelings.
Essentially, chengyu are language tidbits that will improve your overall Mandarin skills. They’re absolutely necessary if you want to communicate well with native speakers.
Chinese core values
Chinese adages reveal certain beliefs that are unique to Chinese culture. Some of the core values that have existed for centuries include harmony and benevolence, which are reflected in proverbs from Laozi and Confucius.
The sayings above have been passed down from generation to generation to offer insight into the wisdom that is so deeply rooted in Chinese culture.
A sense of universality
While no two cultures share the exact same set of values, we have more in common with each other than we may think.
Proverbs may be connected to certain groups, but the universality of the underlying messages manifests in the way that anyone can relate to them on some level.
Proverbs convey values that have survived through the centuries, and the truths that we need and can still apply in this day and age. Sometimes, it is the timelessness of proverbs that gives us the comfort and strength to push forward.
So, keep your chin up!
Use the wisdom in these Chinese quotes and proverbs, and know that you will get through your hurdles.