Category: chinese proverbs

Jan 25 2011

没吃葡萄说葡萄酸 – meichiputaoshuoputaosuan

没吃葡萄说葡萄酸 – mei2 chi1 pu2tao shuo1 pu2tao suan1

Literal translation – haven’t eaten grapes say grapes sour

Believe that grapes are sour even though you have never eaten a grape.

This is a fairly easy proverb to understand and use.  It’s means you have an opinion or judgement about something you have never investigated or know very little about i.e. your opinion has no foundation and you have no right to be passing a judgement on a certain topic or thing.  Just like someone who says grapes are sour even though they have never eaten one.

I find this a very useful proverb in China as I often encounter people who’s opinions are just heresay.  For example, when people find out that I come from Canada the usual conversation that follows is something along the line of how rich and wonderful Canada is.  I like to make sure that Chinese people know that Canada has poor people too, the streets AREN’T paved with gold despite what they may think or hear.  One time I told someone that Canada had homeless people and the local refused to believe me.  He went on to tell ME what Canada was like even though he had never been there.  So the proverb above would have been useful had I known it at that time.

There is another proverb almost the same as the proverb above but with a slightly different meaning :

吃不到葡萄说葡萄酸 – chi1 bu2dao4 pu2tao shuo1 pu2tao suan1

Literal translation – eat not arrive grape say grape sour

Say/believe grapes are sour if you are unable to eat them (in order to falsely comfort oneself)

This proverb or saying is almost the same as the first but the meaning is quite different.  It’s common for us as humans to envy what we don’t have or can’t afford.  So we often pretend we don’t want the thing we can’t have or afford in an effort to comfort ourselves, but we know what mind games we are trying to play on ourselves and so do the people who hear us try to do so.  That’s basically what this expression is meaning.  A nice new BMW car drives by and someone says “Wow what a nice car” and you say “Ah BMWs aren’t that great anyway”.  You don’t actually believe what you are saying but you say it anyways.

Jan 24 2011

萝卜白菜各有所爱 – luobobaicaigeyousuoai

萝卜白菜各有所爱 – luo2bo bai2cai4ge4you3suo3ai4

Literal translation – Turnip Chinese Cabbage each has actual love


Turnip, Cabbage everyone has their own preference

It basically means It means “Everybody has their own personal taste” or “Each persons likes and dislikes are different”

This is one of my MOST used expresssions.  If you live in China then this is a MUST learn.  Reason being I was sick and tired of going into restaurants and asking for dishes to be modified to the way I like them (i.e. don’t put any hot peppers in, as I don’t like spicey food).  Too many times the waitress told me it was “impossible”.  When I asked why was it “impossible” the answer was always “because it won’t taste good that way”.  I have no idea where this logic possibly comes from and how it can be so common nationwide, but it is.  So I was SO happy to stumble upon this idiom/phrase which basically throws a spanner in their logic using their own language.  Now I don’t need to argue with the waitresses or explain to them that I have the right to decide what does and doesn’t taste good.  Once I get any resistance from the staff regarding my desires to change the dishes to my liking I simply utter the proverb/saying above and they normally smile (surprised a foreigner knows how to use such an expression) and they get the point.  Strange that such an expression exists in their language but yet they insists on telling others what does and doesn’t taste good.

Anyways, be sure to learn this as you will use it almost daily (or at least almost everytime you go to a restaurant).

Jan 22 2011

关公面前耍大刀 – guangongmianqianshuadadao

关公面前耍大刀 – guan1gong1 mian4qian2 shua1 da4dao1

Literal translation – Guangong (name of famous warlord) in front of play sword


Play with a sword in the presence of Guangong

This basically means to attempt to show ones limited skills in the presence of someone who is highly skilled.

Guangong (also known as Guanyu) was a noted excellent swordsman.  No one dared challenge him to a sword fight, sort of like a Billy the Kid of Chinese history.  So of course if someone was attempting to show their swordsmanship in front of Guanyu it would be embarassing, really, as he would be no match for Guanyu.

I especially like the idioms that encompass a little bit of Chinese culture or history like this one.  Any idiom involving Guanyu, Zhugeliang and such figures are all the much more intriguing and interesting in my opinion.

The modern day usage of this proverb I think is pretty obvious.  If anyone is trying to flaunt their skills in the presence of someone who’s skills surpass the “flaunter” then this proverb applies.

There are 2 sides to its usage I think. One usage is if perhaps you want to express your humility.  If someone is more skilled than you in something but you still carry out the task for whatever reason you can say that you are 关公面前耍大刀 – guan1gong1 mian4qian2 shua1 da4dao1.  If you say this in this situation you are guaranteed to get a smile or laugh from your chinese friend.  Because you are essentially admitting that they are much better than you at this skill (whatever it may be).  So it’s a way to give them a compliment or give them some “face”.  Further, a foreigner using an expression like this which is close to their hearts is guaranteed to have an excellent reception.

In a negative way this could also be used to sort of put someone in their place i.e. someone who thinks a little bit too much of themselves because they are limitedly skilled in some area.  If someone is in their presence whom is much better then this proverb could be used to humble them or to let them realise they should step aside and let the pro take over.

Another idiom that basically carries the same meaning is 班门弄斧 – ban1men2nong4fu3.  The meaning is basically the same, but I much prefer using 关公面前耍大刀 – guan1gong1 mian4qian2 shua1 da4dao1 because of the visual image and the cultural content.

May 14 2010

小和尚念经,有口无心 – xiaoheshangnianjing,youkouwuxin

小和尚念经,有口无心 – xiao3he2shang4nian4jing1,you3kou3wu2xin1

Literal meaning = small/little monk reads scriptures, have mouth not heart.

This is a proverb about a monk who reads the scriptures, claims to be a monk etc but in his heart doesn’t really believe or practice i.e. a hypocrite.

This proverb can be used to describe someone who is forced to study for example.  Many children go to University or college because their parents force them but they don’t want to be there.  Or it could be used to describe people who claim to be Christians (or any faith for that matter) but get drunk, lie, commit fornication etc.

Pretty much any situation where what comes out of peoples mouth isn’t really what they feel think or believe.  Perhaps it also carries the connotation of someone who feels a little bit of pressure from parents, society or whatever to conform or say what they say but inside they don’t agree or believe.

Feb 11 2010

身在曹营心在汉 – shen zai cao ying xin zai han

身在曹营心在汉 – shen1 zai4 cao2 ying2 xin1 zai4 han4

Literal translation = body – at – Cao (name) – camp – heart – at – Han (name)

Idiomatic translation = Your body is in the camp of Cao but your heart is in Han’s camp.

This is a very nice Ancient Chinese Proverb.  If you can use it correctly it will really touch the hearts of Chinese people and they will be highly impressed with your Chinese.

Cao was a famous war general and appears in the famous book The Three Kingdoms.  I haven’t read the book myself but I know the other famous general in there is Zhu Ge Liang and I assume there is one named “Han” as well.

I am not sure if there is a specific story about a certain soldier whom this idiom applies to or not, but it basically comes the history of Caocao and his wars at the time of the The 3 Kindgoms.

The usage and meaning of this is quite specific.  I used to think it just meant someone who is there in body but not in spirit (perhaps day dreaming) but the real meaning is about where someone’s loyalty lies.

For example, a company is bought out by a bigger company and maybe fires the managers and a new manager comes in.  You still have the same job but now you have a new boss, however you still love the old boss and have devotion to him or her.  So although your body is working for the new company and new management, you miss the old company and management and still have loyalty to them even begrudgingly continuing your job.

Therefore, there aren’t many opportunities to use this idiom as it’s meaning is quite specific.

Jan 22 2010

塞翁失马焉知非福 – saiwengshimayanzhifeifu

塞翁失马焉知非福 – sai4 weng1 shi1 ma3 yan1 zhi1 fei1 fu2

Literal translation – saiweng (persons name) – lose – horse – how – know – not – blessing

This basically can be translated as “a blessing in disguise” or even “a curse in disguise” ie the opposite.

It comes from a story about an old man named “Saiweng”.  He lost his horse and his friends came to comfort him but he was optimistic saying that it could be a good thing.  He turned out to be correct when sometime later the horse returned bringing with it another better horse.  His friends again came to him this time joyful but Saiweng wasn’t so sure this was a good thing.  Turned out his son broke his leg while riding this new horse.  Once again his friends came to comfort him over his son’s injury but Saiweng once again didn’t necessarily view it as a bad thing right away.  Rightly so as the broken leg prevented his son from being conscripted into the army and therefore saved his life.

This proverb is generally used to comfort someone if they have fallen sick or had some sort of catastrophe.  It could also theoretically be used in the opposite way for someone who has had something very good happen to them but I highly doubt it is ever used in this sense, as who ever wants to rain on someone’s parade and spoil the moment ?

So although it can be used to warn people that the apparent good fortune may be bad luck waiting to happen, it is more commonly used to try to cheer up someone who is troubled over some misfortune that has befallen them.

Jan 15 2010

道不同不相为谋 – daobutongbuxiangweimou

道不同不相为谋 – dao4bu4tong2bu4xiang1wei2mou2

Literal meaning of each character – road/path – not – same – not – mutually – for/do/accomplish – idea/plan/scheme

One dictionary defines this Ancient Chinese Proverb as “people with different principles will not make common cause”

My understanding of this proverb is to do with people’s outlooks on life and life goals.  I most often use this proverb when talking about marriage.  If 2 people don’t have the same or similar goals in life they aren’t compatible for marriage.  It doesn’t necessarily mean one person is better than the other, they just simply aren’t compatible.

This might be something one could use in order to break up with a boyfriend or girlfriend in a nice way.  I have never tried it myself, but it would be a logical usage.  It’s a nice way to say “we aren’t compatible”, only if what you are saying is true of course.  You would have to be on a different “path” then your soon to be ex-partner.

Basically any situation where you have different goals or different life paths, so working or being together will not accomplish anything of mutual benefit, in fact it may make life harder and therefore it’s better to part.

Jan 13 2010

巧妇难为无米之炊 – qiaofunanweiwumizhichui

巧妇难为无米之炊 – qiao3fu4nan2wei2wu2mi3zhi1chui1

Literal translation – skilled wife difficult to without rice make good meal.

Even the most skilled of wives/women is unable to make a good meal without rice

This Chinese Proverb is used to describe situations where the materials given are not sufficient for the job.  It means you cannot blame the person for the result or outcome when it was impossible to have a good outcome regardless of who handled the task.

Even the best cook in the world can’t make dinner if he doesn’t have any food.  If the quality of the food is inferior the taste will be too.  One cannot build a decent house without the right materials and one cannot do their job well if the boss is too cheap to buy decent tools.

I think you can use your imagination as to when and how to use this proverb as it pretty much speaks for itself.  However it does give us a glimpse into the Chinese culture and how rice is such an important part of their culture.  I would think “rice” is likely used in many idioms and proverbs.

Jan 06 2010

师傅领进门修行在个人 – shifulingjinmenxiuxingzaigeren

师傅领进门修行在个人 – shi1fu ling3 jin4men2 xiu1xing2 zai4 ge4ren2

Word for word translation :

teacher/master – lead/guide – enter door – practice/put into motion – at/in – individual

Basic meaning : A teacher or master can lead you to the door but it is you yourself that must take the action to go through the door.

I think our English idiom “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink” is a pretty good equivalent.  Being an English teacher for Chinese students, this must be my favorite ancient Chinese proverb.  I used to try to translate our “horse” idiom and then explain what it meant in an effort to make sure the students are aware that simply sitting in the chair during their once/twice a week class ISN’T going to improve their English.  Effort is required on their part if they really want to improve.

How happy I was to discover that they have a Proverb that describes this exact phenomenon !  This way they have absolutely no excuse when they fail their exams.

We provide the tools, but it’s up to them individually to use those tools and practice and review etc.  They can’t blame the teacher when they are just down right lazy!

Jan 01 2010

三人行必有我师焉 – san ren xing bi you wo shi yan

三人行必有我师焉 – san1 ren2 xing2 bi4 you3 wo3 shi1 yan1

Literal translation :

3 – people – walking – must – have – me – teacher – thus

If 3 people are walking together at least one of them is good enough to be my teacher (in some subject)

I like this Proverb because it basically says that nobody has the monopoly on knowledge.  This is one of those Ancient Chinese Proverbs that is supposed to keep you humble I guess.

I often use it in my English class to remind the students to be quiet when other students are speaking.  Chinese students seem to have a problem of being quiet when other students are talking/practicing English in class.  For us westerners it’s incredibly rude, but for them it’s completely normal.  I guess when they are speaking and no one else is listening they don’t care ?  Anyways I use this Ancient Chinese Proverb in an effort to get them to listen to their fellow students speaking English because they can always learn from fellow students.  It isn’t only me that can help them with their English but they can also help each other.

Any situation where people can all learn from one another and help each other increase in knowledge in some way this Proverb can be used.

I believe it was said by Confucious, or Kongzi, but I can’t be certain.  Feel free to correct me with a comment below.

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