A Collection of Chinese Proverbs

Wisdom for the Week

As you can probably tell from my recent posts, Do Not Throw Away the Melon for the Seeds and The Test of Greatness Comes in the Heart of Winter, I’ve been working my way through a compendium of Chinese proverbs.  This type of reading has always been among my favorite – to take an observation and think about it for days, weeks, sometimes even longer, extracting every lesson I can from it.  Here are some of my favorites.

  • The straightest tree is the first to be cut down.  The well with the sweetest water is the first to be drained. – Duke Ren, Spring and Autumn Period
  • A state that is great carries the seeds of its demise, just as a giant tree singles itself out for the blow of the axe. Weakness brings life, strength brings death. – Lao Zi, Spring and Autumn Period
  • In good times, the wise man works for the state. In bad times, he looks after himself. – Jie Yu, Spring and Autumn Period
  • Building a house by the roadside takes more than three years – Zhang Di warns that public attractions attract public attention, Hang Dynasty. The moral: Keep your plans secret and then unleash them on an unsuspecting world.
  • True gold fears not the test of fire. – Traditional Chinese Proverb
  • War is like a fire; if you do not put aside your weapons, they will eventually consume you. – Li Chuan, Tang Dynasty
  • There is no victory in winning a hundred battles. There is victory in subduing your enemy without fighting at all. – Sun Zi, Spring and Autumn Period
  • He is victorious who knows when and when not to fight. – Sun Zi, Spring and Autumn Period
  • The art of war lies in thwarting the enemy’s plans, in breaking up his alliances, and then, only then, in attacking his army. – Sun Zi, Spring and Autumn Period
  • The swing of a sword cannot cut the mist from the sky. – Li He, Tang Dynasty
  • When the work of the perfect leader is done well, the people think they have done it all by themselves. – Lao Zi, Spring and Autumn Period
  • The foundation of the world lies in the nation, the foundation of the nation lies in the family, and the foundation of the family lies in the individual. – Mencius, Warring States Period
  • Kings and nobles, generals and ministers: such men are made, not born. – Chen She, Qin Dynasty
  • Patience is a tree with bitter roots that bears sweet fruits. – Traditional Chinese Proverb
  • He who strikes first admits that his ideas have given out. – Traditional Chinese Proverb
  • To win the battle, retain the surprise. – Traditional Chinese Proverb
  • Large chickens don’t eat small rice. – Traditional Chinese Proverb
  • Pay out a long line to catch a big fish. – Traditional Chinese Proverb
  • Beware a dagger hidden in a smile. – Traditional Chinese Proverb
  • Reputation is like a cake drawn on the ground. if you’re hungry, it’s not much help. – Emperor Ming explains that he is impressed by Lu Yu’s ability, not his resume, Three Kingdoms Period
  • From ancient times, men have mourned great things put to petty uses. – Lu You, Southern Song Dynasty
  • Although this bird has not yet taken flight, when it does it shall surpass heaven. Although it has not yet sung, when it does it shall shake the angels. – King Weiwang explains that he is biding his time, Warring States Period
  • A truly wise man does not display his wisdom. Such is the secret of being well-liked. – Yang Zhu, Zhou Dynasty
  • Suppress your desire for glory, and you will never be disappointed. – Emperor Yu, Xia Dynasty
  • Those who seek fame, will only find it by extraordinary means. If you do only ordinary things, you will not even be famous within your own family. But that is preferable, in my opinion. – Shang Qiu Zi, Zhou Dynasty
  • Watch your words and your deeds, for your words shall be spoken and your deeds shall be copied. – Traditional Chinese Proverb
  • A gentleman would rescue a man trapped in a well, but he would not jump in himself. He is not perfect, but he is not stupid, either. – Confucius, Spring and Autumn Period
  • It is a disgrace for a gentleman’s words to be greater than his deeds.- Confucious, Spring and Autumn Period
  • Beware lest your eyes are bigger than your belly. – Traditional Chinese Proverb
  • A great man is hard on himself. A small man is hard on others. – Confucious, Spring and Autumn Period
  • The wise man never trusts in appearances. – Confucious, Spring and Autumn Period
  • A tiger does not take insults from sheep. – Traditional Chinese Proverb
  • The leader must be at the forefront of the army’s struggles. He neither sits int he shade in summer, nor dons warm clothing in the winter. – Zhang Yu, Song Dynasty
  • Bamboo will bend in the wind (i.e., it will change with the times, not break). – Traditional Chinese Proverb
  • In the archer there is resemblance to the gentleman. When he misses the mark, he turns and seeks the reason for his failure in himself. – Confucius (attributed), Spring and Autumn Period
  • The rich start from combined savings. – Traditional Chinese Proverb
  • Do as the thirsty person drinking from a river.  He drinks happily enough, but does not covet the voluminous flow … This is how the gentleman exercises his mind for he regards rank and position as a tumor and material wealth as dirt and dust. What is the use of wealth and honor to him? – Xi Kang, Han Dynasty
  • Even the hardiest plant will not flourish if left int he cold for ten days out of every eleven. – Mencius, Warring States Period
  • A coin a day makes a thousand coins in a thousand days. In time, a rope may saw through a tree, and dripping water can wear away stone. – Zhang Guiya, Southern Song Dynasty
  • Do not squander gold like earth. – Traditional Chinese Proverb
  • Distant water cannot quench a fire close at hand. – Li Chu, Spring and Autumn Period
  • To catch the tiger’s cub, one must enter the tiger’s den. – Ban Chao, Eastern Han Dynasty
  • Let not the opportunity pass, for it may not return. – Kuai Tong, Western Han Dynasty
  • Who cannot sail a ship when the sea is calm? – Traditional Chinese Proverb
  • Truth is oft disguised as jest. – Traditional Chinese Proverb
  • Dying embers can still start a fire. – Western Han Dynasty
  • Only when you know why you have hit the target, can you truly say you have learned archery. – Guan Yinzi, Warring States Period
  • Fish big enough to swallow a boat are not found in ditches. – Yang Zhu refuses to be a big fish in a little pond, Zhou Dynasty
  • The higher the rank I attain, the more humbly I behave. the greater my power, the less I exercise it. The richer my wealth, the more I give away. Thus I avoid envy, spite, and misery. – Sun Shu Ao, Zhou Dynasty
  • Do not worry if others do not understand you. Worry if you do not understand them. – Confucius, Spring and Autumn Period
  • A virtuous man concentrates on his own work, not that of others. – Zengzi, Spring and Autumn Period