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Chinese proverbs artistically suggested

Chinese Proverbs

On this page are nearly 420 selected Chinese proverbs.

To learn great proverbs better, record them and play the recording once in a while. By this you may rise to make much better use of them, or the sensible wisdom or life knowledge some of them contain [Lojong].

Also, many sorts of reservations are presupposed for all who want to get something of current value out of proverbs from other climes and times. For example, for "Girls marry to please parents, widows to please themselves", read for example, "Lots of girls marry to please parents, widows to please themselves." You need to consider things on your own too, and some light-handed proverb training along such lines could be good help.

Jerome Bruner finds that proverbs are used a lot to express and foster culture by such as the insights into humans they give vent to, and by the attitudes and half-norms many of the folk sayings propagate. For example, proverbs of thrifty people tend to advocate thrift, although alternative set-ups can be found too. If there is doubt, I prefer to consider the dubious proverb as exposing things, but not directly advocating it.

This said, we may need to ask which sort of culture we want to pass along ourselves, where we happen to be on the surface of the earth.

Chinese proverbs are elegant and often something to be thankful for.

Talking of the wind

In this selection, almost every proverb on weather signs is omitted, for such proverbs appear to be too local. "Does it apply in Polynesia?" may be a question to test a weather proverb by. Well, that some proverbs relate to conditions that are hardly universal, goes almost without saying. So why have I included the proverb that "The wind sweeping through the tower heralds a storm rising in the mountain." right below? At first sight it may not seem to apply at all where there are no towers or the winds usually goes toward the mountains and not away from them - or where there are no mountains, as in flat Denmark.

And yet, if taken to as a figurative expression, the proverb could apply in Denmark too, being considered as giving vent to something interesting or significant that is picturesquely, even figuratively expressed. It depends on interpretations, and set, figurative interpretations of proverbs are in use the world over. Some such interpretations are part of the heritage of China, as part of a long line of tradition.

It is not unusual to throw light on a matter or an issue by applying a proverb to it freshly too. I once observed how a father who was painting his house green, used an unfinished proverb about "If all should eat the same porridge -" to ward off the criticism of a neighbour wife who passed by and said she did not like the colour. She talked of colour, he for his choice, by applying an old Norwegian saying that allows for variation. He ambushed her criticism by porridge, and her momentarily bewilderment was actually amusing. So: "Proverbs may be learnt, proverbs may be used." Not a few of them come in handy in many circumstances.

In such a light the proverb about the wind sweeping through the tower tells of great men and things they encounter. Such a suggestion ties in with proverbs about wind and tall trees and tall mountains, proverbs that are commonly used to suggest experiences of leaders through towers and tall trees among men, anyhow. There is a neat example: When a former prime minister of Norway, Thorbjørn Jagland, resigned from the post on his doctor's advice, he said, "It blows hard on the tops." So, even though the Chinese windy saying does not seem to apply, maybe it does still, depending on how it is understood, and on how it is used.

1. The second best times tend to be more difficult

The great question is not whether you have failed, but whether you are content with failure.

Enjoy yourself. It may be later than you think. [Mod]

If you don't scale the mountain, you can't view the plain. [But nowadays we view plains from planes also. Even a view from a hill may go far.]

Girls marry to please parents, widows to please themselves.

The wind sweeping through the tower heralds a storm rising in the mountain. [Not in Denmark -]

Not a few things at first appear difficult. [Mod]

A rat who gnaws at a cat's tail invites destruction.

A mouse-catching dog steps on the cats' paws.

Paper can't wrap up a fire.

Do not tear down the east wall to repair the west.

The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is today.

No wind, no waves.

Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.

Conquerors are kings; the beaten are bandits.

Man is heaven and earth in miniature.

The sheep has no choice when in the jaws of the wolf.

The best memory is not so firm as faded ink.

Take a second look; it costs you nothing.

When the cat is gone, the mice come out to stretch.

Deal with the faults of others almost as gently as with your own. [Mod]

You cannot hook trout? Try digging clams.

How can you expect to find ivory in a dog's mouth?

A red-nosed man may be a teetotaller, but will find no one to believe it.

It is at times useless to mend a sinking boat in the middle of the sea. *

Withholding truth generates fears and obsessions along the way of life. *

Avoid suspicion: when you're walking through your neighbour's melon patch, don't tie your shoe.

Learning is like rowing upstream: not to advance is to drop back.

Some try to fish in muddled water for their own gains. *

Long dealings test the friend.

No medicines can cure the vulgar man.

A child's life is like a piece of paper on which a passer-by leaves a mark. [Mod]

Talk does not cook rice.

Many a good face is under a ragged hat.

Flies never get into an egg that has no crack. *

Just as tall trees are known by their shadows, so can good men be known by their enemies.

2. If you want to know things, build a ship

Among ten matchmakers only nine will lie.

Deer-hunter, waste not your arrow on the hare.

Once a tree falls, the monkeys on it will scatter.

Keep your broken arm inside your sleeve.

It only takes three winks to get degraded. *

He who plays with fire may become its victim.

One dog snarls at a shadow, and a hundred fall in to howl and bark barking. *

Some prefer carrot while others like cabbage.

Distant water won't quench your immediate thirst.

Offer help where help is needed. *

Laws control the lesser man; right conduct controls the greater one.

Plan your year in the early spring, your day at dawn.

Those who do not study are only cattle dressed up in men's clothes.

One cannot refuse to eat just because there is a chance of being choked.

You want no one to know it? Then don't do it.

The one who plants the tree is not the one who will enjoy its shade.

You won't help shoots grow by pulling them up higher.

A clumsy bird that flies first will get to the forest earlier.

Be not disturbed at being misunderstood; be disturbed at not understanding.

Dripping water can eat through a stone.

It is easy to dodge a spear that comes in front of you but hard to keep harms away from an arrow shot from behind.

Right skills may be your inexhaustible treasures, keeping you from hunger in most fields of life. *

The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their right names.

The delicacy of the feast is the learned guest.

Ruthlessness is a key to a man's solid accomplishment. *

If all contribute their firewood they may build up a strong fire.

The happiness in your pocket, don't spend it all.

Don't build a new ship out of old wood.

3. To cook a small fish without plenty of friction is best

Look for a thing until you find it and you'll not lose your labour.

Easier to know men's faces than their hearts. [Mod]

Falling hurts least those who fly low.

Make happy those who are near and those who are far will come.

Rich men accumulate money; the poor accumulate years.

One cannot manage too many affairs; like pumpkins in water, one pops up while you try to hold down the other.

The best soldiers are not warlike.

Dead song-birds make a sad meal.

Of a dead animal we may keep the skin, of man his reputation. [Mod]

The less power a man has, the more he likes to use it.

Dig a well before you are thirsty.

Yellow gold is plentiful compared to white-haired friends.

Govern a family as you would cook a small fish--very gently.

Rein in a horse at the edge of a cliff, if not earlier. *

Weaving a net is better than praying for fish at the edge of the water.

The diamond cannot be polished without friction, nor the man perfected without trials.

Clumsy birds have need of early flight. ✪ 

When you drink the water, remember the spring.

Trying to put out a fire while holding firewood is not recommended. *

Judge not the horse by his saddle.

The man who does not learn is like one walking in the night.

The rose has thorns only for those who would gather it.

A jade stone is useless before it is processed; a man is good-for-nothing until he is educated.

The weasel comes to say "Happy New Year!" to the chickens.

One happiness scatters a thousand sorrows.

Crowded is the dark road to hell.

Abroad we judge the dress; at home we judge the man - or woman.

Read critically and you may find each saying worth a thousand ounces of gold. *


To avoid hardships, try to build a ship about twenty years before you need it, and then there will be less friction around you too.

To understand what you need so long in advance, listen to what old-timers try to get across to you if they care to tell.

Meeting hardships, don't overstretch - and reach the ground too.

A man hated the way he walked and decided to learn how people in the city of Handan carried themselves. The result was that not only did he fail to learn the new style, but he also forgot his own way of walking. He could only but crawl back to his hometown, where he became a laughing stock.


A Scarborough Selection

William Scarborough translated and arranged a collection of 2720 Chinese proverbs. They were published by the American Presbyterian Mission Press in Shanghai and by Trübner and Co. in London in 1875.

Scarborough says it is most difficult to classify the proverbs. I have arranged this selection of 195 proverbs alphabetically, simply. Besides, I have not been as keen on rhymes and rough versification as Scarborough, either. Some proverbs are abridged by me; others are more or less modified. Added information in round brackets is found in Scarborough's work. Added information in square bracket is by me.

Classical proverbial sayings are not included in Scarborough's work. See another page to read into them. [Link]


A blind cock too chances on a grain.

A clever daughter-in-law cannot cook without rice.

A conceited man beholds an empty world. [Mod]

A fool lets one of his water-buckets fall, and rushes on as if nothing had happened at all.

A frog in a well can hardly get out.

A good bird selects its tree.

A good fellow will stick to his bargain.

A good-looking woman should need no rouge to make her pretty.

A great tree affords a pleasant shade.

A great tree attracts the wind (A rich man is likely to tempt the squeezers).

A human body is hard to beg [The idea is that it may be hard for the bad man to get a human body in a future life, even the body of a beast].

A little food taken again and again [may] enable the sick new health to attain.

A luckless man asks for a loan which no one grants.

A man of few desires may help his health too.

A man's meaning becomes visible when he opens his mouth.

A mountain of snow melts into a river through the warmth of the sun in the sky.

A poor man may have a noble inclination. [Abr]

A stupid man cannot show mercy.

A treasure that follows its owner everywhere is good learning.

A troublesomely great talker is not barred from making mistakes. [Mod]

A virtuous woman may meet a bonze [Chinese Buddhist monk] without fear [they say].

A word is enough to a clever man.

Able to buy, don't so buy as to frighten the seller [Partial].

Accidental transgression is called error; wilful transgression, sin.

After a heavy fall of snow, fuel, rice, oil, and salt, all dearer grow.

After pigs a poor man looks. [Abr]

Although you may never have tasted of bacon, you have seen pigs pass and should not be mistaken.

Among magistrates there are distinctions of rank; among their assistants, none.

Among men, who are faultless?

Among wine's victims are found hosts of scholars.

An unskilful doctor kills men with a secret dagger.

Armies are kept a thousand days to be used on one.

As the water recedes the stones appear. [Goodness may appear by and by]

At seventy a man is a candle in the wind, at eighty he is hoar-frost on the tiles [Two proverbs merged].

Bald-heads are (ready-made) Buddhist priests.

Be as careful as if you were crossing a bridge. [Mod]

Be careful of clothes and always have them. [Abr]

Be provided against danger and rebellion. [Mod]

Better good neighbours near, than relations far away.

Beware of winds and waves by day, of thieves by night.

By eating we overcome hunger; and by study ignorance.

Clever men are sometimes the dupes of their own cleverness.

Customs vary in every place.

Cut your cloth according to your measure.

Debt presses on the head of man.

Do good now and be rewarded hereafter.

Do not neglect your own, in order to weed another's field.

Do not trust wholly in an excessive show of kindness and honesty. [Mod]

Do not violate conscience.

Don't distress yourself for the dead.

Each for himself may his hunger satisfy; each for himself has to live and die.

Eight women in ten may be jealous. [Mod]

Encountering a soldier, it is plain the graduate is polite in vain.

Escape much anxious after-thought.

Every trade has its ways.

Excess of wine brings disorder.

Exhort men not to commit the smallest sin.

Experienced prudence is not to hide the head and leave the rump exposed. [Mod]

Family harmony removes speech restrictions. [Mod]

Faults must be corrected by competent persons.

Follow the good, and learn to be so.

Give to those who need, and talk to those who can understand.

Good deeds may be done; bad deeds may not.

Good economy makes men independent. [Mod]

Good luck finds favouring winds wherever you go.

Good men are one in a hundred.

Good men get cheated; as good horses get ridden.

Good riders are sometimes thrown.

Great trees are good to shelter under. (Patronage)

Happiness, long life, and health, are the common desire of most men. [Mod]

Have everything you use substantial and clean. [Abr]

Having happiness, don't exhaust it.

He learns less who looks on, than he does who makes. [Abr]

He who fishes in muddy water may not distinguish the great from the small [Mod]

He who in a high station is without pride, is [hopefully] exalted without danger.

He who rouses a sleeping tiger, exposes himself to harm.

Heaven does not deceive good men. [Abr]

Heaven stands by the good man.

His griefs are few whose wife is virtuous. [Abr]

Hurry men at work, not at meal.

If an ox won't drink, you can't make him bend down his head.

If none would listen to slander, it would soon cease.

If you don't scale the mountain, you can't view the plain.

If you have nothing to do, return quickly home [Partial].

If you want to get along, let the old respect the young.

If you would not be cheated, ask the price at three shops.

If your wish is to excel, before an expert practice well.

In painted water no fishes dwell; embroidered flowers lack in life and smell. [Aug, mod]

In the hum of the market there is money; but in seclusion there is rest.

In the use of speech, don't carry the thing too far. [Abr]

It is better to ward off than to cure disease.

It is easier to know how to do a thing than to do it.

It is easy to avoid an arrow shot in one's sight; but hard to escape one aimed in secret.

It is Heaven's to destine, but it is man's to shorten or prolong his days.

It is not beauty that beguiles men; men beguile themselves.

It is not hard to talk about good works, but to do them.

It is the beautiful bird which gets encaged.

It pays to take care of one's coat and hat; caution is needful, be sure of that. [Mod]

Keep company with good men, and good men you will [learn to] imitate.

Knowledge comes by study.

Learning cannot be gulped down.

Let there be plenty of food and clothing, and propriety and righteousness may follow. [Mod]

Literary honours depend on Fortune, Geomantic influences, secret merit, and on study. [Abr]

Living securely, remember danger.

Look not at thieves eating flesh, but look at them when they are suffering punishment.

Many men, many tongues.

Medicine for healing, soup for nourishment.

Money can buy living beings for the vilest of purposes.

Most children are in former lives deserved. [Mod, abr]

Nail-makers don't good iron use; nor good men to be soldiers choose.

Naked we come, and naked we go.

Neither spend foolishly, nor mend or work fruitlessly. [Aug]

Never be with a bad man.

No medicine can cure a vulgar man.

No one can row without water.

No one knows how difficult anything is until he has tried to do it.

Observe a drunken man when you are sober, to break off drinking habits.

One takes the odour of one's company.

Outside he wears a sheep's skin, inside he hides a wolf's heart. [The hypocrite]

Over a bowl of rice one should remember the trouble it has cost to supply it. [Abr]

Propriety rules the superior man; law rules the mean man.

Recite according to the book (i.e., follow example).

Relations must be seldom visited; kitchen gardens often.

Ridiculous ambition: the sparrow flying after the hawk.

Riding on bamboos as boys, lo! we are white with age.

Right moves the superior man, profit the mean man.

Robbery and rebellion [may be] offspring of poverty.

Scholars are their country's treasure, and the richest ornaments of a feast.

Sick folks dread to die.

Slander may injure any cause.

Slander may spring up without a cause.

Some who long for wealth and honour, work themselves to death for it. [Mod]

Suit presents to receivers.

Suit self to circumstances [to some degree].

Superior men are good without instruction. [Abr]

Tall talk is followed by no true action.

Teach your descendants the two proper roads - literature and farming.

Teach your son in the hall, your wife on the pillow.

The ancients see not the modern moon; but the modern moon shone on the ancients.

The clever have more than enough. [Abr]

The farmer hopes for rain, the traveller for fine weather.

The man may be bad whilst his manners are not.

The people follow the example of those above them.

The rouged beauty cannot come up to the bloom of youth.

The superior man is not fearful, even if poor.

The superior man, if desiring wealth, gets it in a proper fashion.

The superior man's heart is liberal and indulgent; the mean man's heart is selfish and mean.

The superior man's life is at the service of Heaven.

Their misery and happiness depend a lot on people themselves.

There are pictures in poems, and poems in pictures.

There is nothing like age in man. [Abr]

Those near a kitchen may get food.

Though a brother commit murder, it does not [have to] involve his brothers.

Though breakfast be good, dinner is better.

Though stones should be transformed to gold, men would not be satisfied.

To be idle at home, diligent abroad, and to ask a blind man the way, may all be great mistakes.

To take no medicine could at times be as good as a middling doctor [It depends a lot. Cf. the research].

Unjustly gotten happiness are followed by calamity. [Mod]

Use careful reflection, and all things grow easy: shrink from considering, and all things grow hard.

Vicious conduct will cause a man's name to stink for ten thousand years [if not longer].

Virtuous men are a kingdom's treasure.

Water can both sustain and upset a ship.

We can't secure on going to bed that we shall get up again.

What is chopped has not the roundness of what is turned.

When a rat crosses the street, everyone cries, "Hit him!" (i.e., bad men are hated by all).

When a rich man becomes poor he becomes a teacher.

When a toad gapes, what a mouth! and what breath! [against conceited talk]

When a worthless man has much wealth, it increases his faults.

When autumn comes the hills are covered with beauty; when spring comes every spot is perfumed with flowers.

When families quarrel, outsiders deride.

When happiness comes, the mind grows more intelligent. (cf. TM)

When one blind man leads several blind men, before long all will fall into a fire pit (alternatively: into a ditch).

When the doctor's fame is made, more folks come than he can aid.

When the melon is ripe it will drop of itself.

When the tree falls the shade is gone.

When the world's affairs are calm we can judge of them; when affection is moderate it may endure. [Mod]

When there is no fish in the river, shrimps are dear.

When words are many there may be error. [Mod]

When you go abroad, be afraid of showing your silver.

When you travel by boat, be prepared for a duck.

Whether rich or poor, be pleased with your lot; for he is a fool who cannot laugh [under most circumstances].

Whether things are gay or sad, from the faces such information may be had. [Abr]

Who but the sages are free from faults?

Who makes his mouth cheap, obtains men's dislike.

Who shows ability may leap the dragon gate (i.e., get a degree).

Why should he who does not honour his parents when living, mourn for them when dead?

Win your lawsuit and lose your money.

Wine can never dispel real sorrow.

Wine is a poison to secrets. (Amalgamated)

With a healthy body a thatched cottage is comfortable. [Abr]

Yesterday's plans have all been put to flight: a north wind has risen in the night. [Abr]

Yield to most pressing circumstances. [Mod]

You may pity another whose tooth aches, once you get in the same fix. [Mod]

You may see the man in the boy.

You had better rear a donkey than a lad without learning.


Chips of Jade. Selections

Chips of Jade is a fine little book first published by Dutton in New York in 1920. The following are selections from the Chinese part of the book. Book data is at the bottom of the page.


Eight sailors; seven want to steer.

That junk won't come to port, I fear.

Make friends with merchants – and your wealth will grow;

Make friends with nobles – and your wealth will go;

Make friends with boors – and learn to use your fists;

Make friends with priests – and sign subscription lists.

How small the heavens are, the frog can tell;

He's seen them! – from the bottom of the well.

If right, though right without a flaw

Is all you have, don't go to law.

This one makes a net,

That one stands and wishes;

Would you like to bet

Which one gets the fishes?

Mirrored in the past, the eye may see

The faces of the centuries-to-be.

Still leagues on leagues the Great Wall stretches on,

But where has Shi Hwang-ti, who built it, gone?

In talk he's a wonder,

But small are his gains.

How loud is the thunder!

How little it rains!

The petty rascal's fetters clank;

The wholesale robber starts a bank.

Who seeks the tiger's cubs, must dare

The peril of the tiger's lair.

Shall I . . . gather wealth and breed it –

For my children jealously conserve it?

Should my sons surpass me, they won't need it;

Should they not, why then, they won't deserve it.

Justice guides the wise in every case;

Law alone controls the mean and base.

The boy may plan to fly his kite,

The man to cut his hay;

But old north wind comes up at night

And blows their plans away.

Recorded words are fetters;

When angry, don't write letters.

Bright stars are first beheld.

Sweet wells are most desired,

Straight trees are soonest felled.

Good workmen soonest hired.

When planting thorns in springtime, please remember

You won't be picking peaches in September.

You "nearly did it"? That's your loss.

I'll pay you just the fare

Due him that rowed me half across

The stream – and left me there!

Bid the sullen servant go!

let him stay, and house a foe.

As ripening cornfields dread a blighting breeze,

Old age fears penury with trembling knees.

When monkeys fight they scatter dirt;

When tigers battle, one gets hurt.

Fame is the scream of a passing hawk,

Fame is the scent on the mountain moss

Left when the musk deer bounds across. [Abr]

When, wrapped in flame, your home's a blackened shell,

It's growing rather late to dig a well.

Your acres teem with rice; – but still

A pint a day is all you eat.

Your house is wide; the space you fill

Therein is hardly seven feet.

No name, however great, atones

for worthless work, the sages tell.

Yes, take my umbrella. don't thank me, but try

to send it back promptly both spotless and dry.

Through chills of autumn showers,

A tiny linnet in the almond branches sing,

"Oh, every youthful minute is a precious inch of gold!" [Mod]

Fish see the bait alone; and is it stranger

That men should see the profit, not the danger?

One kind word keeps the heart aglow

Through three long months of ice and snow.

Who trusts too many often ends

By losing trust in all.

Who fails, is poor a while. Who takes a wife

Of evil governance, [may get] poor for life.

With every breath he gives, remember God.

What force may save that nation, hell-ward bent.

Where wealth is virtue, drink is merriment!

Years of service prove the man.

The rich may read and nibble figs;

The poor must keep on raising pigs.

Yellow gold and pearls as fair as truth

Will not buy back the raven locks of youth.

While the monkey has his jest,

The pigeon learns to build a nest.

If none would hear,

A lie would lack a handle;

It needs both tongue and ear

To make a scandal.

Your Fields, unploughed, will come to naught;

What good will come of Sons, untaught?

Who lacks a smiling face, had better stop

And think a bit before he starts a shop.

Though man and wife together dwell

As birds of one embowered dell,

When death shall fling the fatal stone

They needs must take their flight, alone.

A candle in the wind is heedless man –

A fish that sports within the frying pan.

The coins you carry to the gaming room

Are sentenced prisoners, hurried to their doom.

"My father was a scholar!" brags the fool.

"My mother was a mare!" proclaims the mule.

The street will be as clean as heaven's floor

When each man sweeps before his own front door.

Two of a creed are brother and brother.

Two of a trade are thorns to each other.

Your unused learning is an unlit taper;

A book, tight shut, is but a block of paper.


From Brian Brown's Collection

The 89 sayings and proverbs and maxims that follow, are taken from Brian Brown's The Wisdom of the Chinese: Their Philosophy in Sayings and Proverbs. As we read into these elegant sayings, the question might rise, "How would it be to explore and eventually master things like this? Will it help against conform taming, for example?" It could be. For example, "A semblance of a thing is not the real thing," (Mencius) may easily be transposed onto topics that deal with decorating, interiors, architecture, where some materials are of "feigned" sorts, perhaps given a veneer of the real thing, to look all right by semblance. As time goes by, problems may arise from "looking like you ain't" by powder and paint too, not just from veneered or feigned items. Genuineness may be called for. It has the call for quality or thorough-going authenticity on its side. If we heed the old decree of Mencius, it might in fact affect our home and looks for the better, and has to do with being above just seeming.

Well, that was one item from the Far East of yore. Speaking of conform taming per se, even great taming can yield good harvests on a larger scale. And it may also be fruitful to stop in the face of danger. Learn to consider too.

It hardly seems wrong to suggest that the cores of these proverbs and sayings from the Far East are fit, and that the fruits of adjusting our life course somewhat to them might help us to get beyond much lesser commitments that otherwise tend to crowd out fair pursuits by filling much our time.

Confucius set forth seven rules needed for improvement: Investigating; trying to know better; sincere thoughts and acts; rectifying of the heart; cultivating the person; regulating the family and the government. Compare Buddha's Gentle Middle Path and his Kalama Sutta. {p. 16-17]

Gurus say you should listen to and heed the scriptures also. "Let the scripture be the authority in determining what ought to be done and what ought not to be done. Having known what is said in the ordinance of the scriptures, you should act here in this world." [Bhagavad Gita 16:24] A question is, "Which scriptures?" There are many, many dozens of them in Hinduism alone, and they do not always speak similarly. A guru might say, "Focus on the Bhagavad Gita; the Tirukkural of South India is not that important," for example, and point to levels of content for one thing.

The first turn here is to handle the statements that follow as famous citations and other sentiments to ponder - just that.


A great man never loses the simplicity of a child. [Mencius, 78]

A man should choose a friend who is better than himself; if only like himself, he had better have none. [197]

A semblance of a thing is not the real thing. [Mencius, 74, mod]

A true scholar holds possession of himself and his virtue. [Mencius, 68, abr]

A virtuous woman is a source of honour to her husband; a vicious one causes him disgrace. [198]

Allow the ear to hear what it likes, the eye to see what it likes, the mouth to say what it likes, the body to enjoy the comforts it likes to have, and the mind to do what it likes.

[From what is being advocated: Music, beauty, rich food, fine clothing, and being at peace.]

Obstructions of such likes are a source of vexation. [Kuan-yi Wu, 148]

As it is impossible to please men in all things, our only care should be to satisfy our own consciences. [199]

As the scream of the eagle is heard when she has passed over, so a man's name remains after his death. [184]

Be not self-deceived in wisdom, look farther. [Confucius] {15]

Better be upright with poverty than depraved abundance. [186]

Dig your well before you are thirsty. [Mencius, 78]

Does the swallow know the wild goose's course? [175]

Doubt and distraction are on earth; the brightness of truth in Heaven. [184]

Each grass blade has its drop of dew. [Kang-Hsi. 146]

Ease and pleasure are in accord with human nature. [Yu Tse, 149. Edited]

Easy to get a thousand prescriptions; hard to obtain a cure. [176]

Every blade of grass has its share of the dews of heaven. [198]

Falling hurts least those who fly low. [175]

For the mouth to desire sweet tastes, the eye to desire beautiful colours, the ear to desire pleasant sounds, the nose to desire fragrant odours, and the four limbs to desire rest and ease, – these things are natural. [Mencius, 75-76]

Forbearance is the jewel of home. [Mencius, 78]

He who soars not, suffers not by a fall. [Mencius, 78]

He whose goodness is part of himself, is what is called a real man. [Mencius, 72]

Hearts knit in childhood's innocence. [Su Wu, 164]

How can fame come of itself? [Yang Chu, 138]

However much you promise, never fail to pay. [174]

If one treat me unreasonably, I will say: "Why vex myself about a wild beast?" [Mencius, 70, abr]

If riches can be acquired with propriety, then acquire them; but let not unjust wealth be sought for with violence. [185]

If you have books and will not give instruction, your offspring will be ignorant [and] propriety and justice will not abound among them. [189]

In our actions we should accord with the will of Heaven. [192]

In reading a book we seek for reason . . . reason to enlighten a man's heart. [189]

Injure others, injure yourself. [178]

It is a serious matter to lose one's virtue. [178, abr]

It is better to avert the malady by care than to have to apply the physic after it has appeared. [194]

It is great to be a helper of men to right living. [Mencius, 67, mod]

It is too late to pull the rein when the horse has gained the brink of the precipice; the time for stopping the leak is past when the vessel is in the middle of the river. [200]

Just scales and full measure injure no man. [174]

Knowing what is right, without practicing it, denotes a want of proper resolution. [193]

Leisure breeds lust. [177]

Let a man first stand fast in the supremacy of the nobler part of his constitution. [Mencius, 73]

Let every man sweep the snow from before his own doors and not trouble himself about the frost on his neighbour's tiles. [185]

Let the instructed lead the way by example. [Kang-Hsi, 147]

Let us be merry with those that we love. [Anon]

Let young and old be as one body, their joys and sorrows as of one family. [Kang-Hsi. 147]

Let your words be few and your companions select; thus you will avoid remorse and repentance, sorrow and shame. [192]

Man does not live by experience alone, but by transcending experience. [Mencius, 74]

Men are constantly rendered anxious. Striving vainly . . . they lose the happiest moments of the present. [Yang Chu, 139]

Mencius: "A drowning kingdom must be rescued by right principles." [Mencius, 81]

One generation plants the trees; another sits in their shade. [178]

Only he who has studied his mental constitution knows his nature; knowing his nature, he knows Heaven. [Mencius, 71]

Only those become priests who cannot earn a living. [176]

Passions must be ruled by laws of propriety. [188, mod]

Plausible words are not so good as straightforward conduct. [202]

Spirits know your secret sins. [Mencius, 81, abr]

Swim with one foot on the ground. [Mencius, 78]

The beautiful bird gets caged. [171]

The best cure for drunkenness is, whilst sober, to observe a drunken man. [193]

The cleverest doctor cannot save himself. [176]

The evidence of a single glance should not be relied on as true, nor are words spoken behind a man's back deserving of much credence. [201]

The good-looking woman needs no paint. [178]

The goodness of a house does not consist in its lofty halls, but in its excluding the weather. [196]

The great man is he who does not lose his child-heart. He simply abides in the right. [Mencius, 70]

The man of first-rate excellence is virtuous independently of instruction; he of the middling class is so after instruction; the lowest order of men are vicious in spite of instruction. [183]

The same tree may produce sour and sweet fruit; the same mother may have a virtuous and vicious progeny. [184]

The sea cannot be scooped up in a tumbler. [Mencius, 82]

The skilful artist will not alter his measures for the sake of a stupid workman. [Mencius, 68]

The truly wise keep earnest about what is most important. Cultivate an earnest affection for the virtuous. And if not affection, appraisal. [Cf. Mencius, 73]

The virtues are not poured into us, they are natural. [Mencius, 70]

The white clouds pass; the blue heaven abides. [Mencius, 80]

The wise place virtue in thought. [Mencius, 80]

There are plenty of acquaintances in the world, but very few real friends. [197]

They are great men who follow that part of them which is great. Let one stand in his nobler part, and the meaner will not be able to take it from him. This is simply what makes greatness. [Mencius, 72]

Those who do not set their destiny at defiance, do not desire a long life; and those who are not too fond of honour, do not desire reputation. [Yang Chu, 141]

Though candid advice be unpleasant to the ear, it is profitable to the conduct. [196-97]

Though your son be well-disposed, if he is not instructed, he will still remain ignorant. [189]

Through his mental faculties man gets to some forms of righteousness and propriety. [Cf. Tse-Chan, 152]

Tigers and deer do not stroll together. [172]

To be incorruptible by riches or honours, unchangeable by poverty . . . these I call . . . qualities of a great man. [Mencius, 75]

To lose one's virtue is a great matter. [Kang-His, 147]

To nourish the real constitution of our being is serving Heaven. [Mencius, 68, mod]

To reason with a fool is a difficult undertaking. [200]

To save one life is better than to build a seven-story pagoda. [177]

Unskilled fools quarrel with their tools. [178]

What makes human life pleasant? Comfort and elegance, music and beauty. Yet one cannot always gratify the desire for comfort and elegance, nor incessantly enjoy beauty and music. [Yang Chu, 139]

When a worthless man has much wealth, it increases his faults. [191]

When one subdues men by virtue, they are pleased to the heart's core and sincerely submit. [Mencius, 76]

When the mirror is highly polished, the dust will not defile it. [190]

Putting aside virtuous deeds, instead of practicing them, may be called "robbing oneself." [190]

Who praises you inordinately to your face, must be false [Abr]. [196]

Without a clear mirror a woman cannot know the state of her own face. [197]

Without sincerity manners are mere apish bowing and scraping. [Kang-Hsi. 147]


From the Moule Collection

If a man has not committed any deed that wounds his conscience, a knock may come at dead of night and he will not be startled.

The best and strongest man in the world finds it hard to escape from the two words ''no continuance."

Office and rank are like foam on the water.

Man must be sharpened by man; the knife must be set on the stone.

Mind you are respectful to a small man.

To go on pilgrimage to offer incense in a distant temple is not so good as showing kindness near home.

Seek shade under the tall tree's boughs. (Its traditional meaning is "No place like home")

If you want to be happy, make the best of difficulties or injuries. [Mod]

Better crack the drum than let the standard fall.

However enraged, don't go to law; however poor, don't steal [compare a rhymed variant above].

If you have money and use it in charity, it won't be all lost.


Chinese proverbs, proverbs of China, Literature  

Brown, Brian. The Wisdom of the Chinese: Their Philosophy in Sayings and Proverbs. New York: Brentano's, 1920.

Guiterman, Arthur, tr. Chips of Jade: Being Chinese Proverbs with More Folk-sayings from Hindustan and Other Oriental Countries. Rhymed in English. New York: Dutton, 1920.

Herrmann, Kontrad, Übertrager. Reiskörner fallen nicht vom Himmel: Chinesische Sprichwörter. Weimar: Gustav Kiepenhauer Verlag, 1990.

Herzberg, Qin Xue, og Larry Herzberg. Chinese Proverbs and Sayings: With Observations on Culture and Language. Berkeley, CA: Stone Bridge Press, 2012.

Lin, Marjorie, and Schalk Leonard, reds. Dictionary of 1000 Chinese Proverbs. New York: Hippocrene, 1998.

Moule, Arthur Evans, ed and tr. Chinese Stories for Boys and Girls and Chinese Wisdom for Old and Young. London, Seeley, Jackson, and Halliday, 1880.

Rohsenow, John S. ABC Dictionary of Chinese Proverbs. Paperback ed. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2003. ⍽▢⍽ Recommended.

Scarborough, William, tr. A Collection of Chinese Proverbs. London: Trübner and Co., 1875.

Smith, Arthur Henderson. Proverbs and Common Sayings from the Chinese, together with Much Related and Unrelated Matter, Interspersed with Observations on Chinese Things-in-General. Shanghai: The American Presbyterian Mission Press, 1914.

Yutang, Lin. The Importance of Living. London: Continental Book Company, 1945.

Yutang, Lin, ed. The Wisdom of China and India. New York: Random House, 1942.

Yutang, Lin. The Wisdom of China. London: New English Library, 1963.

Harvesting the hay

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