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Chinese Proverbs

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Chinese proverbs are four-character expressions that sum up a story. The moral of the story can give us guidance in our everyday life.

Yi Mao Bu Ba - Stingy

If you want to say that someone is extremely stingy, you can use the expression 一毛不拔 – yī máo bù bá, which comes from a story about a philosopher named Yáng Zhū.

Yáng Zhū was asked if he would pull out his hair for the benefit of the human race. As an advocate for the conservation of all forms of life, Yáng Zhū indicated he would not do this thing, so gaining the reputation of a miser.

Read more about yī máo bù bá.

Po Jing Chong Yuan - A Broken Mirror Leads to Renunion

When married couples are separated by circumstances or disagreements, and when they are finally reunited, we can say 破鏡重圓 / 破镜重圆 - pò jìng chóng yuán.

Read the story of pò jìng chóng yuán.

Lan Yu Chong Shu - Falsehood

This Chinese proverbs is said about people or things which are not what they seem to be. It comes from a story about a man who pretended to be a musician, and kept up his deception by always playing in an ensemble.

Read more about làn yù chōng shù.

Spilled Water is Hard to Retrieve

覆水難收
Fù Shuǐ Nán Shōu

Zhu Mai Chen was a very diligent scholar. He spent all his time studying, and never earned money, so his family was very poor. They were so poor that they could not buy lamp oil, so Zhu Mai Chen used pine oil when he studied at night.

His wife could not stand this hard life, and asked for a divorce. Zhu Mai Chen tried to comfort her by saying, “One day I will achieve a high status, and we will be rich, and we will have everything we desire. Our lives are long, so be patient and things will get better.”

Read more about Fù Shuǐ Nán Shōu...

The Peddler Contradicts Himself

自相矛盾
Zì Xiāng Máo Dùn

There was once a peddler who sold weapons. (The ancient word for “weapons” was máo dùn 矛盾 – which now means “contradict”.) When he arrived in a new town, he would give a performance to attract a crowd, and then proceed to pitch his wares.

“This spear is the best in the world,” he would say. “It can go through anything.”

Then he presented a shield and said, “This shield is made of the finest leather. Nothing can pierce it.”

Someone called out from the crowd, “If you take the spear and shoot it at the shield, what will happen?”

Since that time, a person who contradicts himself is described as zì xiāng máo dùn.

Harm Comes to Chi Yu

殃及池魚
Yāng Jí Chí Yú

There was man named Chí Yú. He lived just outside the town gates. One day there was a fire in the town and because of the strong wind, Chí Yú’s house caught fire while he was inside. He couldn’t escape and he died.

This proverb is said when bad things happen for no apparent reason.

Three in the Morning, Four in the Afternoon

朝三暮四
Chāo Sān Mù Sì

There was a man who liked monkeys. He had a lot of them in his house. He understood his monkeys and the monkeys understood him. It cost a lot of money to care for all these monkeys, but he was afraid to stop buying them food in case they get upset. So he tried to reason with his monkeys.

“I’ll give you three chestnuts in the morning and four in the afternoon,” he told them. But they didn’t like that.

“Then I’ll give you four in the morning and three in the afternoon.”

The monkeys were happy.

The original meaning of this proverb referred to people who try to deceive, but it now also refers to people who cannot make up their mind.

Sai Weng Lost his Horse

塞翁失馬
Sāi Wēng Shī Mǎ

Sāi Wēng lived on the border and he raised horses for a living. One day he lost a horse and his neighbor felt sorry for him, but Sāi Wēng didn’t care about the horse, because he thought it wasn’t a bad thing to lose a horse. After a while the horse returned with another beautiful horse, and the neighbor congratulated him on his good luck. But Sāi Wēng thought that maybe it wasn’t a good thing to have this new horse.

Read more about Sāi Wēng Shī Mǎ...
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