10 Timeless Chinese Proverbs To Live By Everyday
Proverbs will always provide a source of timeless wisdom that transcends time and culture. No matter from how far back in history a proverb comes, it always stands the test of time as it provides practical wisdom in everyday circumstances. All cultures and traditions around the world have their own proverbs or allegories but the ones that stand out the most and perhaps reach further back in time are the Chinese proverbs.
Chinese history is ripe with epochs in which different sages and scholars such as Confucius or Lao Tzu flourished. The texts that survived the ages are testimony to the great minds of the past that helped shape the thoughts of not only individuals but nations and generations alike. There are many proverbs that attest to this—perhaps too many to compile in one piece of work.
For the sake of parsimony, I have handpicked ten of my favorite Chinese proverbs to share with you here. You may be familiar with some of them as they have become iconic throughout time. Nevertheless, proverbs are to be re-heard and serve as little reminders that help us gain some insight or a better perspective of life.
Here they are.
10 Classic Chinese Proverbs
1. A bird does not sing because it has an answer. It sings because it has a song.
There are different interpretations to this proverb. I think this is because it has different depths of meaning. One common interpretation is that the bird does not sing in order to impress, to be right or as a reaction to something. It sings because it has a song—that is has something more meaningful and authentic that flows out of its own nature.
It reminds us to be aligned to our more authentic nature and sing when we have a song to sing from our heart rather than give an answer to satisfy our ego or intellect.
2. Be not afraid of growing slowly, be afraid only of standing still.
The proverb is a reminder not to be set back when things or progress run slowly. It is not a matter of going fast or slow but a matter of going at all, rather than standing still. Standing still means being passive or debilitated in taking action thus watching your life pass you by like a standby observer.
So do not fear when things do not move as fast as you expect. As long as you are taking actions in line with your heart, speed doesn’t matter anymore because it is only a matter of perspective.
3. When you drink the water, remember the spring.
I like this proverb because it invites us to look at the larger picture and the source of our nourishment, which is life and all its beautiful connections. We constantly do things or consume things unconsciously without thinking about what they are or where they come from.
This is literally the case with our food . . . eating more and more processed stuff from supermarkets without knowing how they’re made or where they originally come from. We live in a society in which things have become further removed from their natural origins, the soil, the earth, the elements.
We have lost this connection ourselves. We don’t feel connected anymore to the general wheel of life, to the earth and to the cosmos. We constantly drink the water without remembering the spring.
4. Give a man a fish and feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and feed him for a lifetime.
The proverb is very direct and makes a lot of practical sense. It shows us the value of educating and teaching people life skills instead of just giving them the means without being able to provide those means for themselves. Once again it is symbolic of our times. In smaller and simpler societies, the roles of people were different.
They used to learn life and survival skills that would allow them to be independent yet to serve the community at the same time. In modern times, societies became complex and roles too specialized. People started depending on readily-available things without knowing some basic skills to be able to provide those things for themselves.
5. Dig the well before you are thirsty.
Sympathetically this proverb reminds us to be proactive and do things ahead of time. It tells us to be preemptive and think ahead before the need arises. I think it goes hand-in-hand with the proverb above.
6. Teachers open the door. You enter by yourself.
This is a beautiful proverb telling us that there is only so much a teacher can do for us and so much we ought to do by ourselves. A teacher can guide us in the right direction and open up the doors of knowledge but ultimately it is through our own will and action that we must enter through those doors and reach wisdom.
7. If you are patient in one moment of anger, you will escape a hundred days of sorrow.
A very powerful sentence. Anger is one of the strongest emotions and can stir up many negative energies. It is very easy to lose control through anger. Being patient, or rather being conscious when the emotion of anger arises will save you a multi-fold of repercussions for which you might be sorry in the future.
8. The journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step.
This is perhaps one of the best known of the Chinese proverbs. It is simple, powerful and encouraging. It tells us that even the longest of life journeys starts with a single step or with a small action that kickstarts the whole thing. It also tells us that even that little step that might seem insignificant compared to the whole journey is the most important since it gets us into motion.
9. Try to save a dead horse as if it is still alive.
Sounds like a strange thing to say but it essentially means to try your best no matter what and not to give up because nothing is impossible. I think it somehow has also got to do with the Chinese character—being resilient and determined as they are. It’s a good motivator.
10. When we get to the mountain, there will be a way through.
Simply put, it means that there is a solution to everything. I think that it’s also one of the most motivational of the Chinese proverbs and that is empowering and good to keep in mind when facing challenges throughout life.