Some Useful Chinese Proverbs and Expressions
Below are a few Chinese proverbs or expressions that I have found extremely useful. They are all written in pinyin as Chinese characters may not display properly here.
Chinese Pinyin: “mei chi putao shuo putao suan”
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 judgment 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 judgment 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:
Chinese Pinyin: “chi budao putao shuo putao suan”
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.
Chinese Pinyin: “guangong mianqian shua dadao”
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 embarrassing, 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 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 ban1men2nong4fu3. The meaning is basically the same, but I much prefer using guan1gong1 mian4qian2 shua1 da4dao1 because of the visual image and the cultural content.
Chinese Pinyin: “luobo baicai ge you suo ai”
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 expressions. 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 spicy 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 every time you go to a restaurant).