Chinese 101: Proverbs

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Back in the days I taught American culture, I often taught my students one American English proverb a week.  I picked proverbs that coordinated with the week’s topic as another window into American culture.  The first week I taught “if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.”  We went on to learn “a penny saved is a penny earned” and “a soft answer turneth away wrath.”  Chinese also has proverbs, probably more proverbs than English.  Using proverbs appropriately is a sign of a fluent and educated speaker.  A friend told me proverbs are part of the all-important college entrance exam, so she studied lots of them in the months leading up to the exam.


I want to learn at least some Chinese proverbs because of their importance in the culture.  And I find them fascinating.  Today I’d like to introduce you to three proverbs with similar meanings.  There might be more with such meanings, but these are the ones my teacher introduced to me.  They came up in relationship to my language progress, which is slow but steady.


一口吃不成一个大胖子 (yi kou chi bu cheng, yi ge da pang zi)

“You can’t get fat by eating one mouthful.”  The meaning is that success comes little by little.  Possible English equivalents are “Rome wasn’t built in a day” or “slow and steady wins the race.”


心急吃不了热豆腐 (xin ji chi bu liao re dofu)

“Hasty people don’t get to eat hot tofu.”  This has a similar meaning to the previous proverb—don’t worry because success come step by step and eventually you will reach the goal.  And if you try to take some short cut you will probably end up eating cold tofu, which would not taste very good.


冰冻三尺非一日之寒 (bing dong san chi fei yi ri zhi han)

“It takes more than one cold day for the river to freeze three chi (approx. 1 meter/3 feet ) deep.”  In other words, big problems don’t develop overnight.  Often lots of little problems have built up to create a big problem.


Three pictures of success and difficulties.  I’m trying to “keep eating” Chinese so eventually I get to eat the “hot tofu” of being a decent Chinese speaker.


Check out other editions of Chinese 101 on tones and characters!

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