Tag Archives: Chinese proverb

Deceiving Yourself 掩耳盗铃

Background: My friend and I were talking about how different countries cope with the pandemic. We found that a few politicians around the world didn’t take the coronavirus seriously enough at first and pretended that it was only a small problem. My friend described them as “掩耳盗铃”.

Main piece:


Pinyin: yan er dao ling

Transliteration: Cover your ears and steal the doorbell.

Informant’s explanation of the phrase: 

I think it came from a story. Well I’m not sure if it really happened, probably just a fable. A thief went to another person’s place because he wants their doorbell somehow. He tries to steal it, but he realized the doorbell would ring! So his genius solution is to cover his ears and then steal the bell. His logic is like he wouldn’t hear a sound, so other people won’t either. This dumbass got caught of course.

Context: As it was used by the informant in describing politicians who refused to take action, the proverb is used with irony to describe people who clearly understand what they do is wrong but still carry on with self-deception. 

Analysis: This particular form of proverb, 成语 (cheng yu), is very similar to another form of Chinese folk speech, the enigmatic folk similes. Both contain double meanings, with one layer of superficial storyline and a deeper connotation of advise, mockery, or knowledge. The difference, however, is that cheng yu often adhere to a uniform form of strictly four characters. While cheng yu are also proverbs that illustrate folk wisdom, in most cases the user must be familiar with the legend or history they allude to in order to use them in common speech. Cheng Yu thus becomes an identity marker. They reflect the culture, values, and identity of their “folk”, as well as a bigger reservoir of folklores that provide them with derivative connotations.

For a different version of this proverb, see

郑荣萍. “掩耳盗铃.” 中学生英语:少儿双语画刊 5 (2012): 13–13. Print.

Chinese Proverb for a Struggling Student

Background: Below is a conversation about a proverb that the informant was told at the start of her academic journey at a competitive math and science boarding school. Two years later, she still holds the proverb near to her heart and uses it as motivation for her all-nighters. 

Main Piece:

Informant: I was struggling in excel with my workload and my math teacher told me a chinese proverb that helped. He basically said, the proverb goes like this like, “20 years ago was the best time to plant the tree, but the second best time to plant a tree is right now.

Interviewer: What does that mean?

Informant: Basically saying that you know you should have started this thing, a WHILE ago, but now that you haven’t done it you know that in the past that was the best time to start it. But, you haven’t so the best time to start it, again, is right now. And I think that works well cause like I’d procrastinate a lot on homework and then I’d be stressed like there’s no way I can finish this. And it’s like well yeah you should’ve started it 6 hours ago, but — you didn’t. So, the best time to start it is right now. 

Interviewer: Tell me about this teacher

Informant: He was half Chinese, his mother uh— actually I don’t know which region, but she spoke Cantonese not Mandarin. And his father was from Kentucky, he was Black. He was really understanding. Not judgemental, he knew that waiting til the last minute was punishment enough.

Context: This conversation occurred over a FaceTime call where I asked the informant if she had any sayings or proverbs she liked. She instantly told me this. The conversation was casual, but very relatable as we both lived out our shared experience of procrastination and all-nighters.

My thoughts: It was interesting to find out that this was one of those sayings that keeps the informant pushing through some tough times. It felt very personal to know that this has become a mantra for her. I also found it interesting and quite touching that she resonates so wholeheartedly will a proverb from a culture that is not her own. I feels that not only the proverb was given to her, but a kindness and genuine motivation from her teacher was transferred as well. 

Chinese Proverb of “To Kill Two Birds with One Stone”

Main Story: 

“There is a common saying in Chinese (Mandarin) : 箭双雕” 

Original Script : 箭双雕 

Phonetic: Yi (Yee) Jian Shuang Diao

Transliteration: Complete two tasks with one job 

Full translation: to shoot two birds with one arrow

This saying is also present in English, it is the same concept as “to kill two birds with one stone”. The theory being you can complete two separate tasks with one action. For example: say a person has to go get a test done at the doctor’s office and also a check up with a different doctor. But both doctors happen to operate out of the same medical office building. By scheduling the appointments back to back, the person is able to complete two tasks (the doctors’ appointments) with one action (driving to the medical office building). 


The informant of this info is my friend and she is Chinese and used to live in Shanghai. She always found it interesting that this phrase exists in both English and in Chinese in an almost synonymous context. She can’t find anywhere as to which phrase came first and who got it from who or if the similarity is purely coincidental, and if it is a coincidental likeness then she wanders what does that say about human nature? 


The informant is a friend of mine and we were video calling over the phone during quarantine and just chatting about life and funny coincidences across cultures.

My thoughts: 

I kind of agree with my friend on how she feels about the odd coincidence between the two languages and the same phrase. It is interesting that they are so similar in literally every aspect of their meaning. 

Chinese Proverb/ Chengyu

Note: The form of this submission includes the dialogue between the informant and I before the cutoff (as you’ll see if you scroll down), as well as my own thoughts and other notes on the piece after the cutoff. The italics within the dialogue between the informant and I (before the cutoff) is where and what kind of direction I offered the informant whilst collecting. 

Informant’s Background:

My parents and I are from Central China, but I grew up in Kentucky.

Piece and Full Translation Scheme of Folk Speech:

Original Script: 蜻蜓点水

Transliteration: qīng tíng diǎn shuǐ

Translation: “The dragonfly touches the water lightly” or “superficial contact”

Piece Background Information:

We have a saying in my family that goes like “qīng tíng diǎn shuǐ”.

You know how when dragonflies fly around a pond and when they touch the water, they gently touch it and keep flying along? Well that’s just another way of describing someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing. They say he’s just “qīng tíng diǎn shuǐ”. And that just means like they don’t go deep, they don’t go all the way into the water, they just touch it.

My mom would use this to describe my dad, for example when he would say he was going to clean the kitchen and like only clean half the dishes and leave everything else to be done. So I would hear that phrase used a lot.


Context of Performance: 

In person, during the day at Ground Zero, a milkshake shop and cafe on USC’s campus in Los Angeles.

Thoughts on Piece: 

The comparison of half-way cleaning to a dragonfly who skims the water is quite a romanticized outlook and allows for the conversation of “well… you really only cleaned a little bit” to be more easily had, as there is a funny context added to it. I can definitely relate to needing to somehow calmly and casually bring up to a roommate that they aren’t pulling their share.

Chinese Proverb: Wish for Plums to Quench Your Thirst

Informant is a 53 year-old Chinese female. She was born and raised in Beijing, China, and now lives in Southern California.

Informant’s folklore: In China, there’s a proverb called “Wish for Plums to Quench Your Thirst.” Cao Cao and Liu Bei were at war. But during the war, the troops walked a lot and trekked for a long time, so much so that they were tired and couldn’t walk anymore. So, they were thirsty and tired. So Cao Cao said, “Hey we should keep walking forward! Ahead there’s a garden of plum trees, and when we get there, there will be water.” So this proverb means that when you hear of plums, your mouth starts to water, and when your mouth salivates, it satisfies your thirst.

Collector: Where did you hear this proverb?

Informant: Everyone knows about this story, and I heard it from my mother.

Collector: Do you like this proverb? What does it mean to you?

Informant: Yes, because to me it sounds like when you’re so tired, or worn out doing something, if you have hope, you can make it to the end.

This proverb originated from Chinese history dating to thousands of years ago. I think that there’s a universality to the meaning of the proverb, in that it’s about human will power. The proverb shows how despite your physical conditions, your mind can overcome hardship and keep you going to accomplish your goals.

Chinese Proverb: Kind Words

Informant is a 53 year-old Chinese female. She was born and raised in Beijing, China. She now lives in Southern California.

Informant’s folklore: A kind word will warm a person for three winters; evil speech will hurt people and make people cold in June. This means that when you say something nice to a person, you make them feel happy and warm. It will even keep them warm through three winters, at the coldest times. If you say something bad about someone, in this way, even when it’s June and it’s really hot weather, that person will feel coldness in their hearts. This saying means to never say bad things about or to someone, because it will hurt them.

Collector: Do you like this saying?

Informant: I love this saying, because a person you must say nice words to people. You shouldn’t use words to hurt people.

Collector: What does this mean to you?

Informant: Everyone has a different way to help people. Some people have money or materials to give to other people, but other people don’t have anything to give. But when you don’t have anything to give, a kind word is enough.

Collector: Where did you hear this saying from?

Informant: I learned it from my mother.

I think that this proverb is a saying to live by. It’s a saying about the power of words–how words can help or hurt people. It shows people to be kind to each other, because words and ideas can shape people into the persons they want to become.

Chinese Proverb: “The Thousand Mile Horse”

Informant is a 53 year-old Chinese female. She was born and raised in Beijing, China, and now lives in Southern California.

Informant’s folklore: There’s a saying in China called “A Thousand Mile horse is easy to find, the discoverer is hard to find.” A “Thousand Mile Horse” is a horse that can run a thousand miles in one night, like a very talented person. But, it’s not easy to find such a great talent, but in comparison to the discoverer, it’s harder to find. This means that talented people exists, but they need to be discovered and recommended.

Collector: Do you like this proverb?

Informant: Yes, I like it. It means, you are talented, but you need to get opportunities and meet people who can appreciate you to discover your talent and help you reach your full potential.

I think that this proverb means that all the elements need to be in place for success–the stars need to align. As person who has a dream needs to not only have talent, but seek and be open to the opportunities presented to him in order to become successful in his pursuits.

Chinese Proverb: Sow Seeds Before Rain

Informant is a 53 year-old Chinese female. She was born and raised in Beijing, China, where she used to work as a farmer. She now lives in Southern California.

Informant: This proverb, “Sow Seeds Before Rain” means that you need to plan ahead. Sow the seeds before it rains, so that after it rains, your crops will have grown, and you won’t have to worry about lacking water or working in the rain.

Collector: What does this mean to you?

Informant: Without foresight, you will always run into problems. If you don’t have a future plan, you will always focus on the present, short term, problems. It means that a person will live in the problems of every day life because he is only solving the temporary problems, without knowing what’s the long term plan or focus. You can take life or business for an example. You need to have a plan–What should I do in five years? What will happen in 10 years? You need to see personal growth and development.

Collector: Do you like this saying?

Informant: Yes, I like this saying, because it’s something that I live by. A person needs to have a plan for their life, what their goals are. Even for businesses, you need to plan ahead, and can’t always focus on the small tasks and forget the larger tasks. This is very important to the development and growth the a person, business, and even nation.

I think that the informant did a good job of explaining the meaning of this proverb. It’s a philosophical way to approach life and reach one’s full potential as a human being. This proverb is reflective of the attitudes of people who aspire to be successful in the fields they choose.