Tag Archives: chinese proverbs

Chinese proverbs

Background: The informant is my father, a Chinese immigrant who lived in Beijing until he was 22. Since then, he has lived and worked in the US.

恭喜发财 (Gōngxǐ fācái) – Wishing you wealth and prosperity

Informant: Chinese people love money. Gong xi fa cai means…good luck, get rich. Every year at Chinese New Years they always give presents to..or just…pay homage to the god of money. 

Me: Who is the god of money?

Informant: He’s called…”Cáishén yé” (财神爷) – “cai” as in wealth, “shen” as in god, “ye” as in grandpa, or like old man. So, god of money. It’s a little funny, how everyone greets each other with this “gōngxǐ fācái” at New Years.

万般皆下品,惟有读书高 (Wànbān jiē xiàpǐn, wéiyǒu dúshū gāo) – Everything else is inferior compared to reading

Informant: We wanted you to study hard…Chinese people really value education. This means that all other things are less important than studying, or going to university. 

Me: Did your parents tell that to you growing up

Informant: Yes. My dad would always tell me that if i studied, I could have money, and if i had money, i could find a beautiful wife.

吃得苦中苦 方为人上人 (Chī dé kǔ zhōng kǔ fāng wéirén shàng rén) – Working hard allows one to be ahead of everyone else

Informant: If you want to be better than other people, you have to suffer more than them as well. Chinese people value hard work. And they’re very competitive. They want to be….better than everyone. It’s similar to the English saying “no pain no gain”.

Me: Why are they so competitive? 

Informant: Um…That’s just in their nature. They really compare themselves others. They really value hard work. They want to be better than everybody, they want to be richer than everybody.

Informant: Basically Chinese people really value education, hard work, and want to be on top – in wealth, and…just….want to be higher in their social status. They really admire people who have high positions in government. I think Chinese people are a little…vain. They value wealth and fame, they love celebrities too. Now I see some of these things as funny, like how Chinese people love money so much that they made so many sayings, but when i lived in China I didn’t necessarily find it funny. They were just what I grew up with.

Context: These were told to me over a recorded phone call. Some parts have been translated from mandarin. I have transcribed here excerpts from the recording.


Gods live 3 feet off the ground (Chinese Proverb)


li di san chi you shen ling

away ground three feet exist divine/numinous spirit

There are gods and spirits 3 feet off the ground.

Even when you think you’re alone, the spirits are still watching you, so don’t act differently even if you don’t think anyone is watching.

Chinese proverb usually used by parents as a warning to their children. It’s comparable to Christian families warning their children that God is always watching them, but with roaming spirits. This is related to the Chinese folk belief in spirits of the deceased who act as gods. By convincing a child that they are constantly being watched, the child would be from the parents’ point of view more likely to behave even when they think no one is around. This was used often when I was a child and my mother expected to be away for a while and wanted me to finish my homework before using the computer.

However, threat is not the only application of the proverb, as it also implies karma. Even when you do something good and no one sees, it ticks a point in your favor and the gods always know who’s in the right.