|[Abstract] Proverbs are the cream of a language. They reflect the relationship
between language and culture. Human beings’ common social activities are in many
aspects similar, so English and Chinese proverbs have similarities. Because of
the cultural differences, English and Chinese proverbs have differences in their
detailed contents. The author compares their similarities and differences and
also proposes that English and Chinese proverbs will break the boundary and
accomplish interfusion. English and Chinese proverbs have similar origin and
similar linguistic characters. They both originate from folk life, mythology,
literary works and from other languages. Differences between English and Chinese
proverbs also exist. That is different geography; different history customs;
different religions and different value concepts.
[Key Words] proverbs;
similarities; differences; interfusion
The definition of proverb by Oxford Advanced Learner’s
English-Chinese Dictionary is “short well- known saying that states a general
truth or gives advice.” (精练的俗语，或为普遍道理或为劝诫语) Wu Zhankun said that proverbs are
the crystal of national wisdom and experience. They are frequently used orally
and handed down from generation to generation and usually give people
information and speak the truth. They are short sentences with common style,
concise structure, and vivid language. Wang Qin said that proverbs are the
summing up of practical experiences. They are the oral forms of language that
give people experience, advice or warning.  The great English philosopher
Francis Bacon once said:“The genius, wit and spirit of a nation are discovered
in its proverbs.”
From these definitions, we can see common characters of
proverbs. Proverbs are the crystal of the national wisdom and experience.
Proverbs are colloquial, so they are very easy to be remembered and handed down.
They usually give people advice and warning.
Proverbs are the cream of a
language. Language and culture are tightly interacted with each other; each
influencing and shaping the other. Language is part of culture. The Chinese
language is part of China culture and English language is part of English
culture. Language is the carrier and container of culture. Human knowledge and
experience are described and stored in language. As a part of language,
proverbs closely integrated with the society and culture. Proverbs reflect many
aspects of the nation such as geography, history, religious faith and
English and Chinese belong to two different language systems, having
great differences in their cultures. But human beings’ common social activities
and emotional reflection and observation of the world are in many aspects
similar. So not only differences but also many similarities exist in English and
Chinese proverbs. With the communication of world, English and Chinese proverbs
are permeating and interfusing each other.
2. Similarities between English and Chinese proverbs
between English and Chinese proverbs mainly lie in their origins and linguistic
2.1 Similar origins
Proverbs are concise, vivid and common short
sentences which be used and passed on orally. They are the summing up of the
experience in the production struggle and the social life and the crystal of
wisdom.  An English proverb itself tells us that“Proverbs are the daughter of
experience.” From these we can find that English and Chinese proverbs enjoy the
similar origin: they both originate from people’s daily life and experience.
Specifically speaking, they both come from folk life, mythology, literary works
and from other languages.
2.1.1 Originating from folk life
Proverbs are the summary of people’s
daily life and experience, and closely related to the practice of people’s life
and work, revealing a universal truth from details so as to enlighten people.
There are many proverbs originated from folk life. They are created by working
people, such as farmers, workmen, hunters, businessmen, army-men and so on. They
use familiar terms that were associated with their own fields. E.g.:
created the following proverbs:
(1) Make hay while the sun shines.
April rainy for corn, May for grass.
Workmen created the following proverbs:
(5) Strike while
the iron is hot.
(6) A good anvil does not fear the hammer.
Hunters created the following proverbs:
(8) He that is
afraid of every bush will never prove a good
Businessmen created the following
(10) You pay your money and take your
Army-men created the following proverbs:
(12) A good general make good men.
These were first
used by a limited group of people in the same fields. Because they are
philosophical colloquialism, later they gradually gained wide acceptance and
partly became part of the common corn of language and are now used in many other
2.1.2 Originating from mythology
Each nation has its own mythology, fable
and allusion. Chinese traditional culture, ancient Greek and Roman civilization
bequeath many mythologies and allusions. They become one of the major sources of
proverbs. The stories and heroes in Greek Mythology, The Fable of Aesop and The
Homer left a lot of proverbs. E.g.:
(14) I fear the Greeks, even when
bringing gifts. (From the well-known story of the Trojan horse by which the
Greeks took the city of Troy.)
(15) You cannot make a Mercury of every dog.
(From Roman Mythology. It means that not every mind will answer equally well to
be trained into a scholar).
(16) The fox said the grapes were sour. (From The
Fables of Aesop. It means that one said something is bad when one cannot get
Chinese culture can trace back to ancient times. There were many natural
phenomenons and our ancestor can’t explain these phenomenons. They created the
mythology and fable to explain the phenomenon. So many Chinese proverbs come
from mythology and fable. E.g.:
(18)过着牛郎织女的生活。（from a folk legend）
2.1.3 Originating from literary works
Many English and Chinese
proverbs come from literary works. A nation’s literary languages are its
language’s ginger. They promote the development of language. Some of brilliant
sentences, plot and hero’s name in literary works become proverbs.
are many great writers in western society, such as Shakespeare, Francis Bacon,
John Milton and so on. They had made distinctive contributions to the
development of English literature. Their works were accepted and passed on by
English people from generation to generation. Many sentences become the English
Shakespeare’s works are the most colorful literature origin of
proverbs. Many English proverbs are from the works of Shakespeare. E.g.:
(19) “The biter is sometimes bit.” is from Shakespeare’s Hamlet. It tells
people that those who do bad things to others will bring themselves
(20)“All is not gold that glitters.” is from Shakespeare’s The
Merchants of Venice. It means that those who have a good appearance are not
necessarily profound or learned.
Some other writers, philosophers’ words also
become proverbs. E.g.: (21)“Reading makes a full man, conference a ready man,
and writing an exact man” is from a distinguished English philosopher and writer
Bacon’s On Reading. It tells people that reading, conference and writing can
make a person learned, sharp and precise. And(22) “The childhood shows the man”
is from Milton’s Paradise Regained.
Many Chinese proverbs are from classic
Chinese literary works. The four great works: The Pilgrimage to the West, The
Three Kingdoms, A Dream of Red Mansions and The Marsh Rebellion are the most
popular classics in China. Such as:
(23)温故而知新。(By studying the old one
learns something new )---《论语》(Selected Reading)
cobblers with their wits combined equal Zhuge Liang the master---the wisdom of
the masses exceeds that of the wisest individual.)---《三国演义》( The Three
(25)三十六计,走为上计。(Of the thirty-six stratagems, the best is running
away.)---《水浒传》(The Marsh Rebellion)
(26)谋事在人,成事在天。(Man proposes; God
disposes.)---《红楼梦》(A Dream of Red Mansions)
(27)说曹操,曹操到。(Talk of the devil
and he is sure to appear.) ---《三国演义》( The Three Kingdoms)
Literature, as a mirror of social life, is another source of proverbs. Many
sentences in these literary works are full of wisdom and easy to be remembered,
so people like them and use them again and again. At last, they become the
proverbs and are widely used. We can say that proverbs are the cream of the
2.1.4 Originating from other languages
communication of world, nation’s boundary is being broken. More and more
languages contacted with each other. Because of the geography and history,
English was influenced and impacted by other languages in its development
process. So English have absorbed a great number of expressions of other
nation’s culture. So do proverbs. Many English proverbs are from Latin, Greek,
French and Chinese. As the reason of history, most of these loaned proverbs were
transferred into English and some maintain the original languages.
Many English proverbs originate from Latin. E.g.:
(28) Art is long, life is
(29) The wish is father to the thought.
Some Latin proverbs are
transferred into English. For example English people have got (30)“Soon ripe,
soon rotten” from “Citomaturum cito putridum”.
Many English proverbs come
from French. For example, English people have got(31) “When the fox preaches,
take care off your geese” from “Quand le renard se met a precher, garde aux
English proverbs also come from foreign writers’ works. For example,
(32)“Constant dripping wears away the stone.” is from Roman poet
Chinese people have also got some proverbs from other languages. Such
(33)“吃不到葡萄说葡萄酸”is from “The grapes are sour.”
from “He who laughs last laughs best.”
(35)“条条大路通罗马”is from “All roads lead
These have been accepted by Chinese people and become Chinese
From above we can find out that English and Chinese proverbs have similar
origins from folk life, mythology, literary works and from other languages. From
these similar origins we can see that English and Chinese people have similar
social activities and emotional reflection and observation of the world.
2.2 Similar linguistic characters
Proverbs are created by common people
and orally handed down from generation to generation again and again. English
and Chinese proverbs are concise and vivid.
The cleanest water is spring; the most refined words are
proverbs. Proverb diction is neat and simple. Proverbs use the fewest words to
express the contents. They are concise, condensed and compact. Most of English
and Chinese proverbs are simple sentences. E.g.:
(36) Easy come easy go.
(37) No pains no gains.
Proverbs are simple
and short sentences, so they can be remembered and handed down from generation
Proverbs use rhetorical devices to attract the readers
deeply. Many Chinese and English proverbs use the same rhetorical devices such
as simile, metaphor, repetition and hyperbole, etc.
Simile is used very
frequently. It is a figure of speech, in which a more or less fanciful or
unrealistic comparison is made, using “like ”or “as”. Here are some examples:
(42) A good friend is as the sun in
(43) A black plum is as sweet as a white.
Metaphor is a figure of
speech, which concisely compares two things by saying that one is the other.
It does not literally denote in order to imply a resemblance. E.g.:
Time is father of truth.
(45) Failure is the mother of success.
Repetition is another rhetorical device
used to express strong feelings or emphasize some meanings. E.g.:
(49) Many lords, many laws.
Gorky said that,
“The true art is authorized to exaggerate.” Hyperbole is an exaggeration used to
give emphasis and strike the readers deeply. E.g.:
(50) A thousand years
cannot repair a moment’s loss of honor.
is not false. It comes from the true feelings and bases on reality.
from the above rhetorical devices, there are other devices. They are Antithesis,
Synecdoche, Personification, etc.
The use of rhetorical devices makes
proverbs fresh, humorous, implicit and full of wit.
Though English and Chinese proverbs enjoy the similar origins, they also have
differences in their detailed contents. We will discuss their differences from
the following aspects: different geography; different history customs; different
religions and different value concepts.
3. Differences between English and Chinese proverbs
Language is strongly
influenced and shaped by culture. Language is the mirror of culture. It can
represent every aspect of culture. Proverb is an important part of a national
language and they reflect the relation between culture and language. Different
nations have different culture. Generally speaking, the major differences lie in
geography; history customs; religions and value concepts. As a result, English
and Chinese proverbs are different in the detailed contents.
3.1 Reflecting different geography
A nation’s geographical environment is
a framework in which a language and culture have been developing. The
geographical features of a country are inevitably reflected in the national
language in general and proverbs in particular.
England is an island
country and located in the western seaside of Europe. English people live by
seaside and their life cannot do without sailing and fishing. So many English
proverbs are related to sea and sailing. E.g.:
(52) The best fish smell when
they are three days old.
(53) All at sea.
(54) Being on the sea, sail;
being on the land, settle.
(55) Let another’s shipwreck be your navigation
China is an agriculture country. Every feudal dynasty pays much attention to
agriculture. Agriculture is the fundamental and crucial trade. So there are many
farming proverbs about agriculture. Farming proverbs constitute a large part of
Chinese proverbs. They are the crystal of agriculture experiences of Chinese
people. It can be seen in the following examples:
spring time is precious as oil.）
(57)种瓜得瓜，种豆得豆。（As a pan sows, so shall he
(58)人勤地不懒。(If man is diligent, soil is not idle.)
snow year, a rich year.)
(60)一粒下地, 万粒归仓。(From one grain sown into the earth,
one thousand grains will spring.)
(61)前人种树, 后人乘凉。(Ancestors plant trees
while descendants enjoy the cool under the tree shade—enjoying the fruits of
labor of one’s ancestors.)
From above, we can see that English and Chinese proverbs reflect their
different geographical conditions. England is an island country, so many English
proverbs are about “sea”, “fish”, “ship” and so on. While many Chinese proverbs
are about agriculture, such as “豆”，“雪”，“仓”，“地”,etc.
3.2 Reflecting different history customs
Each nation has its own history.
Since proverbs are historical products, they may reflect some aspects of the
English proverbs are related to the history of England.
E.g.: (62)“It is as hard to please a knave as a knight.” A knight refers to a
man given the rank of knighthood by the British monarch. There are many legends
about the English knights (e.g.: King Arthur and his green knights) in the
ancient times; and (63)“From whipping post to pillory.” A whipping post is a
post to which a person was tied for a public whipping and a pillory is a wooden
framework with three holes into which the head and hands of an offender were
loked, exposing him to public abuse and ridicule.
China has a long
history. There is thousands of years’ feudal society in China. People were
bonded by the rank of class. The rulers exploit and bully the people cruelty.
There are many Chinese proverbs about feudal and gender discrimination. E.g.:
(64)只许州官放火,不许百姓点灯。(The magistrates are free to burn down houses, while the
common people are forbidden even to light lamps. –The powerful can do what they
want, the weak are not allowed to do anything.)
red doors meat and wine go to waste while out on the roads lie the bones of the
(66)嫁鸡随鸡,嫁狗随狗。(Marry a cock and follow the cock, marry a dog and
follow the dog. —Follow the man you marry, be he fowl or cur.)
From above we can see that English and Chinese proverbs reflect the different
history. English proverbs are related to king and knight while Chinese proverbs
reflect the Chinese people’s grudge and resistance to rulers.
3.3 Reflecting different religions
Religion is a very important part of
culture. Different religions reflect different cultural characters, different
cultural backgrounds and different cultural traditions. Religion is a cultural
phenomenon. Proverbs are closely related to the culture, so proverbs can reflect
the different religious faith. 
English people believe in Christianity
and it is the most influential religion in the west. Many English proverbs
reflect English people’s religious faith and many of them are about “God”,
“devil”, “heaven”, “church”, “cross” and “hell”. E.g.:
(67) As poor as the
(68) God helps those who help themselves.
(69) The devil
can cite Scripture for his purpose.
(70) Better go to heaven in rags than to
hell in embroidering.
(71) The way to heaven is by Weeping Cross.
proverbs above are apparently related to Christianity, because in them “God”,
“devil”, “heaven”, “church”, “cross” and “hell” appear which are the embodiments
In contrast, Buddhism is the most popular religion in China.
Many proverbs are about Buddhism such as:
incense when all is well, but clasping Buddha’s feet in an
(73)跑得了和尚,跑不了庙。(The monk may run away, but the temple can’t run
with him. —A fugitive must belong to some place that can provide
(74)泥菩萨过河,自身难保。(Like a clay idol fording a river --hardly able to
(75)放下屠刀,立地成佛。(The butcher who lays down his knife at once becomes
These proverbs are about 佛，和尚，庙and 菩萨。The doctrines of Buddhist
admonish people to do good deeds and so they can go to the heaven after their
death. Taoism comes next to Buddhism in China. There are proverbs about Taoism
English and Chinese people have different religious faith. Different
religions lead to the differences between English and Chinese proverbs.
Christianity is the main religion in English-speaking countries, so many English
proverbs are related to “God”. While Chinese people believed in Buddhism and
Taoism, so many Chinese proverbs are about“佛”and “道”。
3.4 Reflecting different value concepts
The differences between Chinese
and western value concepts mainly lie in individualism and
Westerners believe that everyman is equal. They aspire to freedom
and equality. Many English proverbs show American’s advocating of freedom and
(78) God helps those who help themselves.
helps little that helps not himself.
These two proverbs illustrate the
individual role. The words “themselves” and “himself” show that independence
plays an important role in their life.
(80) Everyman is the architect of his
(81) If you want a thing well done, do it yourself.
two proverbs attach importance to independence and self-reliance. Self-reliance
impels people to create opportunities, seek competition and be ready for risks.
(82)“It is the squeaky wheel that gets the oil.” gives prominence to the
(83)“Everyman after his fashion.” lays stress on individual
On the contrary, Chinese people take modesty as virtue. They
respect the old and take good care of the young. Their characteristics are
“justice and humanity”, “modesty” and “love”.  Chinese people pay much
attention to collectivism and think highly of the role of groups. They lay
stress on help each other and reliance each other. They also pay attention to
the harmonious human relationship and they try to save the other side’s face.
Many Chinese proverbs reflect this trend. E.g.:
(84)“孤树结成林不怕风吹，滴水集成海不怕日晒。”shows the strength of collective or union.
(85)“四海之内皆兄弟。”reflects the importance of mutual help and reliance.
(86)“相互协助事好办，各自揣私心事难成。”lays stress on the harmonious human relationship.
(87)“忍一时风平浪静，退一步海阔天空。”suggests that people should save the other side’s
There are exceptions that are opposite to the mainstream. Some English
proverbs also reflect the importance of collectivism. For example, (88) “make
yourself necessary to someone.” Chinese traditional value concept has been
greatly impacted with the input of individualism. (89)“一个和尚挑水吃；两个和尚抬水吃；三个和尚没水吃”
is contrary to Chinese collective tendency. In spite of these exceptions, their
mainstreams are not changed.
English and Chinese proverbs have many similarities and differences. With the
communication of world culture, proverbs will break the boundary of states and
nations, promote the cultural convergence and achieve interfusion. English and
Chinese proverbs are permeating and interfusing each other constantly.
4. Permeation and interfusion
With the progress of science and technology,
the development of society and dissemination of information, the communication
and cooperation among countries are expanding. The contact among states and
nations is more and more frequent. Different national cultures are permeating
and interfusing. Language is the carrier of culture. Cultural convergence is
directly reflected in the integration of language, at the same time the
interfusion and changing of language reflect and record the evolution of
cultural convergence.  Proverb is the crystal of language. It has no
The communication between Chinese and Western culture is more and
more frequent. These two cultures affect and permeate mutually. English absorb
many Chinese words, and a great number of English words also enter in the
Chinese culture. For example：
(90)“以眼还眼，以牙还牙”is from “An eye for an eye, a
tooth for a tooth.”
(91)“谁笑到最后，谁笑得最好”is from “He who laughs last laughs
(92)“吃不到葡萄说葡萄酸”is from “Sour grapes” and so on.
cannot quench a fire nearby” is from “远水解不了近火”
(94)“Don’t climb a tree to
look for fish.” is from “勿缘木求鱼。”
(95)“Take away fuel, take away flame.” is
(96)“The truth by incessant endeavors.” is from
“愚者千虑，必有一得。”—《史记》（Records of the Historian）
(97)“Better return home and make
a net than long for fish by the waterside.” is from “临渊而捕鱼，不如退而结网。”—《汉书》（History
of the Han Dynasty）
From above proverbs we can see that many Chinese proverbs become English
proverbs and Chinese people also accept a lot of English proverbs. English and
Chinese proverbs are permeating and interfusing each other constantly.
Proverbs are the cream of a language. They are closely
related to a nation’s culture and enjoy great cultural values. They reflect the
relation between culture and language. Each nation has its own geography,
history, religion and social attitude. Because of the cultural generalities and
differences, English and Chinese proverbs have their similarities and
differences. They are permeating and interfusing each other. So a comparative
study of them can help us to learn a language well and understand the true
meaning of other’s word in cross-culture communication.
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