Chinese proverbs

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A frequent topic of our Language Log posts has been about how best to learn Chinese, e.g.:

"How to learn to read Chinese " (5/25/08)

"How to learn Chinese and Japanese " (2/17/14)

"The future of Chinese language learning is now " (4/5/14)

Two things I have stressed:  1. take advantage of properly parsed Pinyin or other phonetic annotation and transcription; 2. utilize the full resources of digital, electronic, hand-held, and online dictionaries and other devices to assist and enhance the learning of reading and writing.

Whenever a well-designed, efficient pedagogical tool appears, I am always pleased because it means more rapid acquisition and less suffering for students.

Consequently, I was pleased to receive a copy of 500 Common Chinese Proverbs and Colloquial Expressions:  An Annotated Frequency Dictionary (Routledge, 2014) by Liwei Jiao and Benjamin M. Stone.  Dr. Jiao is a lecturer in Chinese at Penn, and Benjamin Stone is a former student of his.

Now that I have the proverbs book in my hands and have been able to take a good look at it, I should describe it briefly, since I believe that it is excellent.

First of all, the dictionary is printed on good quality paper and the typography is exceptionally clear.

Each entry consists of the following parts:

I. The proverb or colloquial expression in traditional and simplified fonts, plus properly parsed pinyin.

II. Character-by-character translation.

III. Two examples of the proverb or colloquial expression used in suitable contexts.  Often these consist of a brief exchange between two speakers.  The examples are given in a) jianti b) parsed pinyin c) English translation.

IV. A short description of the normal usage of the proverb or colloquial expression.

V. A bar chart telling whether the proverb or colloquial expression is humorous, neutral, slightly derogatory, or derogatory.  This is both unusual and very helpful for works of this sort.

The book also includes, among others, the following additional parts:

A. An Introduction that covers the following:

1. Characteristics of Chinese súyǔ 俗語 ("proverbs and colloquial expressions").

2. Why suyu are important for learners of Chinese.

3. Special features of this dictionary.

4. How the entries of this dictionary were determined.

B. An appendix of all 500 proverbs and colloquial expressions arranged alphabetically (by head characters).

C. An appendix with a stroke index (by head characters) of all 500 proverbs and colloquial expressions.

D. An appendix of key words occurring not just in the initial position, as with the previous two appendices, but in any position in all 500 proverbs and colloquial expressions.

Together with other colleagues, Liwei has written the following pedagogical works for the study of Chinese, all published by Routledge:

1) The Routledge Advanced Chinese Multimedia Course: Crossing Cultural Boundaries, 2nd Edition.  This textbook sells about one thousand copies each year.

2) 500 Common Chinese Idioms: An Annotated Frequency Dictionary. This book has sold nearly two thousand copies so far.

3) 500 Common Chinese Proverbs and Colloquial Expressions: An Annotated Frequency Dictionary. This book (the one described above) has sold about seven hundred copies so far, not as popular as the one on idioms. Actually I think this one is better, but it is newer, thus it hasn't been on the market as long.  Eventually I think that it will catch up and exceed the idioms book in sales.

Liwei was also invited to contribute an article, 'Chinese Idioms', to The Routledge Encyclopedia of the Chinese Language, which will be published within a couple of months.

In addition, Routledge has asked Liwei to edit a book on Chinese language.  The title of the proposed work is The Routledge Handbook of Chinese Language and Culture, and it will consist of somewhere between 25 and 40 articles, with approximately 7,000 words for each article. The format will be like that of The Routledge Handbook of Language and Culture, but the topics will be much narrower than those in the aforementioned book.   I am considering writing a chapter for it, but have to think what topic it will be on — perhaps "Character Amnesia".


  1. leoboiko said,

    January 19, 2016 @ 11:12 am

    I really don't want to sound demanding, but if you still need topics, and if I might be so bold as to try to suggest a couple, there are two things that you've mentioned before that I'd love to learn more about. The first is the presence of poly-syllablic Chinese vernacular words in ancient texts (mentioned in Buddhism and the Rise of the Written Vernacular…), and the consequences they have for understanding the relationship between literary and spoken Chinese (and, relatedly, the thing about Chinese words being "elastic"). The other topic are Chinese characters with poly-syllabic or multiple readings; how frequent are them, their history and relevance.

  2. Gene Anderson said,

    January 19, 2016 @ 11:43 am

    THE DICTIONARY OF CHINESE PROVERBS by my old friend John Rohsenow (U Hawaii 2002) is worth recommending too. Bilingual and with the pinyin. And the proverbs are terrific. Chinese folk wisdom is as good as it gets.

  3. Victor Mair said,

    January 19, 2016 @ 5:40 pm


    I always have more than enough to write about at LL.

    As for your question about the relationship between the vernacular and Literary Sinitic, for starters, see Victor Mair, "Script and Word in Medieval Vernacular Sinitic," Journal of the American Oriental Society 112.2 (1992), pp.269-78.

    For the last twenty years, Zhu Qingzhi and I have been working on a Dictionary of Middle Vernacular Sinitic. We're getting close to finishing it — another two or three years and we should be able to wrap it up. Then you'll have thousands of examples to savor.

    I don't recall using the expression "elastic" with regard to Chinese words.

    For polysyllabic characters, see:

    "Polysyllabic characters in Chinese writing" (8/2/11)

    "Polysyllabic characters revisited" (6/18/15)

    @Gene Anderson

    John Rohsenow is also an old friend of mine too, and his ABC Dictionary of Chinese Proverbs (Yanyu) is indeed a fine work of scholarship (it's in my Chinese dictionary series at University of Hawaii Press).

    See here and here.

    John's Dictionary is more of a reference work, Liwei's is a pedagogical tool. Both are outstanding for their purposes.

  4. leoboiko said,

    January 20, 2016 @ 8:58 am

    Thanks for the pointers! When the dictionary is ready I'll be eagerly waiting for the dictionary.

    “Elastic” wasn’t your term. It refers to the property that Chinese words can be reduced to a single syllable in certain linguistic contexts, e.g. méitàn→méi or lǎohǔ. This wasn't your term; I've learned it from this post by Liberman, and ever since, I've been wondering if this is related to the literary vs. vernacular digraphia. The traditional, Karklgrenian hypothesis is that the words used to be monosyllables, and as the phonetic system simplified, they became polysyllables to avoid excessive ambiguity. But since, as you show, there's evidence that polysyllabic words were always there, then perhaps they’ve always been "elastic", and the Literary tendency for monosyllabic writing could be a kind of “maximally compressed” notation…?

  5. leoboiko said,

    January 20, 2016 @ 9:00 am

    (Sorry for the redundancy in the first line. I write very badly without an edit function…)

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