Proverbs reflect cultural belief systems. As a result, Chinese proverbs about family are a great way to gain insight into historical and modern Chinese values.

In this article, we’ll first explore Chinese attitudes towards the family. Then, we’ll examine 12 Chinese proverbs about family and consider how they reflect traditional cultural attitudes.

 

Chinese women in conversation

Proverbs: A Cross-Cultural Phenomenon

Proverbs reflect society’s values. Each civilization encodes its collective wisdom and prejudices into figures of speech, stories and easily remembered phrases.

Familiar English-language proverbs touch on everything from health and hygiene (“An apple a day keeps the doctor away”) to psychology (“Great minds think alike”) and morality (“Turn the other cheek”).

China’s millenia-old civilization has also produced a wealth of proverbs and sayings. Family is a central pillar of Chinese culture, so it should come as no surprise that many Chinese proverbs revolve around this important subject.

 

Mao-era propaganda poster showing happy Chinese family

An idealized depiction of a Chinese family from the Mao era

Traditional Conceptions of the Chinese Family

Confucius (孔子 Kǒngzǐ) is a thinker whose ideas are essential to understanding the ongoing importance of the family in Chinese society. Indeed, Confucian principles governing how each person is bound by obligations to others are at the heart of the Chinese worldview.

 

painting of Confucius with long beard and clasped hands

Confucius (孔子 kǒng zǐ)

Filial Piety and the Confucian Hierarchy

Confucianism’s central obligation is filial piety (孝顺 xiàoshùn). Perhaps more accurately translated as “filial subordination,” it hinges on the virtue of obeying one’s parents and elders. Indeed, the Chinese principle human relationships (father-son, husband-wife, ruler-subject) stem from this core parent-child relationship.

 

 

The Confucian hierarchy emphasizes the importance of families harmoniously ruled by benevolent elder patriarchs. Such families traditionally served as the basis for every other social and political relationship.

In fact, people judged every aspect of the world, or 天下 (tiānxià), by whether it conformed to or violated these familial principles. Members of ancient Chinese society also used Confucian principles to decide what was right or wrong, virtuous or immoral, just or unjust, beautiful or ugly, and brave or cowardly.

 

traditional painting of Confucius and four students seated on mats

Confucius and some of his students

Close Family Bonds

For thousands of years, two key factors fostered extremely close family bonds. One was the Chinese collective household system, which integrated different married couples into the same family. The other was the custom of multiple generations living under the same roof. Because of this practice, cousins grew up together as siblings. Indeed, people considered children primarily as members of the same age-group or generation rather than as offspring of particular parents.

 

chinese family uses proverbs while seated around dinner table

Members of an extended family enjoy a meal together

 

The children of these households learned to navigate and explore the world under the watchful eye of many older family members. The heavy demands of rural agricultural-based economic life further pressed these extended families into tight cooperative units.

Lineages, Descent Lines and Clans

Chinese culture places strong emphasis on the family and on reverence for ancestors. This is demonstrated by the many ways one can express one’s relationship with one’s relatives, both living and dead.

Lineages

A lineage organization is a group of descendants who have collectively organized for the purposes of recording their genealogy and ritually worshipping or commemorating their ancestors. The size and scope of lineage organizations varies enormously and often depends on the wealth and prestige of individual members.

 

chinese family proverbs are a part of daily life

Large family get-togethers are a common occurrence in traditional Chinese villages

 

Wealthy lineages sometimes collectively own an ancestral hall or shrine. There, descendants can come to worship ancestors and consult spirit tablets. Some well-endowed lineage organizations award scholarships and engage in charitable work. Some even act as emergency banks where members can gain access to loans during times of financial instability.

 

chinese proverb written above ancient door

A Chinese ancestral hall

 

Some poorer lineage organizations simply have a place, sometimes in a designated room of an ancestral home, to honor the ancestors on important holidays (such as Tomb-Sweeping Day or Ghost Festival). Ceremonies to honor the ancestors usually involve making symbolic food offerings, burning joss paper and lighting fragrant incense.

 

offerings to the ancestors sit on a table

Food offerings for the ancestors

Descent Lines

A descent line consists of all the fathers and sons in one’s family tree. It goes back to the beginning of time, starting with the first father who founded the line. As long as one continues to produce male heirs, the descent line will continue indefinitely.

If one doesn’t have a son, it’s possible for a line to die out. Confucian society considered not bearing a male heir to be one of the worst things imaginable. This was because it also meant, in Chinese tradition, that no one could make sacrifices to ancestors or maintain the ancestral hall.

 

old text with chinese proverbs

A Chinese descent line record

Clans or Same-surname Associations

Clan and same-surname associations either in China or overseas are broader and looser coalitions of individuals who share an ancestor. Members of these groups generally lack a clear understanding of the specifics of their collective descent relationship. In the absence of clear records, sharing the same last name is an important part of these groups.

These “same-surname associations” (同姓会 tóngxìnghuì) often served—and continue to serve—as sources of mutual-aid and mutual protection. Worship of the collective ancestor still occurs. However, the absence of reliable records like spirit tablets or other genealogies hinders the practice of many traditional rituals.

 

a group of Chinese men burn incense to honor deceased family members

Burning joss sticks

Family Words

The importance of the family can also be detected through language. Consider, for example, the existence of many family-related Chinese words that contain the character 家 (jiā):

 

大家 (dàjiā, literally “big family”)——Everybody

国家 (guójiā, literally “national family)——Country

家具 (jiājù, literally “family tool”)——Furniture

 

The Western nuclear family consists of one father and one mother raising their children. The traditional Chinese extended family, by contrast, consists of grandparents, unmarried aunts, uncles, married sons, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. This way of life produced an astoundingly rich vocabulary to define, differentiate and describe relations between family members.

 

traditional stories produce chinese proverbs about family

Wealthy Chinese women in traditional clothes

 

The oldest known dictionary of the Chinese language, the Erh-ya (尔雅 Ěryǎ), contains a mind-boggling 2,000 terms for family relations. Due to the rapid contraction of the family as a consequence of the one-child policy (1979-2015), many of these words have fallen into disuse. However, contemporary Chinese still employs dozens of unique relationship words, many of which don’t exist in Western languages. For example:

 

表哥 (biǎogē)——Older male cousin

弟媳 (dìxí)——Younger brother’s wife

姨父 (yífu)——Mother’s sister’s husband

Men and Women

As one might expect, the relationship between men and women in China has changed a lot over the years.

Traditional Gender Roles

Men’s traditional role in the family was that of provider, maintainer and protector. Historically, Confucian and Daoist customs, patriarchal cultural beliefs and the exclusion of women from economic and educational spheres all combined to elevate the importance of men and minimize the importance of women. This phenomenon is referred to as 重男轻女 zhòngnán-qīngnǚ in Chinese.

 

men and women use chinese proverbs to express emotions

Traditional Chinese society was governed by strict gender roles rooted in Confucian teachings

 

Women were primarily seen in light of their ability to produce male heirs who would maintain the descent line, thereby pleasing the ancestors. In fact, the term for “good” in Chinese is 好 (hǎo), which is the character for female (女 nǚ) set alongside the character for a male child (子 zi).

This belief in women’s inferiority compared to men is the source of several sayings still in use today, such as 男尊女卑 (nánzūn-nǚbēi). Translated literally, this saying reads “men are high, women low.” It means “women are inferior to men.”

 

a group of people in ancient dress use Chinese proverbs about family in conversation

In traditional Confucian society, women had little autonomy outside the home

 

When not pregnant or giving birth, Confucian society expected women to focus their energies on homelife and childrearing. The Confucian doctrine of the Three Obediences and Four Virtues (三从四德 Sāncóng Sìdé) laid out strict rules for women. While at home, society expected women to follow their fathers. Upon marriage, the Confucians expected women to follow their husbands, and after marriage, their sons.

Contemporary people referred to this custom with the following saying: 在家从父, 出家从夫, 婚后从子 zàijiācóngfù, chūjiàcóngfū, hūnhòucóngzǐ).

 

chinese proverbs passed from grandmother to granddaughter

Chinese women’s lives have undergone vast changes in recent years

 

In all arenas and at all stages of life, Confucian society required women to allow their male counterparts—fathers, husbands and sons—to take on responsibility for most aspects of their lives. Despite these strict Confucian norms, in practice many women did in fact take up positions of power. One, Wu Zetian, even assumed the most powerful position in the land, becoming emperor in her own right.

 

chinese proverbs about family often originate from traditional stories

Emperor Wu Zetian

Gender Roles in Today’s China

China’s rollercoaster of a 20th century shattered many of these historical patterns and radically reshaped many others. While there are enormous differences between conditions in urban and rural areas, since 1949 Chinese women as a whole have become much more educated, independent and integrated into the workforce (although they’re still substantially underrepresented when it comes to business and political leadership positions).

 

a propaganda poster shows a smiling female welder

An early propaganda posters encouraging women to take pride in helping China modernize through manual labor

 

21st century Chinese society continues to change and transform. China’s megacities are fast producing their own updated expectations for men and women, while the influx of tens of millions of migrant workers from rural areas often reinforces older relationship models.

 

a Chinese career woman gives a presentation while colleagues look on

Modern Chinese women have made great strides in the workplace

 

As is the case with all nations, but perhaps more so in China due to the length and continuity of its history, modernity and tradition have yet to achieve a stable balance—it remains a give and take between past and present. Women continue to assume unprecedented positions of power. At the same time, however, traditional beliefs continue to influence which options and opportunities are—and are not—available.

Chinese Proverbs About Family

The proverbs below reflect the historical centrality of the family to Chinese cultural life, and they also indicate just how multidimensional this notion is.

Some sayings, particularly those expressing intimacy and support of family relationships, will find a place in the hearts of modern readers. Other proverbs, particularly those relating to the plight of women and the conditions of marriage, will perhaps make the modern reader uncomfortable.

History is sometimes wonderful, sometimes terrible and always complicated, and Chinese history is no different. These proverbs record China’s evolving attitudes towards the family.

 

a man kneels before an alter while family members look on

Paying respect to one’s ancestors is an important part of Chinese culture

Chinese Proverbs about Family: Familial Relationships

国无二君,家无二主 (guówú’èrjūn, jiāwú’èrzhǔ)

A state cannot have two monarchs or a family two heads.

 

前人栽树,后人乘凉 (qiánrénzāishù, hòurénchéngliáng)

The predecessors plant the tree, the descendants cool off in the shade.

 

树高千丈,落叶归根 (shùgāoqiānzhàng, luòyèguīgēn)

A tree can grow 10 thousand feet tall but its leaves will always fall back to the roots.

Note: This proverb was often used in situations where someone had been exiled or engaged in long years of travel. It was used to mean that even though a person might live for many years away from home, he or she would eventually return to his or her native soil.

 

虎父虎子 (hǔfùhǔzǐ)

If the father is a tiger, then the son will also be a tiger.

Note: This is a Chinese proverb that is equivalent to Western sayings such as “like father like son” or “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.”

 

姥姥家的狗,吃完了就走 (lǎolao jiā de gǒu, chīwánle jiù zǒu)

Grandma’s dog leaves as soon as it’s finished eating.

Note: This proverb is usually used by grandparents when playfully talking about their grandkid’s visits.

 

当麻烦来临,家人会给予你支持 (dàng máfan láilín, jiārén huì gěiyú nǐ zhīchí)

During difficult times, it’s your family that supports you.

Chinese Proverbs about Family: Property and Secrets

家有敝帚,享之千金 (jiāyǒubìzhǒu, xiǎnɡzhīqiānjīn)

Be thankful for a bad broom as if it were a thousand ounces of gold.

Note: This proverb suggests that even if something is of little value, if it’s your property you should cherish it.

 

家家有本难念的经 (jiājiā yǒu běn nánniàn de jīnɡ)

There’s a skeleton in every house.

Chinese Proverbs about Family: Marriage

出门看天色,进门看脸色 (chūmén kàn tiānsè, jìnmén kàn liǎnsè)

When you go out, observe the color of the sky, when you come in, observe the facial expressions (of your family members).

Note: This was proverbial advice given to newly married women.

 

儿多母苦,盐多菜苦 (erduōmǔkǔ, yánduōcàikǔ)

Just as too much salt makes food taste bad, too many children make a mother’s life hard.

 

嫁鸡随鸡,嫁狗随狗 (jiàjīsuíjī, jiàgŏusuígŏu)

Marry a chicken, follow a chicken; marry a dog, follow a dog.

Note: This proverb, and the one that follows, demonstrate the playful and strategic approach that many Chinese women took to navigating their relative powerlessness when it came to marriage.

 

家寒嫁汉,穿衣吃饭 (jiāhánjiàhàn, chuānyīchīfàn)

If the house is cold then marry a man, you’ll have clothes to wear and rice to eat.

 

chinese proverbs about family still used in modern life

Chinese people still frequently use traditional proverbs in everyday conversation

 

Want to learn even more about Chinese proverbs and the Chinese language? Find out how CLI’s program options can greatly enhance your understanding of Chinese language and culture, and check out this article on the Anatomy of Chinese Characters! We look forward to welcoming you to Guilin.

Chinese Vocabulary, Idioms and Proverbs About Family

HànzìPīnyīnDefinition
孝顺xiàoshùnfillial piety
天下tiānxiàland under heaven; the world or China
同姓会tóngxìnghuìsame-surname association
jiāhome
大家dàjiāeveryone
国家guójiācountry; nation
家具jiājùfurniture
表哥biǎogēolder male cousin; older male cousin on the female side
妗子jìnzimother's brother's wife
姨父yífumother's sister's husband
男尊女卑nánzūn, nǚbēiwomen are inferior to men
三从四德Sāncóng Sìdéthree obediences and four virtues (Confucian code of ethics for women)
国无二君,家无二主guówú'èrjūn, jiāwú'èrzhǔA state cannot have two monarchs or a family two heads.
出门看天色,进门看脸色chūmén kàn tiānsè, jìnmén kàn liǎnsèWhen you go out, observe the color of the sky, when you come in, observe the facial expressions (of your family members).
前人栽树,后人乘凉qiánrénzāishù, hòurénchéngliángThe predecessors plant the tree, the descendents cool off in the shade.
树高千丈,落叶归根shùgāoqiānzhàng, luòyèguīgēnA tree can grow 10 thousand feet tall but its leaves will always fall back to the roots.
儿多母苦,盐多菜苦erduōmǔkǔ, yánduōcàikǔJust as too much salt makes food taste bad, too many children make a mother’s life hard.
虎父虎子hǔfùhǔzǐIf the father is a tiger, then the son will also be a tiger.
姥姥家的狗,吃完了就走lǎolao jiā de gǒu chīwánle jiù zǒuGrandma’s dog leaves as soon as it’s finished eating.
家有敝帚,享之千金jiāyǒubìzhǒu, xiǎnɡzhīqiānjīnBe thankful for a bad broom as if it were a thousand ounces of gold.
家家有本难念的经jiājiā yǒu běn nánniàn de jīnɡThere is a skeleton in every house.
当麻烦来临,家人会给予你支持dàng máfan láilín , jiārén huì gěiyú nǐ zhīchíDuring difficult times, it's your family that supports you.
嫁鸡随鸡,嫁狗随狗jiàjīsuíjī, jiàgŏusuígŏuMarry a chicken, follow a chicken; marry a dog, follow a dog.
家寒嫁汉,穿衣吃饭jiāhánjiàhàn, chuānyīchīfànIf the house is cold then marry a man, you'll have clothes to wear and rice to eat.