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80+ Valuable Cantonese Proverbs And Idioms

April 10, 2022

Wanna live life the best way it was supposed to be lived? Learn these Cantonese proverbs that will surely make every day of your life better.

We are all familiar with the basic way of giving advice to someone. But, way back past generations, there's this one way that people used to teach lessons about everyday lives, and that is through proverbs.

Proverbs are traditional and insightful saying that is based on truth. These proverbs use figurative language that would be understood beyond their literal meaning. In the past few generations, proverbs have been used to give advice or lecture people, particularly children, about life. It is also used in preserving culture and traditions so it can be passed to future generations.

Even until these modern times, you can still hear proverbs used by parents to mold their children into becoming good people. From this, we can say that proverbs are really an essential part of a culture.

Every culture has its own set of proverbs. In this blog, we will learn about Cantonese proverbs, particularly Hong kong proverbs, that are commonly used by Cantonese families. Proverbs can also be an indicator to assess if you are really a native Cantonese speaker or you have a more profound knowledge of the Cantonese language and the culture behind it.

So, sit back and relax. This will be going to be long but worth it!

 

Proverbs And The Cantonese Culture

Cantonese proverbs, particularly Hong Kong proverbs, are essential in the Cantonese culture. They are not just some couple of sayings or phrases that are taught in Chinese language school to memorize. It tells more about Cantonese culture and the way Cantonese people should behave.

Hong Kong parents use Cantonese proverbs or Hong Kong proverbs to teach their children. If there's a very naughty child, you'll particularly hear the parents or adults saying Cantonese proverbs to them.

When it comes to Cantonese proverbs, there's someone whose name could never be missed -Ah To (阿塗). He is a graphic designer and part-time cartoonist concerned about Cantonese's survival in Canton and Hong Kong. He has lately published a comic called "The Great Canton and Hong Kong Proverbs" on Hong Kong independent media called "Passion Times." 81 Cantonese proverbs are illustrated in the cartoon.

This cartoon about Hong Kong proverbs aims to propagate the Cantonese culture and defend the Cantonese language. It was inspired by the oil painting called "Netherlandish Proverbs" made by Dutch artist Pieter Bruegel. This painting portrays many dutch proverbs to give recognition to the Dutch culture.

Today, even in these modern times, Cantonese proverbs, idioms, and sayings are still used to give life lessons, especially to the young ones. This serves as one of their foundations on how to be a good person growing up. A person without a foundation might end up being lost when they grow up. With the good Hong Kongers, you'll meet when they go to their country, you'll say that these proverbs have reached their goals.

 

Hong Kong Proverbs, Idioms And Sayings

Cantonese Proverbs, sayings, and idioms are simple and brief wording that convey folk wisdom. It is widely known by ordinary local people because it has always been an essential part of their culture growing up. Cantonese proverbs are usually told by parents and other senior family members to guide children in their lives. Preserving these Cantonese proverbs is also a way of preserving their culture.

If you want to speak Cantonese and sound like a native, collect Cantonese proverbs like what you'll read below. Aside from Cantonese proverbs, you will also learn Cantonese idioms and sayings that have been around for the past few generations.

If you're just beginning to learn the Chinese language like Cantonese, do not worry because all the Cantonese words written in Chinese characters that you'll encounter have English translations and romanization. So, let's not wait for any further and learn these Cantonese proverbs.

上山捉蟹 (Soeng5 Saan1 Zuk1 Haai5)

Literal Meaning: To catch crabs on a hill

To catch crabs on a hill - Almost impossible or harder than hard

Meaning:

There are things in life that are you can hardly think would happen. In something like that, the Cantonese proverbs that you can use are "To catch crabs on a hill (上山捉蟹 Soeng5 Saan1 Zuk1 Haai5)". It means "Almost impossible or Harder than hard."

In life, there are things that we already know are impossible to happen, and we can't do anything about it anymore. However, there are things that you thought were impossible to happen, but you'll never know if you won't try.

鬼揞眼 (Gwai2 Ngam2 Ngaan5)

Literal Meaning: A ghost covers one’s eyes

A ghost covers one’s eyes - To fail to see something

Meaning:

There are things in life that can't be seen by the naked eye. Sometimes' we look at things differently than others. We fail to notice the truth because we are sometimes blinded by the shallow things we see or the things that we only want to see.

The Cantonese proverb "A ghost covers one’s eyes (鬼揞眼 Gwai2 Ngam2 Ngaan5) means "To fail to see something." This proverb teaches people to be critical of the things in their life. You have to look deeper at certain things because they might mean more than what you see. Opening your eyes to look deeper will make you a better person.

佛都有火 (Fat6 Dou1 Jau5 Fo2)

Literal Meaning: Even the Buddha gets inflamed

Even the Buddha gets inflamed - An intolerable degree that; past the limitations.

Meaning:

Have you ever experienced something intolerable? There are situations or even people that go way past their limitations that you can't even take it anymore. This Cantonese proverb was influenced by Buddhism. It means "an intolerable degree that; past the limitations."

Remember how Buddha maintains his patience to reach enlightenment? Well, how bad the things someone can do that even the Buddha can get inflamed (佛都有火 Fat6 Dou1 Jau5 Fo2)? This proverb teaches people to know their limitations and not go beyond them. Knowing your limits will save you from affecting other people in a negative way.

呃鬼食豆腐 (Aak1 Gwai2 Sik6 Dau6 Fu6)

Literal Meaning: To trick a ghost into eating tofu

To trick a ghost into eating tofu - To trick someone

Meaning:

This is one of the very timely and relevant Cantonese proverbs today. The proverb "To trick a ghost into eating tofu (呃鬼食豆腐 Aak1 Gwai2 Sik6 Dau6 Fu6) means "to trick someone." Now that scams, phishing, catfishing, and other ways of tricking others are prevalent, this might be one of the essential Cantonese proverbs that you should learn.

Tricking someone for personal advantages, even if it's only a prank, is really not a good thing to do. These small tricks might lead to bigger consequences and problems that can cause harm to other people. Today many people fall for tricks and end up hurting or losing something significant in their lives. It's really bothering that people nowadays can easily trick anyone even they know how awful it can be.

放飛機 (Fong3 Fei1 Gei1)

Literal Meaning: To throw a paper airplane

To throw a paper airplane - To break a promise

Meaning:

I'm sure many people will agree that broken promises are one of the worst and most painful things in life. In Cantonese proverbs, they use "To throw a paper airplane 放飛機 (Fong3 Fei1 Gei1) " that which "to break a promise".

We should remember that keeping our words is important to avoid hurting other person's feelings. When it is broken, even sorry means nothing. It teaches people to hold on to all the words and promises they make.

牛唔飲水唔撳得牛頭低 (Ngau4 M4 Jam2 Seoi2 M4 Gam6 Dak1 Ngau4 Tau4 Dai1)

Literal Meaning: If a cow doesn’t want to drink, you can’t force its head down.

If a cow doesn’t want to drink, you can’t force its head down. - Even if you give them advice, there's no guarantee they'll follow it

Meaning:

Each individual is accountable for their own acts. Even if you give them advice, there's no guarantee they'll follow it. In English, this is the Cantonese proverbs version for "You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink."English.

People do not always need advice from you when they're going through something. Sometimes being there to listen to them is all they need to feel better. You don't always have to say sometimes because it might just make everything worse.

刀仔鋸大樹 (Dou1 Zai2 Geoi3 Daai6 Syu6)

Literal Meaning: Use a little knife to saw down a tree.

Use a little knife to saw down a tree - Using a small amount of capital to earn a large profit.

Meaning:

Hong Kong is one of the Asian Tigers, and we cannot deny the fact that it's one of the countries where you can get lots of career opportunities. The Cantonese proverb 刀仔鋸大樹 Dou1 Zai2 Geoi3 Daai6 Syu6) can be very useful, especially if you want to pursue a Career in Hong Kong. This proverb means "using a small amount of capital to earn a large profit."

When you're starting a business, things can be too risky, so you'll really have to be critical and think of a way that you can make a large profit out of a small capital. There are lots of big companies today that started small and worked their way up to the top.

玻璃夾萬 (Bo1 Lei4 Gaap3 Maan6)

Literal Meaning: A glass safe

Meaning:

A glass safe - Something that appears attractive but is not useful

In these modern times, there are lots of things that look really nice but totally worthless. To describe these things in Cantonese proverbs, use "A glass safe (玻璃夾萬 Bo1 Lei4 Gaap3 Maan6)". It means "something that appears attractive but is not useful."

This proverb is a reminder that not everything that looks nice is essential. Like what was mentioned in the novel "The Little Prince," what is important is invisible to the eye.

馬死落地行 (Maa5 Sei2 Lok6 Dei6 Hang4)

Literal Meaning: When one’s horse dies, one has to walk

When one’s horse dies, one has to walk - To have to rely on oneself and get through a difficult situation without assistance

Meaning:

This Cantonese proverb means "to have to rely on oneself and get through a difficult situation without assistance." Cantonese family is really important in their culture. But, as a child, you really have to learn how to stand on your own feet. Your family will not always be there for you forever.

豬籠入水 (Jung4 Jap6 Seoi2)

Literal Meaning: Water enters a pig basket

Water enters a pig basket - To have many different ways to make money

Why do you think there are lots of billionaires from Hong Kong? Well, they definitely know lots of ways to make money. The Cantonese proverb to use for this is "Water enters a pig basket (豬籠入水 Jung4 Jap6 Seoi2) which means "to have many different ways to make money, to have money coming from many different enterprises or sources."

 

More Cantonese Proverbs, Idioms, And Cantonese Sayings

The Cantonese proverbs, sayings, and idioms that you have learned above are only the basic ones. If you wanna learn more about Cantonese proverbs, idioms, and sayings, check out the tables below.

Cantonese Proverbs And Sayings About People

Cantonese ProverbsLiteral MeaningEnglish Translation
和尚擔遮
wo4 soeng2 daam1 ze1
Monk holding an umbrellaDo whatever one wants or pleases.
醜婦終須見家翁
cau2 fu2 zung1 seoi1 gin3 gaa1 jung1
An ugly woman still has to meet her husband’s fatherDealing with a pending issue eventually even if you don't want to
一竹篙打一船人
jat1 zuk1 gou1 daa2 jat1 syun4 jan4
Hitting everyone on a boat with a punt poleTarred with the same brush
皇帝唔急太監急
wong4 dai3 m4 gap1 taai3 gaam1 gap1
The emperor is not in a hurry, but the eunuchs areBeing more concerned about someone else's business than they are
賣魚佬洗身
maai6 jyu4 lou2 sai2 san1
A fishmonger washes his bodyNot having gotten a positive reaction yet; no news
賊佬試沙煲
caak6 lou2 si3 saa1 bou1
A thief is testing a potBefore you do something horrible, you should test the waters.
盲公食湯丸
maang4 gung1 sik6 tong1 jyun2
A blind man eats glue puddingTake note of the score.
船頭尺
syun4 tau4 cek3
Plumb line on a shipSomeone who is always requesting money from others
單眼佬睇老婆
daan1 ngaan5 lou2 tai2 lou5 po4
One-eyed man looks at his wifeToo few/simple/obvious that everything can be seen/understood in a "second."

Cantonese Proverbs, Idioms, And Sayings About Animals

Cantonese ProverbsLiteral MeaningEnglish Translation
老貓燒鬚
lou5 maau1 siu1 sou1
An old cat burns its whiskersAn expert who commits a casual error in their own field of competence.
開籠雀
hoi1 lung4 zoek3
A bird in an open cageSomeone who is constantly chatting
拉牛上樹
laai1 ngau4 soeng5 syu6
To pull a cow up a treeA futile attempt to accomplish anything
豬乸會上樹
zyu1 naa2 wui2 soeng5 syu6
A female pig can climb treesWhen pigs fly, impossible to happen.
豬籠入水
zyu1 lung4 jap6 seoi2
Water enters a pig basket; To make a fortuneSomeone made a lot of money
大石笮死蟹
daai6 sek6 zaak3 sei2 haai5
A big stone crushes a crabUnfair competition
倒瀉籮蟹
dou2 se2 lo4 haai5
Spilled a basket of crabsTroublesome; Messy
企喺城樓睇馬打交
kei5 hai2 sing4 lau4 tai2 maa5 daa2 gaau1
Standing on a fort and watching horses fight each otherKeeping oneself out of a potentially dangerous situation.
騎牛搵馬
ke4 ngau4 wan2 maa5
Riding a cow looking for a horseUsing one's existing position to search for a better one.
掛羊頭賣狗肉
gwaa3 joeng4 tau4 maai6 gau2 juk6
Hang up a sheep’s head and sell dog meatMake an attempt to palm off anything.
扯貓尾
ce2 maau1 mei5
Pull a cat’s tailConspiring or putting on a show
捉到鹿唔識脫角
zuk1 dou2 luk2 m4 sik1 tyut3 gok3
Got hold of the deer but can’t remove its antlersBeing unable to take advantage of a situation.
兩頭蛇
loeng5 tau4 se4
Two-headed snake; a servant of two mastersA person who works for both sides of a transaction
打蛇隨棍上
daa2 se4 ceoi4 gwan3 soeng5
Hit a snake and it crawls up the stickUtilizing a situation to one's benefit
邊有咁大隻蛤乸隨街跳
bin1 jau5 gam3 daai6 zek3 gaap3 naa2 ceoi4 gaai1 tiu3
Why would there be such a big frog hopping around the street?A deal that is too good to be true
甩繩馬騮
lat1 sing4 maa5 lau4
Loose string monkeyA mischievous or uncontrollable child
馬騮執到桔
maa5 lau4 zap1 dou3 gat1
A monkey got a tangerineSomeone appears to be overjoyed as if he has unearthed gold.
飛象過河
fei1 zoeng6 gwo3 ho4
An elephant flies across the riverTo disobey a rule; to reach across the table for food (alluding to Chinese chess rules).
企喺城樓睇馬打交
kei5 hai2 sing4 lau4 tai2 maa5 daa2 gaau1
To watch a horse fight from the top of a fortA spectator on the sidelines
事急馬行田
si6 gap1 maa5 hang4 tin4
In a crisis, a horse can move in the fieldIn an emergency, to be flexible and adjust to circumstances (a reference to Chinese chess rules)
缸瓦船打老虎
gong1 ngaa5 syun4 daa2 lou5 fu2
Hitting a tiger inside a boat full of potteriesTo stake everything on a single wager; to stake everything on a single strategy
黑狗得食白狗當災
hak1 gau2 dak1 sik6 baak6 gau2 dong1 zoi1
The black dog gets the food, the white dog gets the punishmentSomeone gains from their misbehavior, while someone else bears the brunt of the responsibility.
菠羅雞
bo1 lo4 gai1
Pineapple chickenAn exploiter is someone who takes advantage of others.
狗仔抬轎
gau2 zai2 toi4 giu2
Puppies lifting /carrying a sedan chairA failure to recognize and appreciate others' favors / charming
狗咬狗骨
gau2 ngaau5 gau2 gwat1
A dog bites another dog’s bonesDisputes between members of the same group
打蛇隨棍上
daa2 se4 ceoi4 gwan3 soeng5
To hit a snake and it crawls up the stickTo take advantage of a circumstance and ask for something or something extra by taking advantage of a particular opportunity.
雞食放光蟲
gai1 sik6 fong3 gwong1 cung4
A chicken eats firefliesKnowing in one's heart, fully comprehending, and without needing to think further (As the chicken eats fireflies, its belly lights up)
籠裏雞作反
lung4 lei5 gai1 zok3 faan2
The chickens are fighting inside the coopInternal dissension, a schism, factional strife; internal infighting
一雞死一雞鳴
jat1 gai1 sei2 jat1 gai1 ming4
One chicken dies, one chicken crowsWhen one individual leaves a firm or occupation, someone else will step in to fill the void.
老鼠拉龜
lou5 syu2 laai1 gwai1
A mouse pulls a turtleAt one’s wits’ end
龜過門檻
gwai1 gwo3 mun4 haam5
A tortoise passing a sill, implying someone who can’t get on or get offUnable to solve or get out of a difficulty. It's a deadlock.
執死雞
zap1 sei2 gai1
To pick up a dead chickenTo take something that has been misplaced or discarded by someone else
水過鴨背
seoi2 gwo3 ngaap3 bui3
Water off a duck’s backLike water off a duck's back, to leave no impression on (the memory), to forget (a lesson).

Cantonese Proverbs Idioms, And Sayings About Ghosts

Cantonese ProverbsLiteral MeaningEnglish Translation
鬼畫符
gwai2 waak6 fu4
Ghost draws a talismanPoor handwriting, illegible scribble
鬼拍後尾枕
gwai2 paak3 hau6 mei5 zam2
A ghost slaps the back of one’s headTo unknowingly let out a secret
多個香爐多隻鬼
do1 go3 hoeng1 lou4 do1 zek3 gwai2
An extra incense burner would attract an extra ghostAn act of allowing someone to benefit from you
有錢使得鬼推磨
jau5 cin2 sai2 dak1 gwai2 teoi1 mo4
If you have money, you can make a ghost push a millstoneEverything is possible with money
鬼食泥
gwai2 sik6 nai4
A ghost eats mudTo make your words slur

Cantonese Proverbs Idioms, And Sayings About Food

Cantonese ProverbsLiteral MeaningEnglish Translation
禾稈冚珍珠
wo4 gon2 kam2 zan1 zyu1
Rice stalks covering pearlsOnce gaining control of one's talent or fortune
食鹽多過你食米
sik6 jim4 do1 gwo3 nei5 sik6 mai5
Ate more salt than riceSomeone who has greater experience in a particular area than another.
食碗面反碗底
sik6 wun2 min2 faan2 wun2 dai2
Eat from a bowl and then turn it overBetraying a person; betraying one's friends
冬瓜豆腐
gwai2 sik6 nai4
Winter melon and tofuA sad occurrence, particularly death.

Other Cantonese Proverbs, Idioms, Sayings

Cantonese ProverbsLiteral MeaningEnglish Translation
床下底吹喇叭
cong4 haa6 dai2 ceoi1 laa1 baa1
Blowing a horn under the bed, implying speaking at a kowtow positionIn a begging / humble tone
床下底劈柴
cong4 haa6 dai2 pek3 caai4
Chopping wood under a bedEpic fail; A method that isn't effective
上面蒸鬆糕,下面賣涼粉
soeng5 min6 zing1 sung1 gou1,haa6 min6 maai6 loeng4 fan2
Steaming sponge cake on top, selling cool powder below.The frigid winter characterizes women who wear heavy gear on top but barely cover their legs with small skirts/short shorts.
煲電話粥
bou1 din6 waa6 zuk1
To boil telephone congeeTo talk for hours on the phone.
倒吊沙煲
dou2 diu3 saa1 bou1
A pot hung upside downPoverty is a state of being penniless
十個茶壺九個蓋
sap6 go3 caa4 wu4 gau2 go3 goi3
Ten teapots and nine lidsThere isn't enough supply to meet demand.
冇柄遮
mou5 beng3 ze1
An umbrella with a broken handleTo fight till one's last breath, refusing to recognize one's mistake
運桔
wan6 gat1
To ship tangerinesTo go to a store or meet someone without a specific goal, to "simply look" in a store; to squander someone's time.
食拖鞋飯
sik6 to1 haai4 faan6
To eat slippers riceA man who is supported by a woman, i.e. he doesn't have to work and can keep his slippers on.
食人隻車
sik6 jan4 zek3 ce1
To have eaten someone’s cartTo take advantage of or expropriate the property of others (a reference to Chinese chess rules).
食死貓
sik6 sei2 maau1
To eat a dead catTaking responsibility for something one hasn't done
放葫蘆
fong3 wu4 lou4
To throw a gourdBragging; Self-boasting
過橋抽板
gwo3 kiu4 cau1 baan2
To pull up the planks after crossing the bridgeOnce the crisis is gone, betraying one's friends, abandoning one's friends once one is safe
冇鞋挽屐走
mou5 haai4 waan5 kek6 zau2
When there are no shoes, grab the clogs and runTo flee a tense/ awkward situation as quickly as possible
濕水炮仗
sap1 seoi2 paau3 zoeng6
A damp firecrackerUseless; someone who has a calm demeanor and does not lose their cool.
畫隻耳上牆
waa2 zek3 ji5 soeng5 coeng4
Draw an ear on the wallWords that are dismissed as insignificant and advice that is ignored
摸門釘
mo2 mun4 deng1
To scrape the doornailsGoing to see someone but not being able to find them at home, or arranging a meeting but not being able to find them.
死雞撐飯蓋
sei2 gai1 caang1 faan6 goi3
Using a dead chicken to push back the cooking-pot lidTo fight till one's last breath, refusing to recognize one's mistake
炒魷魚
caau2 jau4 jyu4
To stir-fry squidTo dismiss an employee
劏白鶴
tong1 baak6 hok6
To slaughter a white craneTo vomit; Throw up
風扇底傾偈
fung1 sin3 dai2 king1 gai2
Talking under a fanSaying something impolite about other people's faults or misfortunes, without regard for others' feelings
風吹雞蛋殼
fung1 ceoi1 gai1 daan2 hok3
Windbreaks an eggshellYou don't have to be concerned about losing money. Be at ease in the face of adversity.
冇掩雞籠
mou5 jim2 gai1 lung4
A doorless chicken coopA location where you are free to come and go as you choose.
籠裏雞作反
lung4 lei5 gai1 zok3 faan2
The chickens are fighting inside the coopInternal dissension, a schism, factional strife; internal infighting
貼錯門神
tip3 co3 mun4 san4
To paste up the door gods wronglyTo become unpleasant, confrontational, and obnoxious (since the door gods are normally pasted up so that they face each other, but if put up wrongly they face away from each other).
樹大有枯枝
syu6 daai6 jau5 fu1 zi1
A big tree has some dead branchesIn every group, there are good and bad people

 

Learn The Cantonese Language Now

Cantonese proverbs are just one of the interesting things in the Cantonese language. There's so much to discover and learn. So, if you want to learn more Cantonese but don't know how to start, Ling App is the perfect tool for you.

Ling App is a language learning platform that helps learners like you learn their desired language, like Cantonese. The Cantonese language is indeed one of the challenging Asian languages to learn, but Ling App's features help you develop the skills that are essential in learning. It has fun mini-games to learn and practice vocabulary, dialogues to practice your speaking skills, and even grammar explanations to help you understand structure.

Backed with linguistic research and made by actual language experts, Ling App can surely help learners like you achieve their learning goals in record time. So, start your first Cantonese lesson with Ling App now!

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