Chinese idioms about laboring towards success
When striving towards a better job, or bringing up a family you may need a proverb to keep yourself determined for the long haul towards success.
pull awl prick thigh
Pricking your thigh with an awl
Study hard with great determination. An awl is a sharp pointed tool for making holes in wood. The story is from the Three Character classic which tells how Su Qin of the Han dynasty pricked himself in the thigh to keep himself awake and alert for study. Used as a parent or teacher's encouragement for children to study diligently.
Hit the books
grind pestle accomplish needle
Grinding an iron pestle down to a needle
Patiently setting about a great, lengthy task step by step. Anything can be achieved with a firm resolve,
Little strokes fell great oaks
mountain no turn road turn
A mountain cannot turn, but a road can
It is not necessary to continue in the same direction, there are other alternatives to avoid an obstacle
There's more than one way to skin a cat
have money can send devil push grindstone
If you have money you can make the devil push a grind stone
Money can buy you anything
grief weapons certainly victory
A vengeful army will certainly win
Strong emotion galvanizes effort
speak arrive make arrive
Say and then make
Do what one says
Actions speak louder than words
one attend honor
Honored from a single glance
Honored by a visit of someone distinguished who is showing an interest. A passport to getting on in social circles. The story is that a expert of horse was persuaded to give a mere glance at a horse that was for sale and by so doing its price rose enormously in value.
jade not polished not accomplish gem
Jade requires fashioning to turn into a gem
Training and discipline are needed to build character
mirror flower water moon
Flowers in a mirror and the moon in water
Beautiful but unattainable dreams. Unrealistic ambitions
Meng mother three moves
Mencius? mother moved house three times
It's important to spend time getting things just right for your children's education. The famous story is of Mencius (Mengzi) the second sage of Confucian philosophy. To ensure she had chosen the best possible location for her son's education she is reputed to have moved house three times. The legend is mentioned in the three character classic.
iron pestle produce needle
Grind an iron rod down to a needle
Perseverance can achieve anything
sweep dust again come
Sweeping off the dust and trying again
Making a comeback after a setback - determined to have another go. Like getting back on a horse after being thrown off.
Dust yourself off and start all over again
water drip stone penetrate
Dripping water eventually wears away stone
If you persevere, you will eventually achieve your goal
Mighty oaks from little acorns grow
to work diligently to forget food
Working so hard as to forget to eat
Concentrating on work so much that appetite is forgotten. Implication that work is interesting rather than drudgery.
not fear road long only fear aspire short
Not fear a long road; fear aspiration to start
Do not be afraid of a long road to success only be afraid of a shortage of ambition
Rome was not built in a day
one stride reach heaven
Approach heaven with a single stride
An attempt to achieve a goal all in one go without hard work
Rome was not built in a day
50 pace smile 100 pace
Fifty steps laugh at a hundred steps
Being complacent about the future. Believing a job is all but done when only half done.
Pride comes before a fall
person heart no attain snake swallow elephant
A person's greed is like a snake that seeks to swallow an elephant
Greed is insatiable
old oyster grow pearl
An old oyster yields pearls
Remaining fit and healthy into old age, specifically can mean fathering children in advanced years.
There's many a good tune played on an old fiddle
have what not can
Anything not possible
Anything may be possible
work multiple times merit half
Work very hard for half the result
Work with care rather than speed
Less haste more speed
ant gnaw bone
Like ants gnawing at a bone
Dogged perseverance to achieve a long term end
half way but give-up
Give up half way through
To abandon work half done. Lacking determination to see the job through
Stick to your guns
phoenix hair unicorn horn
As rare as phoenix feathers and unicorn horns
Seeking the unobtainable
grant child thousand cash not like teach child one skill
Better to teach a child a skill than give money
Learning a new skill will pay dividends in the future
east mountain again rise
To rise again from the east mountain
Coming back after voluntary retirement into public life. Particularly for taking on high office after a long break away from all the action.
To make a comeback
tie clever tie resemble
Weave skillfully life like images
Produce an image remarkably true to life; highly skilled
Shu to attack surname Mo to defend
Shu attacks and Mo defends
Two opponents of equal skill. Back in the Spring and Autumn period the story goes that Gongshu Ban, a carpenter who had developed a new device to aid the attack of cities, was persuaded by the pacifist philosopher MoZi not to deploy it. Mozi was able to defend against any attack by Gongshu Ban giving stalemate.
Fighting to a standstill
single spear horse
A single spear and a single horse
Taking on a difficult task on your own
foolish man move mountain
The foolish old man who moved mountains
Anything can be achieved with persistence. The old story ➚ is that an old man wanted to move a mountain that blocked his path. Despite widespread cynicism he and his descendents gradually wore down the mountain. Mao Zedong used this proverb to persuade people that the seemingly impossible was achievable. One version of the story has the gods taking pity on the old man and removing the mountain with mighty powers
Go the extra mile
thousand mile's walk begin goto foot down
A long march starts from a single step
Perseverance will lead to eventual success
Mighty oaks from little acorns grow
world foreign peach source
The land of peach blossoms
A mythical land of peace and harmony. The story is of a hidden land that a fisherman found while trying to escape turmoil and war in the Qin dynasty. Try as he might he never found the land again.
Land of milk and honey
person heart separate belly
A person's heart is not discernible from looking just at the body
People are inscrutable. Do not judge by appearance
Don't judge a book by its cover
fly moth hurl fire
A moth throws itself into a flame
Heading for self destruction
Like a moth to a flame
stupid bird first fly early enter forest
A clumsy bird that flies first will get to the forest earlier
Starting early helps achieve success
The tortoise beats the hare. The early bird catches the worm
drip water penetrate stone
Dripping water can bore into stone
Long perseverance will win in the end, even stone wears away. Nothing is permanent
Keep on keeping on
person towards high place walk, water towards low place flow
A person moves up while water always trickles down
There is always room for improvement
Practice makes perfect
one idea lonely walk
Obstinately clinging to one's course
Acting dogmatically in pursuit of own objectives without regard to others. Dogged determination. Sometimes this approach is honorable and sometimes leads to ruin but it is the single-mindedness that is being admired.
completion lost one basket of earth
A new dam is left incomplete due to the lack of one basket of earth
See things through to the end
normal support has day think nothing day, noone support nothing time think has time
When rich there is time to think all day, when poor there is no time to think
When rich, you have time to dream, but do not dream of riches when you are poor
rabbit dog cook
Trusted helpers are dispensable once their job is done
Watch your back. Once the mission is accomplished you may be sacked
Outliving your usefulness
endure disgrace bear repetition
Enduring humiliations in line of duty
Willing to put up with disgrace and humiliation so that work can be done. Often applied to someone given a very difficult but important task.
Taking the flak
thick branch big leaf
A large branch with large leaves. Unable to draw in fine detail
Lack of attention to detail
not arrive Yellow River not die heart
Not giving up until one reaches the Yellow River
Keep going until you hit an insurmountable obstacle
He who hesitates is lost
from government get rich
Become a government official to get rich
Attain riches by working a government career
start heaven repel earth
To separate heaven from earth
The beginning of a great task. In one creation myth Pangu set about his momentous work by first separating heaven (yang) from earth (yin). An epic undertaking
To boldly go
broken pot sink boat
Smash the pots and sink the boats
A story ➚ at the fall of the Qin dynasty 207BCE tells of the general Xiang Yu who refused to accept possibility of retreat at the battle of Julu by burning the boats and smashing the cooking pots. So it means no going back whatever happens. Cutting off all possibility of retreat
Burning your boats
surrounded beast still struggle
A cornered beast continues to struggle
Desperate measures to keep going. To fight like a cornered animal.
A drowning man will clutch at a straw
see justice brave act
See the just cause and act on it
To see what is right and act with courage
one body is courage
Full of courage
Fearless, intrepid. A heroic disposition.
As bold as brass
Jing Wei fill ocean
Jingwei tries to fill up the ocean
Even the mythical bird Jing Wei will be unable to fill the oceans with pebbles. Facing a Herculean task. Determined against impossible odds. The story is of Jing Wei who was the daughter of Emperor Yan. A great typhoon came and killed her and she was then transformed into a bird. In revenge for her early death she determined to fill up the ocean by filling it with pebbles one by one.
A forlorn hope
metal stone become open
Even metal and stone can be pierced
Any difficulty can be overcome given time and commitment. The story is of the famous archer Xiong Quzi of the Zhou dynasty. At dusk he mistook a stone for a tiger and shot an arrow at it. In the morning he found his arrow had penetrated deep into the stone. This led to the idiom that with great skill and determination the apparently impossible can be achieved.
The difficult we do immediately; the impossible takes a little longer
do live no reason master pile up die also no merit
Working without obeying the boss will bring only hard work and no merit
Only work on what is needed to be done
ride wind break wave
Ride the winds and break the waves
To have high ambitions. The story is Zong Que who lived in southern China around 450CE. On his wedding day at the age of 14 (as was the tradition then) a group of bandits attacked the village. Zong Que fought them off almost single-handed. He was asked what was his future ambition and he replied that he wanted to 'ride the wind and break the waves'. He went on to be a leading general who helped maintain the peace in the region.
Man with a plan
chat what look easy
Talking makes look easy
Not as easy as it seemed
Easier said than done
bore hole steal light
Borrowing light through a hole in the wall
Using a hole in the wall to get light to be able to read with. Striving hard to study diligently. The story is of a boy from a poor family who could not afford to buy candles to study books with. Instead he bored a hole through to his neighbor's room that was well illuminated so he could then read.
not enter tiger den how get tiger cub
Without entering a tiger's den how can you hope to capture a tiger cub?
Great rewards require a great risk.
Fortune favors the brave. Nothing ventured, nothing gained
touch stone accomplish gold
Turn stone into gold
To turn something of little worth into something of great value
Improve beyond recognition
not fear slow come-near fear halt
Not fear slowing down; fear coming to a halt
Do not be afraid of slowing down as long as you keep going
A rolling stone gathers no moss
thousand mountain ten thousand rivers
Many mountains and many rivers
A long and arduous journey
contrary overturn push and knock
Carefully considering the words push and knock
Spending considerable time to get the words just right. Showing excessive concern on minor details. Said to be the story of an Tang dynasty official who could not choose whether 'knock' or 'push' was the appropriate word in a poem.
Slow but sure
thigh flesh return life
The thigh muscles have recovered
To get fit and become reinvigorated. The story is from the end of the Han dynasty after the battle of Guandu Zhi Zhan when Cao Cao beat Liu Bei. Liu Bei then fled t o Henan and took things easy. One day he noticed that he had become flabby particularly in his thighs so he realized he had to get fit again. He did so and eventually beat Cao Cao in battle.
Get fighting fit
small hole no mend big hole eat bitter
A small hole not mended in time will soon become a larger hole more difficult to mend
Do not put off taking action to put things right
A stitch in time saves nine
also step also walk fast
To follow in someone's footsteps
To imitate slavishly. The story is of a devoted pupil of Confucius, Yan Hui, who aped everything Confucius did including his walk. Pointless copying
leave village behind well
Leave one's own village
A stranger away from home
aspiration not can slow, time not can lose
Do not let your aspirations weaken; do not waste time
Keep hold of your hopes and dreams, waste no time in achieving them
Don't change horses midstream
一分耕耘, 一分收获 [一分耕耘一分收獲]
one part cultivation, one part harvest
Half growing the crop; half harvesting it.
Hard work is needed to achieve a good result. Can't expect a harvest without cultivating the crop.
Hard work never did anyone any harm
on earth not have no cause for love also not have no cause for hate
There is no love without a reason there is no hate without a cause
There is a reason behind all strong emotions
towards ocean excitement sigh
Consider one?s competance before the ocean
To feel inadequate to perform a great task. Feel misgivings before a big endeavor. The story is of the river god of the Huanghe caused a great flood that made the river a mile wide but when it met the sea it was overcome with relative inadequacy.
reputation chicken rise dance
Begin at cock?s crow
Keen to begin a task even at daybreak. Diligent in action, losing no time.
The early bird catches the worm
health strength walk
To maintain health by strenuous walk
Following the advice given oneself
Practise what you preach
ambition exist four directions
Having high ambition
Willing to travel far and wide to achieve aims. Aspiring to achieve great things in life.
thousand tries one completed
Thousand tries, one success
An expression of modesty when accounting for success. Discounting skill and perseverance as just a lucky break.
concentrate mind devote ambition
Study hard to achieve ambitions
An admonishment to encourage full concentration in order to study effectively and so achieve ambitions.
one stride one footprint
Every step leaves a footprint
Work steadily one step at a time in order to make solid progress
Rome was not built in a day
words still exist ear
Words still ringing in one?s ears
Still fresh in the mind. Keeping hold of a recent command or argument. Staying true to purpose.
hundred bend not scratch
Not to falter despite many setbacks
Persistence pays off in the end
Patience is a virtue
abandon sleep forget eat
To forget to sleep and eat
To be absorbed in work and study
according to picture search thoroughbred horse
Choosing a fine horse using only a picture
Following a rigid framework to carry out a task. Using standard rules to achieve something or discover something. Knowing and following the basic principles.
situation as if split bamboo
Like splitting bamboo
Continuing a successful series. Once you get the knack of splitting bamboo it's best to keep on going. The story is of a general who was advised to rest his army for the winter after a series of successes. The general disagreed, his army had high morale and went on to complete the victory.
Don't stop while you are winning
Cheng door stand snow
Standing at Cheng?s door in the snow
Showing great respect for someone - usually a teacher or scholar. The story is that a great scholar accidentally left two students waiting for him for hours out in the snow.
establish awl's place
A place to stick an awl
A very small piece of property. Often said of someone who has fallen on hard times and has only a very small place to live or just to describe a very small space.
No space to swing a cat
gather armpit accomplish fur coat
A fur coat can be made from poor scraps
Make do with what you have
Beggars can't be choosers
great swan 's aspiration
The aspirations of a great swan
Having unrealistic ambitions.
Wish for the moon
mature can produce skill
Learning a skill from long experience
With long practice one can learn any skill. Sometimes used disparagingly of a skill anyone can learn given enough time.
Practice makes perfect
horse hide wrap corpse
Wrapping the body in horsehide
A wish to die in action on the battlefield. A heroic wish to serve until death.
With all guns blazing
day take continue
Day and night continuously
Working without a break. Exhausted
no avail toil no result
Pointless effort that will achieve nothing.
A fool's errand
Kua Fu chase after sun
Kua Fu chasing the sun
Pride leading to attempting the impossible. Over confidence in skills. Over-arching ambition. The story is of a giant called Kua Fu who was immensely strong and swift. He attempted to chase the sun but in so doing became so hot he died from thirst that could not be quenched. A similar tale to Icarus flying too close to the sun.
Pride comes before a fall
after raise him refined
Promising young talent
Said of someone showing talent at an early age.
He/she will go far
start book exist benefit
Reading is always beneficial
There is always something new to be learned from books. An admonishment to keep on studying and learning.
Feed one's mind
disobey border go out person ability
Rebellion creates capability
Hardship and adversity foster talent
If life deals you lemons, make lemonade
you die I live
Fight to the death
To fight to the bitter end
permit mind/heart respond hand
Hand and mind in harmony
Things moving smoothly and naturally. Heart and mind working together with hands to achieve a task.
Our proverbs come with full information. The modern Chinese characters are given first with links that give information on the character. As proverbs are so old you will often see them written using the traditional form of characters; so if of the characters have been simplified the phrase is shown in brackets and gray text. . The characters are followed by the proverb (Chengyu) in pinyin. Next, there is a crude character by character transliteration into English, followed by a more accurate English translation. If this is a Chinese proverb alluding to history the meaning may still not be clear in English, so the general meaning follows. Finally some proverbs have fairly direct English equivalents, if so the English proverb is shown.
Our translations are in need of improvement, so please let us know your ideas. For background on the types and history of proverbs please see our guide.