Chinese idioms about laboring towards success

China motif

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 some of the characters have been simplified the traditional form is shown in brackets and gray text. The characters are followed by the proverb (normally a chéng yǔ) 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.

For background on the types and history of proverbs please see our guide.

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.

Āi bīng bì shèng
A vengeful army will certainly win
Strong emotion galvanizes effort.
Bàn tú ér fèi
Give up half way through
To abandon work half done. Lacking determination to see the job through.
Roughly equivalent to: Stick to your guns.
Bèn niǎo xiān fēi zǎo rù lín
A clumsy bird that flies first will get to the forest earlier
Starting early helps achieve success.
Roughly equivalent to: The tortoise beats the hare. The early bird catches the worm.
Bù dào Huáng hé bù sǐ xīn
Not giving up until one reaches the Yellow River
Keep going until you hit an insurmountable obstacle.
Roughly equivalent to: He who hesitates is lost.
Bù pà lù cháng zhǐ pà zhì duǎn
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.
Roughly equivalent to: Rome was not built in a day.
, [常將有日思無日莫將無旹想有旹]
Cháng jiāng yǒu sī wú rì, mò jiāng wú shí xiǎng yǒu shí
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.
Cì zǐ qiān jīn bù rú jiào zǐ
Better to teach a child a skill than give money
Learning a new skill will pay dividends in the future.
Cū zhī
A large branch with large leaves. Unable to draw in fine detail
Lack of attention to detail.
Dān qiāng pǐ mǎ
A single spear and a single horse
Taking on a difficult task on your own.
蛾投 [飛蛾投火]
Fēi é tóu huǒ
A moth throws itself into a flame
Heading for self destruction.
Roughly equivalent to: Like a moth to a flame.
Fèng máo lín jiǎo
As rare as phoenix feathers and unicorn horns
Seeking the unobtainable.
Gōng kuī kuì
A new dam is left incomplete due to the lack of one basket of earth
See things through to the end.
Jìng huā shuǐ yuè
Flowers in a mirror and the moon in water
Beautiful but unattainable dreams. Unrealistic ambitions.
Shanghai, The Bund
Historical buildings on Shanghai's famous Bund
蚂蚁啃骨 [螞蟻啃骨頭]
Mǎ yǐ kěn gǔ tou
Like ants gnawing at a bone
Dogged perseverance to achieve a long term end.
Pò fǔ chén zhōu
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.
Roughly equivalent to: Burning your boats.
Qiān lǐ zhī xíng shǐ yú zú xià
A long march starts from a single step
Perseverance will lead to eventual success.
Roughly equivalent to: Mighty oaks from little acorns grow.
Rén wǎng gāo chù zǒu, shuǐ wǎng dī chù liú
A person moves up while water always trickles down
There is always room for improvement.
Roughly equivalent to: Practice makes perfect.
Rén xīn bù zú shé tūn xiàng
A person's greed is like a snake that seeks to swallow an elephant
Greed is insatiable.
Rén xīn gé dù pí
A person's heart is not discernible from looking just at the body
People are inscrutable. Do not judge by appearance.
Roughly equivalent to: Don't judge a book by its cover.
Shān bù zhuǎn lù zhuǎn
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.
Roughly equivalent to: There's more than one way to skin a cat.
Shì bèi gōng bàn
Work very hard for half the result
Work with care rather than speed.
Roughly equivalent to: Less haste more speed.
Shuǐ dī shí chuān
Dripping water eventually wears away stone
If you persevere, you will eventually achieve your goal.
Roughly equivalent to: Mighty oaks from little acorns grow.
Shuō daò zuò daò
Say and then make
Do what one says.
Roughly equivalent to: Actions speak louder than words.
Tiě chǔ chéng zhēn
Grind an iron rod down to a needle
Perseverance can achieve anything.
Tù sǐ gǒu pēng
Trusted helpers are dispensable once their job is done
Watch your back. Once the mission is accomplished you may be sacked.
Roughly equivalent to: Outliving your usefulness.
Wéi miaò wéi xiaò
Weave skillfully life like images
Produce an image remarkably true to life; highly skilled.
Shanghai, railway station, crowd
Shanghai Railway station
shí bù xiào bǎi
Fifty steps laugh at a hundred steps
Being complacent about the future. Believing a job is all but done when only half done.
Roughly equivalent to: Pride comes before a fall.
bù dēng tiān
Approach heaven with a single stride
An attempt to achieve a goal all in one go without hard work.
Roughly equivalent to: Rome was not built in a day.
Yǒu hé bù kě
Anything not possible
Anything may be possible.
Yǒu qián néng shǐ guǐ tuī mò
If you have money you can make the devil push a grind stone
Money can buy you anything.
Yù bù zhuó bù chén qì
Jade requires fashioning to turn into a gem
Training and discipline are needed to build character.
Yú gōng yí shān
The foolish old man who moved mountains
Anything can be achieved with persistence. The famous 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 their magical powers.
Roughly equivalent to: Go the extra mile.
输攻墨守 [輸攻墨守]
Shū gōng mò shǒu
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 had developed a new device to attack cities. He was persuaded by the pacifist philosopher Mo Zi not to deploy it. Mo Zi was able to defend against any attack by Gongshu Ban leading to stalemate.
Roughly equivalent to: Fighting to a standstill.
忍辱负 [忍辱負重]
Rěn rǔ fù zhòng
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.
Roughly equivalent to: Taking the flak.
Shì wài táo yuán
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.
Roughly equivalent to: Land of milk and honey.
Juǎn tǔ chóng lái
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.
Roughly equivalent to: Dust yourself off and start all over again.
gù zhī róng
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 horse expert was persuaded to give a mere glance at a horse that was for sale and by so doing its price rose enormously in value.
Mó chǔ chéng zhēn
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,
Roughly equivalent to: Little strokes fell great oaks.
yì gū xíng
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.
Roughly equivalent to: Steely-eyed.
Shanghai, bridge, road, cityscape
The Nanpu bridge at Shanghai
Lǎo bàng shēng zhū
An old oyster yields pearls
Remaining fit and healthy into old age, specifically can mean fathering children in advanced years.
Roughly equivalent to: There's many a good tune played on an old fiddle.
Fā fèn wàng shí
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.
Kāi tiān pì dì
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.
Roughly equivalent to: To boldly go.
引锥刺股 [引錐刺股]
Yǐn zhuī cì gǔ
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.
Roughly equivalent to: Hit the books.
Dī shuǐ chuān shí
Dripping water can bore into stone
Long perseverance will win in the end, even stone wears away. Nothing is permanent.
Roughly equivalent to: Keep on keeping on.
Zǒu guān fā cái
Become a government official in order to become rich
Attain riches by work in government.
Dōng shān zài qǐ
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.
Roughly equivalent to: To make a comeback.
Mèng mǔ sān qiān
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.
Bù pà màn jiù pà zhàn
Not fear slowing down; fear coming to a halt
Do not be afraid of slowing down as long as you keep going.
Roughly equivalent to: A rolling stone gathers no moss.
Bù rù hǔ xué yān dé hǔ zǐ
Without entering a tiger's den how can you hope to capture a tiger cub?
Great rewards require a great risk.
Roughly equivalent to: Fortune favors the brave. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.
Diǎn shí chéng jīn
Turn stone into gold
To turn something of little worth into something of great value.
Roughly equivalent to: Improve beyond recognition.
Bǎi zhé bù náo
Not to falter despite many setbacks
Persistence pays off in the end.
Roughly equivalent to: Patience is a virtue.
Nì jìng chū rén cái
Rebellion creates capability
Hardship and adversity foster talent.
Roughly equivalent to: If life deals you lemons, make lemonade.
Xinjiang, landscape, desert
Desert landforms in a desert region of Xinjiang

See also