Chinese idioms about education and training
A selection of proverbs about the importance of learning and studying hard to do well in examinations.
thin die camel compare horse big
The body of a starved camel is bigger than the body of a living horse.
Respect ancient wisdom rather than the new
revise ancient but know new
Study the past and yet know the present
Studying the past helps to understand the present
study study not neglect
Do not neglect your studies. Ponder on problems
Study hard. Keep thinking about a problem
Where there's a will there's a way
child no teach father's past
A father is responsible for his son's conduct
Parents are responsible for their children's education
indigo blue comes out foremost blue but excel foremost blue
Indigo is obtained from the indigo plant, but such color is bluer than the plant itself
Wise schooling has produced excellence beyond the teacher. The follower has surpassed the master.
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
read 10000 roll up book no like walk 10000 mile road
Reading ten thousand books is not the same as walking a thousand miles
Learn from practical experience not from books
as soon as ascend dragon gate status tenfold
By crossing the dragon gate, prestige rises ten-fold
Diligent study brings great rewards. The Dragon Gate is a dangerous gorge on the Yellow River. Success in the Imperial examinations was likened to a carp ascending the gorge. Passing the examinations greatly added to prestige.
place behind Sun Shan
Placed below Sun Shan
A euphemism for failing an examination. The story is that Sun Shan and an fellow townsman went to take the Imperial examinations. Sun Shan passed but was bottom of the list. When he went home he was asked by the father of his fellow townsman how his son had done in the exams. He replied that Sun Shan was bottom of the list and your son was below Sun Shan.
whole all swallow date
Swallow a date along with its stone
To read something without fully understanding it
None the wiser
strict teacher produce high student
Strict teachers produce successful students
Strict discipline is needed to teach effectively
Spare the rod and spoil the child
jade not polished not accomplish gem
Jade requires fashioning to turn into a gem
Training and discipline are needed to build character
ten year establish timber, hundred year establish person
It takes ten years for a tree to grow but it takes a hundred years for talents to be nurtured
Studying may be slow and arduous but will be worth it
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
study but no think rule deceive, think but no study rule dangerous
Learning without thinking means wasted work; thinking without learning is dangerous
Studying hard is important and gives rewards
授人以鱼只解一时之急,授人以渔 则解一生之需 [授人以魚只解一旹之急授人以漁則解一生之需]
award person use fish one explain once quick, award person use fishing standard separate one produce must
Give a fish and be fed for only a day. Teach how to fish and be free from hunger forever
It is important to learn a skill that will last for life
child permit teach
A student worth teaching
A promising youngster who is open to learning. The story is of Zhang Liang who had failed in an attempt to assassinate the first Qin Emperor and went into hiding. He came across a mysterious old man who set him a series of tests to judge his keenness to learn from him. After passing all the test the old man gave him a book on military strategy and Zhang became a leading military strategist.
study well three year, study bad three days
It takes three years to learn well; it takes only three days to degrade
Falling into bad ways is far easier than keeping to the good
The road to hell is paved with good intentions
I catch sight of I forget, I hear I remember, I do explained
When I see, I forget; when I hear, I remember but when I do, I understand.
You learn only by trying it, not by just observing or talking about it
Practise what you preach
An Elegant Party (detail), an outdoor painting of a small Chinese banquet hosted by the emperor for scholar-officials from the Song Dynasty (960-1279). Although painted in the Song period, it is most likely a reproduction of an earlier Tang Dynasty (618-907) work of art. The painting is attributed to Emperor Huizong of Song (r. 1100?1125 AD). Image by PericlesofAthens ➚ available under a Creative Commons license ➚.
step step tall ascend
Step by step promotion
Congratulation on promotion or a new job
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.
enter wood three parts
Inscribe wood to a depth of three measures
To write with such confidence that the wood is etched away to a good depth. So this means to write with a profound and forceful hand. The story is of the great calligrapher who produced some calligraphy so confidently written that the characters were etched by 3/10th of an inch.
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
difficult achieve bewildered
Too hard to understand
Where ignorance is bliss, it is folly to be wise
one word's teacher
A teacher of one word
Needing only a slight change to become perfect. Praise for work that is nearly perfect but requires an expert to complete. The story is of a poem that was greatly improved by a great poet changing just one character.
A finishing touch
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
learn nothing stop border
There is no limit to learning
Knowledge is infinite
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
hand not release book
Always have a book in hand
A diligent student engrossed in study.
abandon sleep forget eat
To forget to sleep and eat
To be absorbed in work and study
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
Our proverbs come with full information. The modern Chinese characters are given first with links that give information on the character. If the phrase uses traditional characters these are shown in brackets and gray text. As proverbs are so old you will often see them written in the old form. 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 included at the end.
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.
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