Chinese idioms about education and training
A selection of proverbs about the importance of learning and studying hard to do well in the all important examinations.
Reading ten thousand books is not the same as walking a thousand miles
Learn from practical experience not from books.
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.
Learning without thinking means wasted work; thinking without learning is dangerous
Studying hard is important and gives rewards.
The body of a starved camel is bigger than the body of a living horse.
Respect ancient wisdom rather than the new.
Swallow a date along with its stone
To read something without fully understanding it.
Roughly equivalent to: None the wiser.
Jade requires fashioning to turn into a gem
Training and discipline are needed to build character.
Do not neglect your studies. Ponder on problems
Study hard. Keep thinking about a problem.
Roughly equivalent to: Where there's a will, there's a way.
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.
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.
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.
Study the past and yet know the present
Studying the past helps to understand the present.
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.
A father is responsible for his son's conduct
Parents are responsible for their children's education.
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.
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]
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.
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.
Roughly equivalent to: The road to hell is paved with good intentions.
Better to teach a child a skill than give money
Learning a new skill will pay dividends in the future.
Strict teachers produce successful students
Strict discipline is needed to teach effectively.
Roughly equivalent to: Spare the rod and spoil the child.
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.
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.
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.
Roughly equivalent to: The difficult we do immediately; the impossible takes a little longer.
Large vessels take longer to complete
It takes a long time and great care to make something worthwhile. An admonishment to persevere in studies or work. Often used to describe late developing talent.
Roughly equivalent to: Rome was not built in a day.
Heavenly robe without seams
A perfect result, clothes so well made that the seams cannot be seen. Used to describe an excellent piece of work - especially an essay or speech.
Roughly equivalent to: Ticks all the boxes.
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.
Roughly equivalent to: Practise what you preach.
Step by step promotion
Congratulation on promotion or a new job.
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.
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.
Roughly equivalent to: Practice makes perfect.
Too hard to understand
Where ignorance is bliss, it is folly to be wise.
There is no limit to learning
Knowledge is infinite.
Always have a book in hand
A diligent student engrossed in study.
Roughly equivalent to: Book worm.
Just about good enough an effort. Someone showing minimum of commitment to meet a goal. Barely satisfactory.
Roughly equivalent to: Swinging the lead.
Begin at cock's crow
Keen to begin a task even at daybreak. Diligent in action, losing no time.
Roughly equivalent to: The early bird catches the worm.
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.
Roughly equivalent to: A copycat.
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.
Roughly equivalent to: A finishing touch.
To forget to sleep and eat
To be absorbed in work and study.
一分耕耘, 一分收获 [一分耕耘一分收獲]
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.
Roughly equivalent to: Hard work never did anyone any harm.
Reading is always beneficial
There is always something new to be learned from books. An admonishment to keep on studying and learning.
Roughly equivalent to: 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. 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 (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.