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.

[讀万卷書不如行万里路]
wàn juǎn shū bù rú xíng wàn lǐ lù
Reading ten thousand books is not the same as walking a thousand miles
Learn from practical experience not from books.
[孟母三遷]
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.
罔,[學而不思則罔思而不學則殆]
Xué ér bù sī zé wǎng, sī ér bù xué zé dài
Learning without thinking means wasted work; thinking without learning is dangerous
Studying hard is important and gives rewards.
骆驼比 [瘦死的駱駝比馬大]
Shòu sǐ de luò tuo bǐ mǎ
The body of a starved camel is bigger than the body of a living horse.
Respect ancient wisdom rather than the new.
囫囵吞枣 [囫圇吞棗]
Hú lún tūn zǎo
Swallow a date along with its stone
To read something without fully understanding it.
Roughly equivalent to: None the wiser.
Yù bù zhuó bù chén qì
Jade requires fashioning to turn into a gem
Training and discipline are needed to build character.
Niàn niàn bù wàng
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.
Rú zǐ kě jiào
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.
,
dēng lóng mén shēn jià shí bèi
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.
, [十年樹木百年樹人]
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.
[溫故而知新]
Wēn gù ér zhī xīn
Study the past and yet know the present
Studying the past helps to understand the present.
[名落孫山]
Míng luò sūn shān
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.
[子不教父之過]
Zǐ bù jiào fù zhī guò
A father is responsible for his son's conduct
Parents are responsible for their children's education.
Diamond Sutra, image_bookcover, printing
A page from the oldest known printed book - the Diamond Sutra, discovered near Dunhuang by Sir Marc Aurel Stein in 1907.
British Library, London
Image available under a Creative Commons license
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.
急,授 [授人以魚只解一旹之急授人以漁則解一生之需]
Shòu rén zhǐ jiù shí zhī jí, shòu rén yǐ yú zé jiě yī shēng zhī xū
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.
, [學好三年學壞三天]
Xué hǎo sān nián, xué huài sān tiān
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.
[賜子千金不如教子一藝]
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.
严师[嚴師出高徒]
Yán shī chū gāo tú
Strict teachers produce successful students
Strict discipline is needed to teach effectively.
Roughly equivalent to: Spare the rod and spoil the child.
[青出于藍而勝于藍]
Qīng chū yú lán ér shèng yú lán
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.
Rù mù sān fēn
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.
[金石為開]
Jīn shí wéi kāi
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.
qì wǎn chéng
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.
[天衣無縫]
Tiān yī wú fèng
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.
,,[我看見我忘記我听見我記住我做我了解]
Wǒ kàn jiàn wǒ wàng jì, wǒ tīng jiàn wǒ jì zhù, wǒ zuò wǒ liǎo jiě
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.
Bù bù gāo shēng
Step by step promotion
Congratulation on promotion or a new job.
凿璧偷 [鑿璧偸光]
Zuò bì tōu guāng
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.
Temple of Heaven, Beijing, PKChina-19
Temple of Heaven, Beijing. September 2019. Image by Paul Kerswill
Shú néng shēng qiǎo
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.
糊涂 [難得糊涂]
Nan dé hú tu
Too hard to understand
Where ignorance is bliss, it is folly to be wise.
[學無止境]
Xué wú zhǐ jìng
There is no limit to learning
Knowledge is infinite.
释卷 [手不釋卷]
Shǒu bù shì juàn
Always have a book in hand
A diligent student engrossed in study.
Roughly equivalent to: Book worm.
[差強人意]
Chā qiáng rén
Just passable
Just about good enough an effort. Someone showing minimum of commitment to meet a goal. Barely satisfactory.
Roughly equivalent to: Swinging the lead.
[聞雞起舞]
Wén jī qǐ wǔ
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.
[亦步亦趨]
Yì bù yì qū
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.
[一字之師]
zì zhī shī
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.
废寝 [廢寑忘食]
Fèi qǐn wàng shí
To forget to sleep and eat
To be absorbed in work and study.
耕耘, 收获 [一分耕耘一分收獲]
fēn gēng yún, yī fēn shōu huò
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.
[開卷有益]
Kāi juàn yǒu yì
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.
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 (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.

See also