Chinese idioms about education and training

A selection of proverbs about the importance of learning and studying hard to do well in examinations.

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 [shou ren yi yu zhi jiu yi shi zhi ji, shou ren yi yu ze jie yi sheng zhi xu]
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
[孟母三遷]
Mèng mǔ sān qiān [meng mu san qian]
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.
[青出于藍而勝于藍]
Qīng chū yú lán ér shèng yú lán [qing chu yu lan er sheng yu lan]
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.
引锥刺股 [引錐刺股]
Yǐn zhuī cì gǔ [yin zhui ci gu]
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
Niàn niàn bù wàng [nian nian bu wang]
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
严师[嚴師出高徒]
Yán shī chū gāo tú [yan shi chu gao tu]
strict teacher produce high student
Strict teachers produce successful students
Strict discipline is needed to teach effectively
Spare the rod and spoil the child
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 [xue er bu si ze wang, si er bu xue ze dai]
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
Rú zǐ kě jiào [ru zi ke jiao]
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.
,
dēng lóng mén shēn jià shí bèi [yi deng long men shen jia shi bei]
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.
[賜子千金不如教子一藝]
Cì zǐ qiān jīn bù rú jiào zǐ [ci zi qian jin bu ru jiao zi yi yi]
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
[讀万卷書不如行万里路]
wàn juǎn shū bù rú xíng wàn lǐ lù [du wan juan shu bu ru xing wan li lu]
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
骆驼比 [瘦死的駱駝比馬大]
Shòu sǐ de luò tuo bǐ mǎ [shou si de luo tuo bi ma da]
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
Yù bù zhuó bù chén qì [yu bu zhuo bu chen qi]
jade not polished not accomplish gem
Jade requires fashioning to turn into a gem
Training and discipline are needed to build character
Yuan Shikai, republic
President Yuan Shih-kai of China. Source: The World's Work, 1915 . Available under a Creative Commons license .
[名落孫山]
Míng luò sūn shān [ming luo sun shan]
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.
[子不教父之過]
Zǐ bù jiào fù zhī guò [zi bu jiao fu zhi guo]
child no teach father's past
A father is responsible for his son's conduct
Parents are responsible for their children's education
[溫故而知新]
Wēn gù ér zhī xīn [wen gu er zhi xin]
revise ancient but know new
Study the past and yet know the present
Studying the past helps to understand the present
, [十年樹木百年樹人]
Shí nián shù mù, bǎi nián shù rén [shi nian shu mu, bai nian shu ren]
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
囫囵吞枣 [囫圇吞棗]
Hú lún tūn zǎo [hu lun tun zao]
whole all swallow date
Swallow a date along with its stone
To read something without fully understanding it
None the wiser
, [學好三年學壞三天]
Xué hǎo sān nián, xué huài sān tiān [xue hao san nian, xue huai san tian]
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
qì wǎn chéng [da qi wan cheng]
large utensil late complete
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.
Rome was not built in a day
凿璧偷 [鑿璧偸光]
Zuò bì tōu guāng [zuo bi tou guang]
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.
[金石為開]
Jīn shí wéi kāi [jin shi wei kai]
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
[天衣無縫]
Tiān yī wú fèng [tian yi wu feng]
heaven clothes not seam
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.
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 [wo kan jian wo wang ji, wo ting jian wo ji zhu, wo zuo wo liao jie]
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
Bù bù gāo shēng [bu bu gao sheng]
step step tall ascend
Step by step promotion
Congratulation on promotion or a new job
Rù mù sān fēn [ru mu san fen]
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.
Shanghai, The Bund
Historical buildings on Shanghai's famous Bund
Shú néng shēng qiǎo [shu neng sheng qiao]
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
糊涂 [難得糊涂]
Nan dé hú tu [nan de hu tu]
difficult achieve bewildered
Too hard to understand
Where ignorance is bliss, it is folly to be wise
[亦步亦趨]
Yì bù yì qū [yi bu yi qu]
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
A copycat
释卷 [手不釋卷]
Shǒu bù shì juàn [shou bu shi juan]
hand not release book
Always have a book in hand
A diligent student engrossed in study.
Book worm
[學無止境]
Xué wú zhǐ jìng [xue wu zhi jing]
learn nothing stop border
There is no limit to learning
Knowledge is infinite
[聞雞起舞]
Wén jī qǐ wǔ [wen ji qi wu]
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
[一字之師]
zì zhī shī [yi zi zhi shi]
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
废寝 [廢寑忘食]
Fèi qǐn wàng shí [fei qin wang shi]
abandon sleep forget eat
To forget to sleep and eat
To be absorbed in work and study
[差強人意]
Chā qiáng rén [cha qiang ren yi]
difference slightly better person idea
Just passable
Just about good enough an effort. Someone showing minimum of commitment to meet a goal. Barely satisfactory.
Swinging the lead
耕耘, 收获 [一分耕耘一分收獲]
fēn gēng yún, yī fēn shōu huò [yi fen geng yun, yi fen shou huo]
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
[開卷有益]
Kāi juàn yǒu yì [kai juan you yi]
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
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 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.