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.
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.
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 tests with flying colors the old man gave him a book on military strategy and Zhang became a leading military strategist.
A euphemism for failing an examination. The story is that Sun Shan and a 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.
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.
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.
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 give light to study books. Instead he bored a hole through to his neighbor's room that was well illuminated so he could then read.
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.
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.
Fèi qǐn wàng shí
To forget to sleep and eat
To be engrossed in work and study.
Nan dé hú tu
Too hard to understand
Where ignorance is bliss, it is folly to be wise.
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.
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.
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.
Just about good enough an effort. Someone showing minimum of commitment to meet a goal. Barely satisfactory.
Roughly equivalent to: Swinging the lead.
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.
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 成语 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.
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