Chinese idioms about patience and perseverance

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 (normally a 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.

A set of proverbs, sayings and idioms to help you cope stoically with life's ups and downs. Perseverance and restraint are the common themes in this large collection.

Bái shǒu qǐ jiā
Empty hand make house
To build up something from nothing.
尺, [冰凍三尺非一日之寒]
Bīng dòng sān chǐ, fēi zhī hán
Three feet of ice is not formed in a single day
It takes time to achieve satisfactory results.
Roughly equivalent to: Rome was not built in a day.
, [常將有日思無日莫將無旹想有旹]
Cháng jiāng yǒu sī wú rì, mò jiāng wú shí xiǎng yǒu shí
When rich there is time to think all day, when poor there is no time to think
When rich, you have time to dream, but do not dream of riches when you are poor.
Chī ruǎn bù chī yìng
Only able to chew tender food, not the tough
Unable to withstand harsh criticism.
Fù shuǐ nán shōu
Spilled water can not be recovered
What is done is done. The situation can not be restored to how it once was.
Roughly equivalent to: There's no use crying over spilt milk.
,祸 [福無重至旤不單行]
Fú wú chóng zhì, huò bú dān xíng
Blessings come along alone; troubles often come together
Bad fortune is more frequent than good.
Roughly equivalent to: Ill fortune comes in threes.
Hǎi nà bǎi chuān
All rivers run to the sea
We all share a common destiny.
Hǎo mǎ bù chī huí tóu cǎo
A good horse will not eat the grass behind it
Pride may forbid a person going back to his home town after failure. Do not dwell on past actions, progress forward.
Huò bù dān xíng
Disasters do not walk alone
Misfortunes tend to come all at once.
Roughly equivalent to: When it rains, it pours.
Jī bù zé shí
When hungry don't care what you eat
The starving aren't fussy over their food - take whatever is available.
Roughly equivalent to: Beggars can't be choosers.
Jié zú xiān dēng
The winning foot is the first to climb
To succeed need to start off first.
Roughly equivalent to: The early bird catches the worm.
Liú dé qīng shān zài, bù pà méi chái shāo
So long as the green mountains are preserved, there will be no shortage of firewood
Do not despair, there is plenty of time and opportunity.
Roughly equivalent to: Everything comes to him who waits.
Mù yǐ chéng zhōu
The tree has been made into a boat
Too late to change anything.
Roughly equivalent to: What's done is done.
foot binding
This is a pair of Chinese lady’s shoes for bound feet. They are very small as the ideal length for a bound foot was seven and a half centimeters. Shoes for bound feet were called foot-binding shoes and lotus slippers in many non-Chinese communities. They are referred to by a variety of names in China and Chinese literature. These include gongxie (arched shoes), xiuxie (embroidered slippers), jin lian (gilded lilies) and san cun jin lian (three inch golden lily/lotus). Object description: These are lotus shoes with a triangular sole. They are made of bright red and blue cotton and cream silk. Elaborate designs of dragons and flowers are embroidered on the silk. The blue panel at the top has white and green satin stitching along its length. The heel is covered in green fabric. History: Foot binding was a custom practiced in China and occurred during the Song Dynasty ( 960-1279 AD), over a thousand years ago. Small feet were greatly admired in China. To ensure that a young girl’s feet did not grow, her feet were usually bound after she was four years old. It was done with a stout bandage, the bandage being tightened daily after removal. The bound foot never ceased to cause pain while the woman walked. In 1911 this practice was banned by the Chinese government. Photo by Queensland Museum , available under a Creative Commons license .
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.
碎, [宁為玉碎不為瓦全]
Nìng wéi yù suì, bù wéi wǎ quán
Don't be a proud piece of broken jade, be a complete tile
Stand up against enemies do not give in. Keep your integrity and stand firm.
Roughly equivalent to: Fall on your sword.
藕断 [藕斷絲連]
Oǔ duàn sī lián
Although the lotus root may be cut, its fibered threads are still connected
Friendship survives adversity.
Qí hǔ nán xià
When on a tiger's back, it is hard to dismount
When taking risks you have to live with the consequences, it is difficult to back out.
Roughly equivalent to: He who sups with the Devil should have a long spoon.
塞翁, [塞翁失馬安知非福]
Sài wēng shī mǎ, ān zhī fēi fú
When the old man from the frontier lost his horse; how could he have known that it would not be fortuitous?
The story is that a man lost his horse but actually it went over the Great Wall and brought back several horses with it. A setback may turn out to be a blessing in disguise.
Roughly equivalent to: Every cloud has a silver lining.
Shān bù zhuǎn lù zhuǎn
A mountain cannot turn, but a road can
It is not necessary to continue in the same direction, there are other alternatives to avoid an obstacle.
Roughly equivalent to: There's more than one way to skin a cat.
Shēng mǐ zhǔ chéng shú fàn
The rice has already been cooked
What has been done can not be undone.
Roughly equivalent to: What's done is done.
Shù yù jìng ěr fēng bù zhǐ
The trees prefer calm, but the wind does not stop
In spite of a wish for peace, trouble is brewing. Things develop regardless of how you might wish. Powerless to influence outcome.
Shuǐ mǎn zé yì
Water rises only to overflow
At the point of a crisis. Things are about to turn around.
Roughly equivalent to: The tide is on the turn.
宴席 [天下沒有不散的宴席]
Tiān xià méi yǒu bù sàn de yàn xí
No banquet in the world goes on forever
Good fortune can not last for ever.
Roughly equivalent to: All good things must come to an end.
揠苗助 [揠苗助長]
Yà miáo zhù zhǎng
Stretching young plants to make them grow
Be patient and let nature run its course.
Roughly equivalent to: Patience is a virtue.
Yè cháng mèng duō
The longer the night, the more dreams there will be
When in hard times it is foolish to merely dream of better things.
Roughly equivalent to: If wishes were horses, beggars would ride.
xiào jiě qiān chóu
One smile can erase a myriad worries
Keep cheerful against all the odds.
Roughly equivalent to: Keep your chin up.
banquet, Song dynasty
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 .
因噎废 [因噎廢食]
Yīn yè fèi shí
If is foolish to refuse to eat just because of the chance of choking
Life does not come without risks. Risk of failure is not an argument for not trying.
暮途 [日暮途窮]
mù tú qióng
The day is ending and the road narrows
The end game is upon us.
Roughly equivalent to: On last legs.
忍辱负 [忍辱負重]
Rěn rǔ fù zhòng
Enduring humiliations in line of duty
Willing to put up with disgrace and humiliation so that work can be done. Often applied to someone given a very difficult but important task.
Roughly equivalent to: Taking the flak.
Juǎn tǔ chóng lái
Sweeping off the dust and trying again
Making a comeback after a setback - determined to have another go. Like getting back on a horse after being thrown off.
Roughly equivalent to: Dust yourself off and start all over again.
苛政猛 [苛政猛於虎]
Kē zhèng měng yú hǔ
Tyranny is more terrible than tigers
The story is that Confucius met a woman near mount Taishan who was weeping bitterly. When asked, she said she had lost father-in-law, husband and son to marauding tigers. When Confucius asked why then she did not move to a safer village she replied that she was sheltering from a despotic government and would rather risk tigers than oppression. Evil government is the worst of evils.
Chī qiàn, cháng zhì
Fall into a pit but learn from the experience
Gain wisdom from experience of setbacks.
Roughly equivalent to: Learn from your mistakes.
Kǔ jìn gān lái
Bitterness over, happiness arrives. At the end of suffering comes relief
After troubles comes happiness.
Roughly equivalent to: The darkest hour is just before the dawn.
Lè jí shēng bēi
After pleasure comes sorrow
Wallowing in pleasure will lead to regrets afterwards. Restrain yourself or you'll regret it.
Wù jí bì fǎn
Extreme conditions will surely calm down
Things will turn around in the opposite direction when they reach the highest point.
Roughly equivalent to: The tide is on the turn.
补, [小洞不補大洞吃苦]
Xiǎo dòng bù bǔ, dòng chī kǔ
A small hole not mended in time will soon become a larger hole more difficult to mend
Do not put off taking action to put things right.
Roughly equivalent to: A stitch in time saves nine.
Jì wǎng bù jiù
It is pointless to blame past events
What is done is done. It is pointless to live a life of regret for things that can't be changed.
Roughly equivalent to: Forgive and forget.
Bié wú cháng wù
Having nothing to spare
In great poverty, possessing nothing other than the bare essentials.
Roughly equivalent to: The cupboard is bare.
Duō nàn xīng bāng
Many hardships can rejuvenate a nation
A calamity that may prompt a resurgence. An encouragement to continue striving in the hope that things will improve.
Roughly equivalent to: Hope springs eternal.
wuzhi coin, money, coin
A wide selection of different types of Chinese coins. Image provided by David Hartill
薪尝 [臥薪甞膽]
Wò xīn cháng dǎn
Lying on straw and tasting gall
Patiently suffering while plotting revenge or recovery. Sleeping rough and eating poor food while preparing for a comeback.
Roughly equivalent to: Harboring a grudge.
One morning and one evening
A short space of time. Something transient that will soon pass.
Roughly equivalent to: Over in a flash.
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.
Cū chá dàn fàn
On a starvation diet
Eat simple home-made food and yet be healthy.
Jié wài shēng zhī
Leaves emerge from where they should not
New problems pop up unexpectedly.
Lái fāng cháng
Long time ahead
There is adequate time to achieve your desires.
Roughly equivalent to: All things come to those who wait.
否极泰 [否極泰來]
Pǐ jí tài lái
At the extreme point of misfortune, good will surely arrive
When the situation reaches its lowest point it will then begin to improve.
Roughly equivalent to: The darkest hour is just before the dawn.
漏偏 [屋漏偏逢連夜雨]
Wū lòu piān féng lián yè
When the roof is leaking, there will be continuous nights of rain
Misfortunes tend to come all at once.
Roughly equivalent to: When it rains, it pours.
循序渐 [循序漸進]
Xún xù jiàn jìn
Make gradual progress one step at a time
To make steady step by step progress towards an end.
Roughly equivalent to: A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.
脚印 [一步一個腳印兒]
gè jiǎo yìnr
Every step leaves a footprint
Work steadily one step at a time in order to make solid progress.
Roughly equivalent to: Rome was not built in a day.
sī bù gǒu
To take care of every thread in a cloth
To be meticulous. To pay atttention to every detail.
Roughly equivalent to: If a job is worth doing it is worth doing well.
Nǐ sǐ wǒ huó
Fight to the death
To fight to the bitter end.

See also