Chinese idioms about laboring towards success

When striving towards a better job, or bringing up a family you may need a proverb to keep yourself determined for the long haul towards success.

[捲土重來]
Juǎn tǔ chóng lái [juan tu chong lai]
sweep dust again come
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.
Dust yourself off and start all over again
[後起之秀]
Hòu qǐ zhī xiù [hou qi zhi xiu]
after raise him refined
Promising young talent
Said of someone showing talent at an early age.
He/she will go far
Cū zhī [cu zhi da ye]
thick branch big leaf
A large branch with large leaves. Unable to draw in fine detail
Lack of attention to detail
[不怕路長只怕志短]
Bú pà lù cháng zhǐ pà zhì duǎn [bu pa lu chang zhi pa zhi duan]
not fear road long only fear aspire short
Not fear a long road; fear aspiration to start
Do not be afraid of a long road to success only be afraid of a shortage of ambition
Rome was not built in a day
[身體力行]
Shēn tǐ lì xíng [shen ti li xing]
health strength walk
To maintain health by strenuous walk
Following the advice given oneself
Practice what you preach
逆境
Nì jìng chū rén cái [ni jing chu ren cai]
disobey border go out person ability
Rebellion creates capability
Hardship and adversity fosters talent
If life deals you lemons, make lemonade
[鐵杵成針]
Tiě chǔ chéng zhēn [tie chu cheng zhen]
iron pestle produce needle
Grind an iron rod down to a needle
Perseverance can achieve anything
shí bù xiào bǎi [wu shi bu xiao yi bai bu]
50 pace smile 100 pace
Fifty steps laugh at a hundred steps
Being complacent about the future. Believing a job is all but done when only half done.
Pride cometh before a fall
穿
Shuǐ dī shí chuān [shui di shi chuan]
water drip stone penetrate
Dripping water eventually wears away stone
If you persevere, you will eventually achieve your goal
Mighty oaks from little acorns grow
[不到黃河不死心]
Bù dào Huáng hé bù sǐ xīn [bu dao Huang he bu si xin]
not arrive Yellow River not die heart
Not giving up until one reaches the Yellow River
Keep going until you hit an insurmountable obstacle
He who hesitates is lost
蛾投 [飛蛾投火]
Fēi é tóu huǒ [fei e tou huo]
fly moth hurl fire
A moth throws itself into a flame
Heading for self destruction
Like a moth to a flame
bù dēng tiān [yi bu deng tian]
one stride reach heaven
Approach heaven with a single stride
An attempt to achieve a goal all in one go without hard work
Rome was not built in a day
[單槍匹馬]
Dān qiāng pǐ mǎ [dan qiang pi ma]
single spear horse
A single spear and a single horse
Taking on a difficult task on your own
补, [小洞不補大洞吃苦]
Xiǎo dòng bù bǔ, dòng chī kǔ [xiao dong bu bu, da dong chi ku]
small hole no mend big hole eat bitter
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
A stitch in time saves nine
Rén xīn bù zú shé tūn xiàng [ren xin bu zu she tun xiang]
person heart no attain snake swallow elephant
A person's greed is like a snake that seeks to swallow an elephant
Greed is insatiable
[鳳毛麟角]
Fèng máo lín jiǎo [feng mao lin jiao]
phoenix hair unicorn horn
As rare as phoenix feathers and unicorn horns
Seeking the unobtainable
Tù sǐ gǒu pēng [tu si gou peng]
rabbit dog cook
Trusted helpers are dispensable once their job is done
Watch your back. Once the mission is accomplished you may be sacked
Outliving your usefulness
Fǎn fù tuī qiāo [fan fu tui qiao]
contrary overturn push and knock
Carefully considering the words push and knock
Spending considerable time to get the words just right. Showing excessive concern on minor details. Said to be the story of an Tang dynasty official who could not choose whether 'knock' or 'push' was the appropriate word in a poem.
Slow but sure
Qiān lǐ zhī xíng shǐ yú zú xià [qian li zhi xing shi yu zu xia]
thousand mile's walk begin goto foot down
A long march starts from a single step
Perseverance will lead to eventual success
Mighty oaks from little acorns grow
Beijing, Beihai Park
The Beihai Park, imperial garden in Beijing. December 2007. Image by storyvillegirl available under a Creative Commons License
[百折不撓]
Bǎi zhé bù náo [bai zhe bu nao]
hundred bend not scratch
Not to falter despite many setbacks
Persistence pays off in the end
Patience is a virtue
[說到做到]
Shuō daò zuò daò [shuo dao zuo dao]
speak arrive make arrive
Say and then make
Do what one says
Actions speak louder than words
[干活不由東累死也無功]
Gàn huó bú yóu dōng lèi sǐ yě wú gōng [gan huo bu you dong lei si ye wu gong]
do live no reason master pile up die also no merit
Working without obeying the boss will bring only hard work and no merit
Only work on what is needed to be done
[笨鳥先飛早入林]
Bèn niǎo xiān fēi zǎo rù lín [ben niao xian fei zao ru lin]
stupid bird first fly early enter forest
A clumsy bird that flies first will get to the forest earlier
Starting early helps achieve success
The tortoise beats the hare. The early bird catches the worm
,[人往高處走水往低處流]
Rén wǎng gāo chù zǒu, shuǐ wǎng dī chù liú [ren wang gao chu zou, shui wang di chu liu]
person towards high place walk, water towards low place flow
A person moves up while water always trickles down
There is always room for improvement
Practice makes perfect
[一顧之榮]
gù zhī róng [yi gu zhi rong]
one attend honor
Honored from a single glance
Honored by a visit of someone distinguished who is showing an interest. A passport to getting on in social circles. The story is that a expert of horse was persuaded to give a mere glance at a horse that was for sale and by so doing its price rose enormously in value.
桃源
Shì wài táo yuán [shi wai tao yuan]
world foreign peach source
The land of peach blossoms
A mythical land of peace and harmony. The story is of a hidden land that a fisherman found while trying to escape turmoil and war in the Qin dynasty. Try as he might he never found the land again.
Land of milk and honey
[山不轉路轉]
Shān bù zhuǎn lù zhuǎn [shan bu zhuan lu zhuan]
mountain no turn road turn
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
There's more than one way to skin a cat
, [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 [chang jiang you ri si wu ri, mo jiang wu shi xiang you shi]
normal support has day think nothing day, noone support nothing time think has time
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
[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
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
背井 [离鄉背井]
Lí xiāng bèi jǐng [li xiang bei jing]
leave village behind well
Leave one's own village
A stranger away from home
[半途而廢]
Bàn tú ér fèi [ban tu er fei]
half way but give-up
Give up half way through
To abandon work half done. Lacking determination to see the job through
Stick to your guns
集腋
Jí yè chéng qiú [ji ye cheng qiu]
gather armpit accomplish fur coat
A fur coat can be made from poor scraps
Make do with what you have
Beggars can't be choosers
[談何容易]
Tán hé róng yì [tan he rong yi]
chat what look easy
Talking makes look easy
Not as easy as it seemed
Easier said than done
[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
磨杵[磨杵成針]
Mó chǔ chéng zhēn [mo chu cheng zhen]
grind pestle accomplish needle
Grinding an iron pestle down to a needle
Patiently setting about a great, lengthy task step by step. Anything can be achieved with a firm resolve,
Little strokes fell great oaks
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
隔肚
Rén xīn gé dù pí [ren xin ge du pi]
person heart separate belly
A person's heart is not discernible from looking just at the body
People are inscrutable. Do not judge by appearance
Do not judge a book by its cover
tea plantation, children
Girl wearing a traditional dress holds a glass of green tea
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
[勢如破竹]
Shì rú pò zhú [shi ru po zhu]
situation as if split bamboo
Like splitting bamboo
Continuing a successful series. Once you get the knack of splitting bamboo it's best to keep on going. The story is of a general who was advised to rest his army for the winter after a series of successes. The general disagreed, his army had high morale and went on to complete the victory.
Don't stop while you are winning
Qiān shān wàn shuǐ [qian shan wan shui]
thousand mountain ten thousand rivers
Many mountains and many rivers
A long and arduous journey
[見義勇為]
Jiàn yì yǒng wéi [jian yi yong wei]
see justice brave act
See the just cause and act on it
To see what is right and act with courage
忍辱负 [忍辱負重]
Rěn rǔ fù zhòng [ren ru fu zhong]
endure disgrace bear repetition
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.
Taking the flak
Yǒu hé bù kě [you he bu ke]
have what not can
Anything not possible
Anything may be possible
Nǐ sǐ wǒ huó [ni si wo huo]
you die I live
Fight to the death
To fight to the bitter end
脚印 [一步一個腳印兒]
gè jiǎo yìnr [yi bu yi ge jiao yinr]
one stride one footprint
Every step leaves a footprint
Work steadily one step at a time in order to make solid progress
Rome was not built in a day
[志不可慢旹不可失]
Zhì bù kě màn shí bù kě shī [zhi bu ke man shi bu ke shi]
aspiration not can slow, time not can lose
Do not let your aspirations weaken; do not waste time
Keep hold of your hopes and dreams, waste no time in achieving them
Don't change horses midstream
yì gū xíng [yi yi gu xing]
one idea lonely walk
Obstinately clinging to one's course
Acting dogmatically in pursuit of own objectives without regard to others.Dogged determination. Sometimes this approach is honorable and sometimes leads to ruin but it is the single-mindedness that is being admired.
Steely-eyed
使[有錢能使鬼推磨]
Yǒu qián néng shǐ guǐ tuī mò [you qian neng shi gui tui mo]
have money can send devil push grindstone
If you have money you can make the devil push a grind stone
Money can buy you anything
[功虧一簣]
Gōng kuī kuì [gong kui yi kui]
completion lost one basket of earth
A new dam is left incomplete due to the lack of one basket of earth
See things through to the end
[開天闢地]
Kāi tiān pì dì [kai tian pi di]
start heaven repel earth
To separate heaven from earth
The beginning of a great task. In one creation myth Pangu set about his momentous work by first separating heaven (yang) from earth (yin). An epic undertaking
To boldly go
[發憤忘食]
Fā fèn wàng shí [fa fen wang shi]
to work diligently to forget food
Working so hard as to forget to eat
Concentrating on work so much that appetite is forgotten. Implication that work is interesting rather than drudgery.
Bù rù hǔ xué yān dé hǔ zǐ [bu ru hu xue yan de hu zi]
not enter tiger den how get tiger cub
Without entering a tiger's den how can you hope to capture a tiger cub?
Great rewards require a great risk.
Fortune favors the brave. Nothing ventured, nothing gained
Yú gōng yí shān [yu gong yi shan]
foolish man move mountain
The foolish old man who moved mountains
Anything can be achieved with persistence. ?. The old story is that an old man wanted to move a mountain that blocked his path. Despite widespread cynicism he and his descendents gradually wore down the mountain. Mao Zedong used this proverb to persuade people that the seemingly impossible was achievable. One version of the story has the gods taking pity on the old man and removing the mountain with mighty powers
Go the extra mile
[維妙維肖]
Wéi miaò wéi xiaò [wei miao wei xiao]
tie clever tie resemble
Weave skillfully life like images
Produce an image remarkably true to life; highly skilled
Bú pà màn jiù pà zhàn [bu pa man jiu pa zhan]
not fear slow come-near fear halt
Not fear slowing down; fear coming to a halt
Do not be afraid of slowing down as long as you keep going
A rolling stone gathers no moss
[哀兵必勝]
Āi bīng bì shèng [ai bing bi sheng]
grief weapons certainly victory
A vengeful army will certainly win
Strong emotion galvanizes effort
tea, plantation, Zhejiang
Tea plantation near Hangzhou
Image by Shizhao available under a Creative Commons license
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
输攻墨守 [輸攻墨守]
Shū gōng mò shǒu [shu gong mo shou]
Shu to attack surname Mo to defend
Shu attacks and Mo defends
Two opponents of equal skill. Back in the Spring and Autumn period the story goes that Gongshu Ban, a carpenter who had developed a new device to aid the attack of cities, was persuaded by the pacifist philosopher MoZi not to deploy it. Mozi was able to defend against any attack by Gongshu Ban giving stalemate.
Fighting to a standstill
Shì bèi gōng bàn [shi bei gong ban]
work multiple times merit half
Work very hard for half the result
Work with care rather than speed
Less haste more speed
蚂蚁啃骨 [螞蟻啃骨頭]
Mǎ yǐ kěn gǔ tou [ma yi ken gu tou]
ant gnaw bone
Like ants gnawing at a bone
Dogged perseverance to achieve a long term end
[專心致志]
Zhuān xīn zhì zhì [zhuan xin zhi zhi]
concentrate mind devote ambition
Study hard to achieve ambitions
An admonishment to encourage full concentration in order to study effectively and so achieve ambitions.
[日以繼夜]
yǐ jì yè [ri yi ji ye]
day take continue
Day and night continuously
Working without a break. Exhausted
破釜沉
Pò fǔ chén zhōu [po fu chen zhou]
broken pot sink boat
Smash the pots and sink the boats
A story at the fall of the Qin dynasty 207BCE tells of the general Xiang Yu who refused to accept possibility of retreat at the battle of Julu by burning the boats and smashing the cooking pots. So it means no going back whatever happens. Cutting off all possibility of retreat
Burning your boats
[點石成金]
Diǎn shí chéng jīn [dian shi cheng jin]
touch stone accomplish gold
Turn stone into gold
To turn something of little worth into something of great value
Improve beyond recognition
[程門立雪]
Chéng mén xuě [cheng men li xue]
Cheng door stand snow
Standing at Cheng?s door in the snow
Showing great respect for someone - usually a teacher or scholar. The story is that a great scholar accidentally left two students waiting for him for hours out in the snow.
Lǎo bàng shēng zhū [lao bang sheng zhu]
old oyster grow pearl
An old oyster yields pearls
Remaining fit and healthy into old age, specifically can mean fathering children in advanced years.
There's many a good tune played on an old fiddle
[鏡花水月]
Jìng huā shuǐ yuè [jing hua shui yue]
mirror flower water moon
Flowers in a mirror and the moon in water
Beautiful but unattainable dreams. Unrealistic ambitions
China motif
Our proverbs come with full information. The modern Chinese characters are given first with links that give information on the character. If the phrase uses traditional characters these are shown in brackets and gray text. As proverbs are so old you will often see them written in the old form. 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 included at the end.

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.

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