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.

Dōng shān zài qǐ
To rise again from the east mountain
Coming back after voluntary retirement into public life. Particularly for taking on high office after a long break away from all the action.
Roughly equivalent to: To make a comeback.
Fèng máo lín jiǎo
As rare as phoenix feathers and unicorn horns
Seeking the unobtainable.
Rén xīn gé dù pí
A person's heart is not discernible from looking just at the body
People are inscrutable. Do not judge by appearance.
Roughly equivalent to: Don't judge a book by its cover.
Yǒu hé bù kě
Anything not possible
Anything may be possible.
Fā fèn wàng shí
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.
Mó chǔ chéng zhēn
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,
Roughly equivalent to: Little strokes fell great oaks.
蚂蚁啃骨 [螞蟻啃骨頭]
Mǎ yǐ kěn gǔ tou
Like ants gnawing at a bone
Dogged perseverance to achieve a long term end.
Kāi tiān pì dì
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.
Roughly equivalent to: To boldly go.
Wéi miaò wéi xiaò
Weave skillfully life like images
Produce an image remarkably true to life; highly skilled.
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.
yì gū xíng
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.
Roughly equivalent to: Steely-eyed.
Gōng kuī kuì
A new dam is left incomplete due to the lack of one basket of earth
See things through to the end.
Bàn tú ér fèi
Give up half way through
To abandon work half done. Lacking determination to see the job through.
Roughly equivalent to: Stick to your guns.
stars, buddhism, constellations
Celestial Buddhas and Deities of the Northern, Western, and Central Dipper Constellations. c.1500CE. Image by LACMA available under a Creative Commons License
Qiān lǐ zhī xíng shǐ yú zú xià
A long march starts from a single step
Perseverance will lead to eventual success.
Roughly equivalent to: Mighty oaks from little acorns grow.
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.
bù dēng tiān
Approach heaven with a single stride
An attempt to achieve a goal all in one go without hard work.
Roughly equivalent to: Rome was not built in a day.
Bù pà lù cháng zhǐ pà zhì duǎn
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.
Roughly equivalent to: Rome was not built in a day.
Lǎo bàng shēng zhū
An old oyster yields pearls
Remaining fit and healthy into old age, specifically can mean fathering children in advanced years.
Roughly equivalent to: There's many a good tune played on an old fiddle.
Rén xīn bù zú shé tūn xiàng
A person's greed is like a snake that seeks to swallow an elephant
Greed is insatiable.
gù zhī róng
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.
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.
shí bù xiào bǎi
Fifty steps laugh at a hundred steps
Being complacent about the future. Believing a job is all but done when only half done.
Roughly equivalent to: Pride comes before a fall.
Dān qiāng pǐ mǎ
A single spear and a single horse
Taking on a difficult task on your own.
Yǒu qián néng shǐ guǐ tuī mò
If you have money you can make the devil push a grind stone
Money can buy you anything.
Tù sǐ gǒu pēng
Trusted helpers are dispensable once their job is done
Watch your back. Once the mission is accomplished you may be sacked.
Roughly equivalent to: Outliving your usefulness.
Yù bù zhuó bù chén qì
Jade requires fashioning to turn into a gem
Training and discipline are needed to build character.
Shanxi, Mount Wutai, temple
Longquan temple Buddhist gate on Mount Wutai, Shanxi
Shì wài táo yuán
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.
Roughly equivalent to: Land of milk and honey.
Shì bèi gōng bàn
Work very hard for half the result
Work with care rather than speed.
Roughly equivalent to: Less haste more speed.
Cū zhī
A large branch with large leaves. Unable to draw in fine detail
Lack of attention to detail.
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.
Dī shuǐ chuān shí
Dripping water can bore into stone
Long perseverance will win in the end, even stone wears away. Nothing is permanent.
Roughly equivalent to: Keep on keeping on.
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.
Yú gōng yí shān
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.
Roughly equivalent to: Go the extra mile.
Āi bīng bì shèng
A vengeful army will certainly win
Strong emotion galvanizes effort.
, [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.
Shuō daò zuò daò
Say and then make
Do what one says.
Roughly equivalent to: Actions speak louder than words.
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.
Tiě chǔ chéng zhēn
Grind an iron rod down to a needle
Perseverance can achieve anything.
Jìng huā shuǐ yuè
Flowers in a mirror and the moon in water
Beautiful but unattainable dreams. Unrealistic ambitions.
Li River, Guilin, Guangxi
Li River near Guilin. September 2012.
Image by Mgmoscatello available under a Creative Commons license
Rén wǎng gāo chù zǒu, shuǐ wǎng dī chù liú
A person moves up while water always trickles down
There is always room for improvement.
Roughly equivalent to: Practice makes perfect.
Bù dào Huáng hé bù sǐ xīn
Not giving up until one reaches the Yellow River
Keep going until you hit an insurmountable obstacle.
Roughly equivalent to: He who hesitates is lost.
Bèn niǎo xiān fēi zǎo rù lín
A clumsy bird that flies first will get to the forest earlier
Starting early helps achieve success.
Roughly equivalent to: The tortoise beats the hare. The early bird catches the worm.
Shuǐ dī shí chuān
Dripping water eventually wears away stone
If you persevere, you will eventually achieve your goal.
Roughly equivalent to: Mighty oaks from little acorns grow.
蛾投 [飛蛾投火]
Fēi é tóu huǒ
A moth throws itself into a flame
Heading for self destruction.
Roughly equivalent to: Like a moth to a flame.
Pò fǔ chén zhōu
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.
Roughly equivalent to: Burning your boats.
Zǒu guān fā cái
Become a government official to get rich
Attain riches by working a government career.
输攻墨守 [輸攻墨守]
Shū gōng mò shǒu
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.
Roughly equivalent to: Fighting to a standstill.
Tán hé róng yì
Talking makes look easy
Not as easy as it seemed.
Roughly equivalent to: Easier said than done.
卫填 [精衛填海]
Jīng wèi tián hǎi
Jingwei tries to fill up the ocean
Even the mythical bird Jing Wei will be unable to fill the oceans with pebbles. Facing a Herculean task. Determined against impossible odds. The story is of Jing Wei who was the daughter of Emperor Yan. A great typhoon came and killed her and she was then transformed into a bird. In revenge for her early death she determined to fill up the ocean by filling it with pebbles one by one.
Roughly equivalent to: A forlorn hope.
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.
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.
Bù rù hǔ xué yān dé hǔ zǐ
Without entering a tiger's den how can you hope to capture a tiger cub?
Great rewards require a great risk.
Roughly equivalent to: Fortune favors the brave. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.
Wuhan, crowd
Wuhan street scene, 2018
破浪 [乘風破浪]
Chéng fēng pò làng
Ride the winds and break the waves
To have high ambitions. The story is Zong Que who lived in southern China around 450CE. On his wedding day at the age of 14 (as was the tradition then) a group of bandits attacked the village. Zong Que fought them off almost single-handed. He was asked what was his future ambition and he replied that he wanted to 'ride the wind and break the waves'. He went on to be a leading general who helped maintain the peace in the region.
Roughly equivalent to: Man with a plan.
Diǎn shí chéng jīn
Turn stone into gold
To turn something of little worth into something of great value.
Roughly equivalent to: Improve beyond recognition.
Qiān shān wàn shuǐ
Many mountains and many rivers
A long and arduous journey.
困兽犹 [困獸猶鬥]
Kùn shòu yóu dòu
A cornered beast continues to struggle
Desperate measures to keep going. To fight like a cornered animal.
Roughly equivalent to: A drowning man will clutch at a straw.
Bì ròu fù shēng
The thigh muscles have recovered
To get fit and become reinvigorated. The story is from the end of the Han dynasty after the battle of Guandu Zhi Zhan when Cao Cao beat Liu Bei. Liu Bei then fled to Henan and took things easy. One day he noticed that he had become flabby particularly in his thighs so he realized he had to get fit again. He did so and eventually beat Cao Cao in battle.
Roughly equivalent to: Get fighting fit.
shēn shì dǎn
Full of courage
Fearless, intrepid. A heroic disposition.
Roughly equivalent to: As bold as brass.
Jiàn yì yǒng wéi
See the just cause and act on it
To see what is right and act with courage.
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.
Gàn huó bú yóu dōng lèi sǐ yě wú gōng
Working without obeying the boss will bring only hard work and no merit
Only work on what is needed to be done.
Fǎn fù tuī qiāo
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.
Roughly equivalent to: Slow but sure.
Bù pà màn jiù pà zhàn
Not fear slowing down; fear coming to a halt
Do not be afraid of slowing down as long as you keep going.
Roughly equivalent to: A rolling stone gathers no moss.
yǐ jì yè
Day and night continuously
Working without a break. Exhausted.
Yán yóu zài ěr
Words still ringing in one's ears
Still fresh in the mind. Keeping hold of a recent command or argument. Staying true to purpose.
Giant Panda, wildlife
Photo by J. Patrick Fischer , available under a Creative Commons license .
Zhuān xīn zhì zhì
Study hard to achieve ambitions
An admonishment to encourage full concentration in order to study effectively and so achieve ambitions.
Lì zhuī zhī dì
A place to stick an awl
A very small piece of property. Often said of someone who has fallen on hard times and has only a very small place to live or just to describe a very small space.
Roughly equivalent to: No space to swing a cat.
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.
Jí yè chéng qiú
A fur coat can be made from poor scraps
Make do with what you have.
Roughly equivalent to: Beggars can't be choosers.
废寝 [廢寑忘食]
Fèi qǐn wàng shí
To forget to sleep and eat
To be absorbed in work and study.
Zhì zài fāng
Having high ambition
Willing to travel far and wide to achieve aims. Aspiring to achieve great things in life.
Roughly equivalent to: Driving ambition.
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.
按图索骥 [按圖索驥]
Àn tú suǒ jì
Choosing a fine horse using only a picture
Following a rigid framework to carry out a task. Using standard rules to achieve something or discover something. Knowing and following the basic principles.
Qiān lù:
Thousand tries, one success
An expression of modesty when accounting for success. Discounting skill and perseverance as just a lucky break.
Roughly equivalent to: Lucky chance.
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.
背井 [离鄉背井]
Lí xiāng bèi jǐng
Leave one's own village
A stranger away from home.
Shì shàng méi yǒu wú yuán wú gù de ài, yě méi yǒu wú yuán wú gù de hèn
There is no love without a reason there is no hate without a cause
There is a reason behind all strong emotions.
Shì rú pò zhú
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.
Roughly equivalent to: Don't stop while you are winning.
Nine Dragon Wall, Beijing, dragon
One of the nine dragons on the Nine Dragon Screen, Forbidden City, Beijing
Wàng yáng xīng tàn
Consider one's competence before the ocean
To feel inadequate to perform a great task. Feel misgivings before a big endeavor. The story is of the river god of the Huanghe caused a great flood that made the river a mile wide but when it met the sea it was overcome with relative inadequacy.
鸿鹄 [鴻鵠之志]
Hóng hú zhī zhì
The aspirations of a great swan
Having unrealistic ambitions.
Roughly equivalent to: Wish for the moon.
Zhì bù kě màn shí bù kě shī
Do not let your aspirations weaken; do not waste time
Keep hold of your hopes and dreams, waste no time in achieving them.
Roughly equivalent to: Don't change horses midstream.
Shēn tǐ lì xíng
To maintain health by strenuous walk
Following the advice given oneself.
Roughly equivalent to: Practise what you preach.
Bǎi zhé bù náo
Not to falter despite many setbacks
Persistence pays off in the end.
Roughly equivalent to: Patience is a virtue.
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.
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.
Chéng mén xuě
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.
革裹 [馬革裹屍]
Mǎ gé guǒ shī
Wrapping the body in horsehide
A wish to die in action on the battlefield. A heroic wish to serve until death.
Roughly equivalent to: With all guns blazing.
Nì jìng chū rén cái
Rebellion creates capability
Hardship and adversity foster talent.
Roughly equivalent to: If life deals you lemons, make lemonade.
Nǐ sǐ wǒ huó
Fight to the death
To fight to the bitter end.
xīn yìng shǒu
Hand and mind in harmony
Things moving smoothly and naturally. Heart and mind working together with hands to achieve a task.
Tú láo wú gōng
Futile effort
Pointless effort that will achieve nothing.
Roughly equivalent to: A fool's errand.
Modern Chinese Dushan jade sculpture from central China.
It shows the variability of color within a block of jade. Here the artist has used the variation to exquisite effect.
Image by Artfiber available under a Creative Commons license
Kuā Fù zhuī
Kua Fu chasing the sun
Pride leading to attempting the impossible. Over confidence in skills. Over-arching ambition. The story is of a giant called Kua Fu who was immensely strong and swift. He attempted to chase the sun but in so doing became so hot he died from thirst that could not be quenched. A similar tale to Icarus flying too close to the sun.
Roughly equivalent to: Pride comes before a fall.
Hòu qǐ zhī xiù
Promising young talent
Said of someone showing talent at an early age.
Roughly equivalent to: He/she will go far.
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