Grind an Iron Rod into a Needle

by Ben Schutz 20. July 2012 00:13

The Chinese idiom 只要功夫深,铁杵磨成针 (zhi3 yao4 gong1 fu shen1, tie3 chu3 mo2 cheng2 zhen1) literally means so long as you have put in a great deal of effort, you can grind an iron rod into a needle. It comes from 《方舆胜览》, a story about Li Bai (a famous poet in the Tang Dynasty (AD 618 - 907)) told by Zhu Mu in the Song Dynasty.

Born into a rich family in the Tang Dynasty, Li was second to none when it came to writing Chinese classic poetry. He had begun to write poems when he was only ten, but he was not a hardworking student and he tended to spend most of his time outdoors.

One day during his travels, Li saw an old woman grinding an iron rod on a big grindstone in front of a straw-thatched hut. Li asked the woman what she was doing. When the old woman told Li that she was making a needle, Li doubled up with laughter thinking the old woman had lost her marbles. The old woman reprimanded him and offered him some prescient words of wisdom

Don't laugh young man. As long as I keep grinding, I will make a fine needle out of this coarse rod someday.

Li Bai stopped to ponder her words and came to understand what she meant. Then, with great respect, he bowed deeply to the needle grinder and turned back toward home. After that day, Li became a very dedicated student and gave his undivided attention to his studies. His efforts paid off and he eventually became one of China's greatest poets.

Today Chinese speakers use the expression 只要功夫深,铁杵磨成针 (zhi3 yao4 gong1 fu shen1, tie3 chu3 mo2 cheng2 zhen1) (shortened to 铁杵磨成针 (tie3 chu3 mo2 cheng2 zhen1)) to encapsulate the idea that success is always possible if you work hard for a sufficiently long period of time. For English speakers the same idea is captured by the English idiom perseverence spells success.

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Drawing New Faces

by Ben Schutz 21. February 2012 19:15

The Chinese idiom 别开生面 (bie2 kai1 sheng1 mian4) literally means draw new faces. It comes from a story about Cao Ba, a painter who lived during the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907). Cao began studying calligraphy and painting as a child and later became well known for his paintings of people and horses.

In AD 718, Emperor Xuanzong invited Cao to paint at the imperial court. The emperor was so impressed with Cao's work that he declared Cao the official painter of the court. Near the imperial court stood a grand pavillion which was famous for its frescoes depicting the 24 heroes who helped establish the Tang Dynasty. After years of exposure to the elements, the plaster had begun to peel and the colour start to fade. One day, the emperor asked Cao to restore the murals to their former glory.

After many days work, Cao completed the job. The revitalized paintings caused a sensation. Some of the figures were so vivid that some onlookers felt they were about to step out of the wall.

Several years later, the famous Chinese poet, Du Pu, wrote a poem waxing lyrical about Cao's work on the frescoes. One of the verses used the expression 别开生面 (bie2 kai1 sheng1 mian4) to describe how vividly Cao had recreated the faces of the heroes.

Despite being put on a pedestal for his work on the frescoes, Cao later fell from grace after he offended the emperor over a minor matter. Cao was the forced onto the streets and he eeked out a living by painting the portraits of passers-by.

Today the Chinese idiom 别开生面 (bie2 kai1 sheng1 mian4) is used to describe someone who adopts a new style, or as an English speaker might say, someone who breaks new ground.

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Teaching Lu Ban How to Suck Eggs

by Ben Schutz 23. May 2011 00:51

The Chinese idiom 班門弄斧 (ban1 men2 nong4 fu3) literally means the ordinary craftsman is showing off his skills with the axe in front of Lu Ban, the master carpenter.

The origin of the idiom can be traced to a poet, Li Bai, of the Tang Dynasty (701-762 AD). He was a very gifted poet and following his death, the people buried him in a beautiful tomb on the Caishi River. Everyday admirers came to visit the tomb and many wrote poetry on the tombstone. One day during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) a scholar came to visit Li Bai's tomb and was appalled to see that it was covered with poorly written poems. He decided to add his own poem to the tombstone to stop future visitors from writing any more. The poem said

A tomb near Caishi River marks the everlasting fame of Li Bai; to and fro, every passer-by writes a poem on the tombstone just like a poor carpenter trying to show his proficiency with the axe before Lu Ban. 

The equivalent English idiom is try to teach one's grandmother how to suck eggs. It is possible that this expression alludes to the fact that a toothless grandmother will be naturally more successful in sucking the contents from an egg than a grandchild with a complete set of teeth. Both the English and Chinese expressions are used to either: a) ridicule or reprimand someone who tries to show off in front of an expert; or b) to express one's modesty when demonstrating a skill in front of colleagues.

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