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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Practice Makes Perfect

by Ben Schutz 28. June 2011 17:52

The Chinese expression 熟能生巧 (shu2 neng2 shang1 qiao3) literally means skill comes from practice and is equivalent to the English proverb practice makes perfect. The Chinese idiom comes from a story about a skilled archer whol lived during the Song Dynasty.

One day when the archer was practicing on the drill ground a large crowd gathered to watch him strut his stuff. He shot so accurately that the on-lookers cheered with excitement and this made the archer feel extremely proud of his skill. But among the crowd there was an old oil peddler. The oil pedler seemed unimpressed and only nodded his head indifferently.The archer asked the oil pedler why he was not impressed. The oil pedler replied:

Your skill is okay, but it is nothing special. Your accuracy is a result of persistent practice, nothing more, nothing less.

The archer then challenged the oil pedler to show his special talent, if any. The old man said nothing. He put his gourd bottle on the ground and covered its mouth with a copper coin that had a hole in the centre. He then scooped out a ladle of oil from another big jar, held it high above the gourd bottle and gently tipped it. A thread of oil trickled down from the ladle and into the gourd bottle through the hole of the coin. The on-lookers stared on with amazement. But the old man said:

This is nothing special, I can do this because I have practiced it a lot.

And with these words, he left.

Both the Chinese idiom and English proverb encapsulate a strong moral regarding the ethic of work. Namely, with hard word and regular practice you can become proficient at almost anything.

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The Tortoise and the Steeds

by Ben Schutz 28. May 2011 21:40

In English there is a well-known fable about a race between a tortoise and a hare. The Chinese version involves a lame turtle and 6 mighty steeds. The story is inspired by the popular Chinese idiom 跛鱉千里 (bo3 bie1 qian1 li3) which literally means the lame turtle goes a thousand miles.

Many years ago there were six steeds living in the mountains of central China. One day they decided to leave the mountains in search of greener pastures. But not long after beginning their journey they encountered a forest and there was no obvious road through. The horses were trying to decide which way to go when they heard a greeting from a crippled turtle coming up behind them. The horses asked the turtle where he was headed. The turtle replied that he was heading for an animal paradise about one to two thousand miles away in the south. The horses told the turtle that they thought he would never get there moving a such a snail's pace. However, the turtle was not perturbed and told the horses that as long as he kept moving forward he would eventually reach his destination.

After the conversation, the turtle continued his long march. The steeds began to argue among themselves about how they could find a short-cut to the paradise. The argument between the horses went on and on. Meanwhile, the turtle kept plodding south and after 3 years eventually reached the legendary paradise. However the turtle could not find the 6 steeds he had met in the woods. He kept his eyes peeled for them, but the steeds never arrived.

The moral of the story is that even those in poor conditions can still achieve their goals with hard work and persistance.

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