10 Handy Chinese Proverbs for Use in the Chinese Workplace

10 Handy Chinese Proverbs for Use in the Chinese Workplace
May 04, 2018 By Daniel McCool , eChinacities.com

Chinese people love it when foreigners speak Chinese to them. They're usually super-impressed as they believe Chinese to be the most difficult language in the world, which, to be fair, is probably not far off. Prove to them that you can muster something more sophisticated than "谢谢" (xiè xiè) and practice these 10 proverbs and idioms for use in the Chinese workplace. They'll help you stay in good stead with your boss and your colleagues by proving you’re a foreigner mindful of Chinese language and culture.

Confucius statue
Photo: Flickr

1. 今日事,今日毕。(jīn rì shì, jīn rì bì)

This is a phrase to use in the face of procrastination in the Chinese workplace. Today’s things (今日事, jīn rì shì) should be done today (今日毕, jīn rì bì).

Why? If we live our lives always putting things off until the next day, nothing will ever get done. We will waste our time and fail to accomplish anything.

As we say: “Don’t do tomorrow what can be done today.”


2. 一口吃不成胖子。(yì kǒu chī bù chéng pàng zi)

This phrase describes the person who tries to accomplish a task all in one go. One bite (一口吃, yì kǒu chī) can’t make you fat (不成胖子, bù chéng pàng zi).

This person’s impatience means he tries to get his task done all in one go. He’s too anxious for quick success. He doesn’t understand that if you want to accomplish something, you need to work at it slowly. Success requires preparation.

The metaphor addresses the philosophical relationship between quantity and quality. If one is to become successful in a qualitative sense, then he must take pride in the detail of his work. A task must be deconstructed and it’s steps appreciated.

As we say: “Rome wasn’t built in a day.”


3. 说千道万,不如做事一件。(shuō qiān dào wàn, bù rú zuò shì yī jiàn)

Use this phrase with people who like to talk but seldom put in the work. To keep on restating one's point (说千道万, shuō qiān dào wàn) does not equal even one thing done (不如做事一件, bù rú zuò shì yì jiàn).

No matter the amount of lip service you pay to your ideas, you’ve really done nothing at all until you take action. A thousand words are easy to say, but completely irrelevant. Ultimately, if something is to get done, the responsibility is on you to do it.

As we say: “Doing is better than saying.”


4. 有志者,事竟成。(yǒu zhì zhě, shì jìng chéng)

Keep this phrase on reserve for those who feel disheartened by troublesome or difficult tasks. For the ambitious or willful ones (有志者, yǒu zhì zhě), things will eventually succeed (事竟成, shì jìng chéng).

Tears are not lost, wandering is not confusion, and success belongs to those who overcome failure with perseverance and the confidence to persist in the pursuit of their ambition.

As we say: “Where there is a will, there is a way!”


5. 巧妇难为无米之炊。(qiǎofù nán wéi wúmǐ zhī chuī)

Use this phrase when you can’t get the job done due to insufficient resources. The cleverest housewife (巧妇, qiǎofù) cannot cook without rice (难为无米之炊, nán wéi wúmǐ zhī chuī).

It’s difficult to do things without the necessary conditions. Even if everyone is fully enthusiastic to get the job done, if there’s no equipment or there are no materials to proceed, then the task cannot be completed.

As we say: “Nobody can accomplish anything without the necessary means.”


6. 笨人先起身,笨鸟早出林。(bèn rén xiān qǐshēn, bèn niǎo zǎo chūlín)

Hold on to this one for those colleagues who fail to understand the importance of hard work. Stupid people get up first (笨人先起身, bèn rén xiān qǐshēn) and stupid birds leave the forest early (笨鸟早出林, bèn niǎo zǎo chūlín).

If they work hard, even the stupid can get things done and succeed. Success isn’t reserved for the almighty or the clever. Everyone is capable of success with some good old-fashioned hard work.

As we say: “He who is clumsy needs to start early.”


7. 千里之行,始于足下。(qiānlǐ zhī xínɡ, shǐ yú zú xià)

This one is for saying in the face of a long and difficult task. This proverb originated from Chinese but has since found a comfortable home in English phraseology. In chapter 64 of the Tao Te Ching (or ‘Dao De Jing’), the philosopher Laozi (founder of Daoism) says that a journey of a thousand li (1/2 km) (千里之行, qiānlǐ zhī xínɡ) begins with a footstep (始於足下, shǐ yú zú xià).

Even the longest and most difficult ventures have a starting point. When faced with a difficult task, it’s easy to feel disheartened and want to quit. We forget that every journey is a series of steps. Stave procrastination and just get started.

As we say: “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”


8. 众人拾柴火焰高。(zhònɡrén shíchái huǒyàn ɡāo)

When you don’t want to go it alone, use this phrase in the Chinese workplace. When everybody (众人, zhònɡrén) collects firewood (拾柴, shíchái), the flames grow high (火焰高, huǒyàn ɡāo).

If you want to achieve something big, get everyone involved. This phrase can be interpreted as when many people work together, the job gets done faster. The emphasis on achieving greater success by numbers, rather than easier work, is an interesting contrast to our English equivalent.

As we say: “Many hands make light work.”


9. 熟能生巧。(shú nénɡ shēnɡ qiǎo)

Save this phrase for the one who gets down on himself in a battle with low self-esteem. With familiarity (熟, shú) you can learn the ‘trick’ (能生巧, nénɡ shēnɡ qiǎo).

Success isn’t something that you simply get, especially not with the first stab. You need to keep stabbing. If at first you don’t succeed, pick yourself up and try again. For those who fail at their task, remind them that success is a journey of growing familiarity, and with persistent practice, they will develop and eventually reach their target.

As we say: “Practice makes perfect.”


10. 干一行,爱一行。(gàn yīhánɡ, ài yīhánɡ)

This last one is to remind all of us working in China that attitude is everything. When you work in a profession (干一行, gān yīhánɡ), love that profession (爱一行, ài yīhánɡ).

In today’s society, especially in China, employment pressure is growing, and a considerable amount of people are engaged in industries they’re not particularly passionate about. This requires us to change our concept of employment.

No matter what kind of post or what kind of environment we find ourselves in, as long as we’re in it, we should try to adapt and do our best. Not everyone can work in the industry they like, so find pleasure in your current situation.

As we say, “Love what you do!”

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