About Chinese workaholics

The Chinese have a reputation for incorrigible workaholics, which is not surprising if you know about the highest bar of labor feat set for them by distant ancestors. In this article, we provide striking examples of Chinese hard work and willingness to go to any pain for success. The stories told here received universal popular recognition in the Celestial Empire, from them short, stable expressions – sayings – in only four hieroglyphs convey the essence and meaning of what happened. Let’s take a look at some of them together.

悬梁 刺股 (tie hair to the ceiling beam, prick the thigh with an awl)

Everyone knows that hardworking workaholics struggle with sleep. The idiom 悬梁 刺股 just appeared thanks to two such fierce fighters against the dominion of Morpheus.

During the Eastern Han Dynasty, there was a famous politician named Sun Jing who, oddly enough, always (even at night) really wanted to learn. In case a dream catches up with him while reading, Sun insured himself by tying his own hair to the ceiling beam. If a nap suddenly took possession of him, and his head fell to sleep, the hair, tied to the ceiling with a rope, stretched, producing an invigorating charge of pain, depriving the poor man of all sleep.

But don’t be in a hurry to be horrified – the story of Su Qin, a strategist who became famous during the Warring States period, is even more shocking. When Su was young, he failed so many times to get a job that even his family looked askance at him. And then Su forced his mind to work hard. When at night he felt sleepy, he pricked himself in the thigh with an awl. Gradually, the blood subsided, and Su resumed reading, as if nothing had happened. Of course, bloodshed and hard work were rewarded: for his successes and hard work, Su Qin was appointed to the post of premier in six out of seven districts that existed at that time. Popular rumor then combined the stories of Su Qin and Sun Jin into one saying: 悬梁 刺股 xuán liáng cì gǔ, “tie hair to the ceiling beam, prick the thigh with an awl,” which simply means “study hard.”

圆木 警 枕 (sleeping on a wooden pillow)

During the Song Dynasty, historian and literary genius Sima Guang fought sleep in a very moderate way. When he was young, he lived in a room furnished only with a chair, a table and a bed. He read all day and was not distracted by anything. But his secret was in the pillow, which was actually a small cylindrical log. When Sima Guang got tired, he slept on it for a while – exactly until the round log rolled to the side, in such an inhumane way awakening the owner. Naturally, such a dream could not last long, and soon the beacon of literature returned to work again. Due to its specific function, his pillow came to be called the “round signal pillow-log” – 圆木 警 枕 yuán mù jǐng zhěn, in a figurative sense this expression means “try hard”.

囊 萤 映雪 (light from collected fireflies and light reflected by snow)

The other enemy of all night owls was the lack of light. In ancient times, poor families could not afford kerosene lamps, so ingenious loners were forced to look for substitutes. During the Jin Dynasty, there was a man named Che Yin who loved to study, but a lamp was an unprecedented luxury for him. Che understood that a night without reading was a waste of time, but there was no choice … Until one fine summer evening, he suddenly noticed a multitude of fireflies flying in the air like sparks in the darkness. It dawned on him: if you put fireflies together, they will serve as a good lamp! Following his thought, he found a bag, trapped as many fireflies in it as he could, and hung it up in his home. Although the brightness of a living lamp was inferior to an oil lamp, it was already possible to read and, thanks to his excellent knowledge, Che Yin was finally appointed a high-ranking official.

Obviously, the fireflies could not survive in the winter, but a man named Sun Kang during the Jin Dynasty, who also believed that sleep was for weaklings, found another source of light. One winter night, Sun Kang suddenly woke up to find light streaming through the cracks in the window. Going out into the street, he saw that the snow reflects the radiance of the moon, so that it is lighter outside than at home. Then, in spite of the frost, Sun took his books outside and took the opportunity to read. Unsurprisingly, his efforts have earned him the reward of a leadership position in government. The stories of Che Yin and Sun Kang fit together into four characters: 囊 萤 映雪 náng yíng yìng xuě, “the light from the collected fireflies and the light reflected by the snow.”

凿 壁 偷 光 (hollow out the wall to use the light (from the neighbor’s candle))

Like previous characters, Kuan Heng, who lived in the Han Dynasty, was also poor and could not afford a kerosene lamp. But instead of collecting insects or reading by the moon, he took advantage of the somewhat controversial method of extracting light. A wealthy family lived next door to Kuan, whose house was always light, even at night. In an attempt to borrow their light, Kuan made holes in a common wall so that at least some beam would reach him. Thanks to his neighbor, who never found damage, Kuang continued to study hard and eventually became an outstanding scientist.凿 壁 偷 光 zuò bì tōu guāng – speak of one who selflessly studies, despite all material difficulties.

闻 鸡 起舞 (hear a rooster singing, start up)

While others were trying to find ways to usefully spend the night, Zu Ti (Jin Dynasty) decided to use the daylight to its fullest and get up very early. Zu and his close friend Liu Kun shared a lofty ideal – to rejuvenate the Jin Dynasty and become a solid pillar of the state. Once, Zu heard a rooster crow at midnight. He kicked Liu Kun up and said, “They say that the crowing of a rooster at midnight portends bad things, but I don’t think so. Why don’t we start practicing sword exercises from now on? ” Liu readily agreed. Thus, since then, every day, as soon as the crowing of a rooster was heard, they got up and went to wield swords. As a result, this story was entrenched by the saying 闻 鸡 起舞 wén jī qǐ wав, “when you hear a rooster sing, start up” – it means “to rise at the first call”.

All these examples clearly show how important work and its fruits are for the Chinese in the form of high positions and academic titles that allow them to benefit society. Also, it becomes obvious that there are many expressions in the Chinese language, the meaning of which is hidden from the uninitiated behind a dense veil of cultural context, so everyone who wants to better understand Chinese speech simply needs to use a special dictionary from time to time, or study the most common Chinese proverbs and sayings that in itself quite exciting.

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