Learn Chinese Idioms: Xuán Liáng Cì Gǔ – Grind Away at One’s Studies

Blog Post Study in Chinese CultureIf you really want to learn Mandarin, you need to begin to study idioms. Idioms are short sayings with a historical background that convey a story and meaning with just a few words. In the United States, we have idioms like, “Jumping the shark.” 

Study and self improvement are important values in Chinese culture. On Friday, we talked about this on our Facebook page. The basic idea is that if you aren’t improving, you are going backwards. Check it out here on Facebook.

Many people are aware that Chinese people typically study very hard during their school years. This doesn’t mean cram for a test. Regular and diligent study is valued in Chinese culture. For example, when I was in Taiwan, 9th graders often studied 15 hours a day for weeks on end to prepare for the high school entrance exam. It was treated as a right of passage.

Xuán Liáng Cì Gǔ

This is an idiom with the following story:

During the Xi Han Dynasty (206BC-25AD), there was a scholar named Sun Jing studied very hard. He was worried that he would fall asleep, so he took a rope and tied one end to the ceiling and the other end to his hair. If he fell asleep, the rope would pull his hair. He did this for many years and learned many things.

There is another story that goes with this idiom:

During the warring states period (around 221 BC), Su Qin, a political strategist, wanted to be rich and famous, so he sold everything he owned to buy expensive clothes. He visited the king of Qin and tried to persuade the king to invade another country. He failed and returned to his home town in ruins. Everyone looked down on him.

Su Qin’s teacher gave him an old book to study. Because Su Qin lost face, he had to work even harder to redeem himself. He chose a particularly painful method to avoid falling asleep while studying. He held a spike above his leg. When he fell asleep, the spike fell and cut his leg. He’d wake up and start over. After studying, he visited Qin’s neighbors. He helped these countries stay safe from Qin.

If you want to understand Chinese people, you need to understand the value of education and diligent study in Chinese culture. Chinese children are taught these stories and they are set forth as examples of how to become successful in life. Parents expect children to study hard and do well in school. In Chinese culture, people believe that success comes from diligent study during childhood and diligent work as an adult.

When Your China Project Gets Rough

Have you ever had one of those projects that starts off difficult and just gets harder from there? I was coaching a client who is managing a difficult project a week or two ago. Other players, who worked at a strategic partner, were slowing things down and it seemed like they were working against my client. To make matters worse, the strategic partners had more power and influence over this project so my client was feeling stuck. We identified 4 key areas for my client to work on: focus on the goal, develop and focus on short term objectives, not making unforced errors and address the interference through relationships.

Focus on the Goal

If the goal of the project is worthwhile (and this one was) then keeping the goal in mind can carry you past a large number of obstacles. Create a list of short term objectives and tasks which are in line with the end goal. Set deadlines for the objectives and then schedule the tasks to meet the deadline. Allow a little extra time to give yourself the opportunity to overcome the bogged down side.

When you are bogged down and losing momentum on a project, staying motivated is key. This can be particularly difficult if you are working internationally. Focusing on the goal may be enough to keep you motivated, but if not, then use other tactics. Set up rewards for yourself when you reach milestones in the project. Visualize yourself finishing the project successfully.

Quick Short Objectives

Break the project goals down into very short milestone objectives inline with your project strategy. Be sure that you can accomplish initial objectives quickly. You can then focus on putting bursts of energy into the objectives. These victories can serve as motivation on the overall project.

Don’t Blow It

When you are stressed and tired, being mindful of the project’s politics is even more difficult. Make sure you are getting enough rest. Working all day, drinking BaiJiu at night and adding stress is a perfect recipe for a meltdown. If you need to take a break, do so. Don’t make mistakes like losing your temper and thus losing face or causing a team member to lose face. You can easily end productive relationships and even place projects at risk.

Address the Interference

In the United States or west, we might address the interference directly by calling a meeting. In Chinese culture, this typically turns into denials that any concerns exist. We might then turn to a supervisor to apply pressure on the person in question. This tactic may win the battle but then place the war at risk.

Use Your Guanxi

Guanxi is often talked about in grand terms. Your relationships with key stakeholders and powerful partners does play a role in your success. On a more personal level, you need allies to support your goals. You already know that relationships are extremely important when doing business in China and that you should be spending at least 10% of your time building relationships. When you are working on a project, make sure that you are building appropriate relationships with potential partners. Use these relationships to reach out to the other party indirectly. You are far more likely to get useful information working through another colleague. You may even resolve a dispute without ever talking directly with the other party. You can both continue working together without ever actually admitting or discussing the project.

What do you think?