Chinese Philosophy: An Idiom of Hard Work and Patience

A Yin & Yang symbol surrounded by the 'ba gua' in a park outside of Nanning, Guangxi province.

In the century of Confucius, Lao Tzu and Sun Tzu, some of the states in Zhou Dynasty (about 1,000B.C.–221B.C.) became strong and tried to conquer their neighboring states. This was the beginning of a flourishing but brutal era that nourished ancient Chinese civilization and produced great thinkers and monumental classics such as the Art of War, the Analects of Confucius and Tao Te Ching.

In Eastern China, there were a series of wars between two states, Wu and Yue, in the late Spring and Autumn Period (770BC–476BC). This war came down with many legendary stories and a famous Chinese idiom: Sleeping on Brushwood and Tasting Gall (Wo Xin Chang Dan).

Chinese Idiom: Philosophies of Hard Work, Endurance and Patience

In 496BC, the State of Yue defeated the State of Wu and killed He Lu, the king of Wu. Two years later Fu Chai, He Lu’s son and the new king of Wu, defeated Yue and took the king of Yue, Guo Jian, and his wife prisoner. Guo Jian worked as a slave in Wu for more than three years. When he was released, Gou Jian prepared to take revenge. To remember what he suffered as a slave, Gou Jian slept on brushwood every night and tasted bitter gall before every meal for several years. Later Gou Jian launched a war and finally conquered Wu and killed Fu Chai.

Today this story of great revival has become the idiom Wo Xin Chang Dan. It is used to describe working hard to accomplish an ambition. For more than two thousand years, Chinese people have used it in their daily lives to advocate a philosophy of hard work, endurance and patience.

Chinese Philosophy: Hard Work Philosophy Gives Way to Enjoyment

Today the public attitudes towards hard work have been changed significantly. China’s reform and open after 1978 have provided an alternative to the traditional notion of working hard and saving that had characterized the nation for over two thousand years of tough time. The explosion of consumer finance (credit cards, home and house mortgages and automobile loans) also weighs on the philosophy of Epicureanism.

Today we can see that many Chinese people complain that their children have lost the notion of hard work. But in an era when many people reap where they have not sown, it’s hard to blame one who has lost faith in working hard.


  1. Confucius, the Analects of Confucius (about 450 B.C.–250 B.C.)
  2. Sima Qian, Records of the Grand Historian (104 B.C.–91 B.C.)
  3. Zhao Ye, the Spring and Autumn of Wu and Yue (about 10A.D.)