Chinese Four-Character Proverb

The informant is an eighteen-year old student from Irvine, California currently studying in Los Angeles. His dad was born in India, and his mother was born in Hong Kong before they met in San Jose, CA and moved down to Orange County. He speaks some Spanish and can understand Cantonese, which is how he learned many of his proverbs. He shall be referred to as KT.

KT states that in Chinese culture, there are a series of four-character proverbs that can be summed up in a short, metaphorical sentence that relates back to a full tale.

KT: It was something about, um, something like, ‘with sheer will, the mountain moves by itself.’ And If I recall correctly it was, it was about this guy, he was, um, one of those, he worked in a quarry, like a stonemason, I guess, and one day he wanted to, uh, he was for some reason he wanted to, like, carve a path through this mountain, to like, to get to the other side. For some reason, I can’t remember what. But, so every day he would go out to this mountain and he would, um, like, chip away at it to get some of like the crags and stones off the mountain, carve them away, but, um ,no matter how often he did that, the mountain didn’t seem to, like, change, because it’s a freakin’ mountain, he can’t really .. so he did this for years, like decades and then, um, I believe Buddha or like a god in heaven looks at this guy and he’s like, ‘oh he’s so determined, no matter how hard he tries, um, to move this mountain, he’s not going to be able to do it,’ but he has just, like a sheer amount of determination that, um, the Buddha actually decides to move the mountain for him. So after, like, decades of work, and he doesn’t, like, produce anything, he finally wakes up one morning, goes out to the mountain and he sees the mountain is gone, so his goal is finally realized.

KT went on to explain that he couldn’t remember the exact four characters that gave the moral of the story, but that it basically encapsulated the idea that hard work is rewarded. He went on to explain that he deeply believes this, thinking that sheer will and determination can cause something outside of one’s control to work for them.

This seems to be reflective of the intense discipline of Chinese culture. The man goes about his task alone (never asking for help), working for decades to accomplish his goal. Even faced with the daunting task of carving through a mountain, he does not deviate from his goal. In fact, it is his discipline rather than actual productivity that brings about his goal. As KT told me, Chinese culture is very much about enduring the struggles of life for great reward (see “Chinese proverb” in my collection), and this short story seems to be a form of encouragement: Even when one’s efforts don’t seem to be causing much good, the motivation behind them will ultimately result in great reward.


Eliot, Charles William, Aesop, Wilhelm Grimm, Jacob Grimm, and H. C. Andersen. Folk-lore and Fable: Æsop, Grimm, Andersen. [Whitefish, MT]: Kessinger Pub., 2004. Google Books.

This story immediately reminded me of a reversal of the Aesop fable of Hercules and the waggoner. In this story, a man is taking his wagon to market when it gets stuck in the mud. Before making any attempt, he prays to Hercules to help him. When Hercules appears, he demands that the man put his shoulder to the wheel before asking for help. In both stories, divine intervention has something to do with the accomplishment of a task. In the Chinese story, the man never asks for help. Instead, he receives help from the heavens due to his raw determination, as opposed to the waggoner who instead demonstrates no discipline but instead asks for help immediately. This comparison heightens the importance of a strong work ethic in Chinese culture, even more so than the story itself.