Chinese Idiom About Diligence — Hang from a Beam and Stab the Thigh

During the Eastern Han Dynasty, Sun Jing and the Warring States Period's Su Qin, two individuals, employed rigorous self-discipline and unwavering commitment to their studies. Their remarkable achievements, combined and condensed by later generations, gave rise to the idiom "Hang from a Beam and Stab the Thigh." This idiom vividly describes the arduous journey of one's fervent dedication to learning. While the methods employed by Sun Jing and Su Qin may not be prevalent in today's society, we believe that individuals who share the same spirit of self-motivation and strive for self-improvement in various ways can achieve a wide range of accomplishments. 
Chinese Idiom About Diligence — Hang from a Beam and Stab the Thigh

The Origin of "Hanging from a Beam"

Let's start with the story of Sun Jing, a dedicated and extremely studious individual. He tirelessly immersed himself in books year after year, often reading late into the night. Overwhelmed by drowsiness, he occasionally dozed off involuntarily. To overcome this situation, he devised an unusual method. He tied a rope to the roof beam of his house and fastened the other end of the rope to his hair. Whenever he nodded off, the rope would pull on his hair, causing a painful sensation that would drive away his drowsiness. With no comfortable sleeping position available, he compelled himself to continue studying. 

Chinese Idiom About Diligence — Hang from a Beam and Stab the Thigh

After years of unwavering dedication to his studies, Sun Jing became a well-read scholar, renowned for his knowledge. This is the origin of the phrase "hanging from a beam." 

This story can be found in "Readings of the Taiping Era (a massive Chinese encyclopedia of the Song dynasty)," a text from the Northern Song Dynasty, in the section titled "Biographies of Virtuous Scholars from the State of Chu." It describes Sun Jing's passion for learning, his struggle to stay awake, and how he would hang his head near the roof beam to discipline himself. He would often stay home and was known as the "Master Without Leaving Home."

The "Trimetric Classic" also mentions this practice, stating, "Head hanging from a beam, awl stabbing the thigh. Without a teacher's instruction, one must be diligent and endure hardship." This highlights the spirit of diligent self-improvement and perseverance in learning. 

(The "Trimetric Classic" condenses and refines thousands of years of cultural content, including classical studies, history, nature, philosophy, ethics, and more, into concise and rhythmic three-character phrases. It is used to instill a spirit of diligent pursuit of knowledge in young learners.)

The Origin of "Stabbing the Thigh"

As for the origin of "stabbing the thigh," it is associated with Su Qin during the Warring States period. Legend has it that Su Qin, a native of Luoyang, studied under the renowned Guiguzi. After completing his studies, Su Qin spent many years advocating and persuading the State of Qin, but he received no recognition or employment from the Qin ruler. As a result, he found himself penniless and had no choice but to return to Luoyang. This scenario is recorded in "Annals of the Warring States, Strategies of Qin." 

Upon his return, Su Qin was in a wretched state. The black fur coat he wore was tattered, and the hundred catties of gold he had taken with him for his endeavors had been depleted. He dragged his weary body, wearing straw shoes, carrying books, and holding a bag, as he walked back home. His complexion was darkened, and he was in a state of destitution. When he entered his home, his wife was sitting in front of a spinning wheel, weaving cloth. She did not even turn her head to acknowledge his return. Starving and unable to bear it any longer, Su Qin turned to his sister-in-law to ask for a bowl of rice, but she refused to help him cook. Even his own parents were unwilling to speak to him. 

Heartbroken, Su Qin sighed deeply. He wondered why, after his failure in persuading the State of Qin, his wife no longer recognized him as her husband, his sister-in-law did not acknowledge him as her brother-in-law, and even his parents did not see him as their son. All of this was the result of his unsuccessful persuasion of the State of Qin. (It should be noted that Su Qin later changed his approach, advocating the "vertical alliance" strategy to persuade the six states to unite against Qin, a renowned strategy in the Warring States period.) 

Chinese Idiom About Diligence — Hang from a Beam and Stab the Thigh

That night, Su Qin took out all of his hidden books and read them meticulously. He discovered "The Classic of Tai Gong Yin Fu," a text known for its strategic wisdom, and began memorizing it. He delved into its contents, striving to understand and absorb it.  To overcome the drowsiness that often accompanied late-night studying,

Su Qin prepared a pointed awl. Whenever he felt himself nodding off, he would use the awl to pierce his own thigh, causing pain that would prevent him from falling asleep. However, this often resulted in blood trickling down to his ankle.   Su Qin was determined. He believed that once he became highly skilled and knowledgeable, rulers would surely honor him with riches, fine clothing, and high-ranking positions. He persisted in his belief, diligently studying night after night. 

After a year of relentless effort, Su Qin finally mastered the essence of the texts he had studied. Overjoyed, he said, "Now I can finally set out to persuade the various states (to form the vertical alliance of six states)."  Su Qin began his persuasive efforts in the State of Yan and gained the approval of Duke Wen of Yan. He continued to the State of Zhao, where he received strong support from Lord Su of Zhao. He then persuaded the states of Han, Wei, and Qi. Finally, he successfully won over King Wei of Chu, completing the alliance of six states. Su Qin was unanimously chosen as the leader of the alliance, and he wore the seals of the six states, united in their resistance against Qin. 

What Happened Next?


According to the historical records in the "Records of the Grand Historian," after completing the mission of forming the "vertical alliance," Su Qin had to return to the state of Zhao and report to the King of Zhao. He passed through his hometown of Luoyang on the way back. 

At this time, Su Qin was wearing the seals of all six states, and envoys from each state were escorting him. There were even processions with flags and horses, and a large amount of wealth and carriages surrounded Su Qin's chariot. The banners were so numerous that they seemed to block out the sun, resembling the entourage of a king on an inspection tour. 

When King Hui of Zhou heard the news, he was astonished and afraid. He quickly dispatched people to clean the streets and personally went outside the city to greet Su Qin. His younger brother, wife, and sister-in-law all knelt on the ground, not daring to look up, only stealing glances at him and waiting for him to have some food.  Su Qin smiled and asked his sister-in-law, "Why were you so proud and disrespectful before? Now you are so humble and respectful." His sister-in-law crawled forward on the ground, pressing her face to the earth in a bow, and replied, "It's because your status is now noble and wealthy!" (From the idiom "arrogant before and humble after").   

Su Qin sighed and said, "The same person, when poor and destitute, even his parents do not recognize him. When in power and wealth, everyone respects and fears him. From this, we can see that in life, how can one underestimate power and wealth!"   He then reflected, "If at that time, I had two acres of good farmland in the suburbs, maybe I would have been like them, content with the status quo and having a short-sighted view of the world. How could I have had the seals of all six states and become who I am today?"  With this realization, Su Qin let go of his worries and generously distributed his wealth to his family, relatives, and friends. ...   

In conclusion, we can draw inspiration from the stories of Sun Jing and Su Qin from over two thousand years ago. When we do anything, we should embrace the spirit of "hanging from a beam and stabbing the thigh", work tirelessly towards our goals, and never give up.   

By learning one idiom a day, we can expand and deepen our historical perspective and draw from the wisdom of our predecessors to achieve success in life. 

  • Approach everything with the spirit of "hanging from a beam and stabbing the thigh," working tirelessly towards your goals.
  • The story of "hanging from a beam and stabbing the thigh" teaches us to adopt the spirit of determination and diligence demonstrated by our predecessors and work towards realizing our ideals.
  • Anyone who possesses the determination and spirit of "hanging from a beam and stabbing the thigh" can surely achieve great results.

Written by Bubu
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