Xuán liáng cì gǔ
Translation: Tie one’s hair on the house beam and prick one’s thigh with an awl.
Meaning: Take a painstaking effort in one’s study.
This proverb encompasses two stories. The xuán liáng 悬梁 (tying one’s hair on the house beam) part of the proverb is found in the Han shu 汉书 (Book of Han), a Chinese classic historical book that covers a large part of the Western Han dynasty (202 bce–9 ce). It was allegedly written by Ban Gu (32–92 ce). His father Ban Biao and sister Ban Zhao are also believed to have a part in the book’s authorship.
The story of cìgǔ刺股 (pricking one’s thigh with an awl) appeared in the Zhanguo ce 战国策(Strategies of Warring States), a renowned ancient Chinese historical work, and compilation of sporadic materials on the Warring States Period (475–221 bce). Its authorship is debatable, though it’s popularly attributed to Liu Xiang (79–8 bce).
The main character in the xuanliang story is Sun Jing, a great Confucian scholar of the Jin dynasty (266–420 ce). When Sun was young, he studied very hard. To prevent himself from dozing off while reading, he would tie the tip of his long hair (in ancient China, men all wore long hair) to the house beam above him. Whenever he nodded his head in drowsiness, he would wake up from the pain caused by the pulling of his hair.
During the Warring States Period, there appeared, according to Liu Xiang, a number of strategists and lobbyists, who tried to persuade weaker states to combine their forces to fight against the annexation effort of the strongest state, the State of Qin. Su Qin (380–284 bce) was one of those strategist. Before rising to fame, he had traveled all over China seeking an official position. Not being learned enough though, he failed miserably. Eventually, he returned home in rags, only to be looked down upon by his wife and parents. Su Qin turned their contempt into an impetus. He made up his mind to study hard so that he could become somebody. He studied military strategies day and night. Whenever he felt sleepy, he would use an awl to prick his thigh so that the pain would keep him awake. In less than two years, he had become so knowledgeable that each of the six weaker states one after another hired him as its prime minister. He was then in a better position to lobby the leaders of the states to resist the state of Qin.
|悬||xuán||to hang, to dangle (V)|
|刺||cì||to stab, to sting, to prick (V); thorn (N)|
Even though he has a handicap, that student studied as hard as those who did anything in the world to stay focused, and finally got his doctoral degree.