Grinding an Iron Pestle Down to a Needle

The other day I was listening to a ChinesPod podcast and they talked about the saying “铁杵磨成针” (tiě chǔ mó chéng zhēn) [lit. iron pestle grind into needle]. Then coincidentally I found an anecdote in my “Tales and Traditions, Vol. 1”, which is kind of curious and funny. I’m going to leave you the story without translation, it’s an easy read for a low intermediate level. I underlined a few words that might be a little harder:

名字 [nouns]

大诗人 [lit. big poem person]: great poet
dà shī rén
: sweat; perspiration

形容词 [adjectives]

优美 [excellent beautiful]: graceful; fine exquisite
yōu měi
认真 [undertake true]: earnest; serious; conscientious
rèn zhēn
: wide; thick

动词 [verbs]

念书 [think books]: study; read
niàn shū
逃学 [escape class]: skip class; play hooky
táo xué
大叫 [big shout]: shout
dà jiào
打动 : move; touch
dǎ dòng
说明 [speak clear]: explain; illustrate; show
shuō míng

副词 [adverbs]

深深 [deep deep]: deeply; keenly; profoundly
shēn shēn
从此 [from here and now]: since then; from now on
cóng cǐ




语法 [Grammar]

There are a couple of sentence structures I want to look at in this story, the point is not be exhaustive, but focus on two that caught my attention.


This is probably a sentence structure that’s easy to understand. I usually think of it as a “while”. It basically expresses simultaneity, so taking one of the sentences from the story:

one side grinding, one side say
while grinding, she said

It’s easy enough and you can play around with it and make up your own sentences.


The 把 “bǎ” construction is maybe a little more advanced, but the sentences in the story are not that difficult, so we can take a look at them:

you want bǎ this so thick iron pestle grind into small small needle?

First, let’s remember how the 把 construction works:

[subject] + [auxilary verb] + [direct object] + [verb] + [indirect object]

This is the structure of a bit more complex 把 sentence, the more simple construction is in blue. So, looking back at our sentence we can see that it is structured as follows:

+   想   + 把 + 这么粗的铁杵 + 磨成 + 小小的针
[s]   + [aux. v.] + 把 +   [direct object]   +   [verb]  + [ind. obj.]
You want [to] bǎ such thick iron pestle + grind into [a] tiny needle.

Notice that in English we would say:

You want to grind such a thick iron pestle into a tiny needle?
[Subj.] + [aux. v.] + [verb] + [direct object] + [v. complement] + [ind. obj.]

Wo do not have a 把, but you could say that instead we split the verb and its complement in order to indicate the direct object.

Well, I guess the 把 construction is not as easy as the 一边…一边… construction, but it’s definitely something to get used to. Let’s finish up with the last sentence:


I’m not a linguist, but this is not exactly the same as the first sentence we looked at, however, it can be seen with the same structure, we can think of it first in the simple construction:

人们 [subject]
“铁杵磨成针” [direct object]
用来[verb] + 说明[v. complement]

So we know that the outline of the sentence in English should be:

人们 + 用来 + “铁杵磨成针” + 说明
People use the [phrase] “Grinding an iron pestle down to a needle” to illustrate + [indirect object].

In this way we can now see that the indirect object is what is left of the sentence:


If I’m not wrong in this case we have the construction:

Subject + verb + direct object + verb complement + subclause

And the translation would start:
People use the [phrase] “Grinding an iron pestle down to a needle” to illustrate that [subclause].

It seems like such a hassle to do this whole translation process, of course, that’s not what you do when you’re reading, this is to show you in detail how the construction works, how it is different from the English translation, and how to organize all the pieces. The important point of the 把 construction is that right after the 把 you will want to look for the direct object and then a verb, that is the simple construction. If the sentence is more complex you will also see either an indirect object or a subclause.

Don’t be discouraged if you are having trouble reading something, as you see it more you will get used to it’s varied uses or as the chengyu goes 熟能生巧.

This has been a long lesson, I hope you liked the little story and see you next time.

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