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
hàn

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

铁杵磨成针

    大诗人李白写了很多优美的诗。直到今天,人们还是很喜欢读他的诗,说他的故事。“铁杵磨成针”是他小时候的故事。
    李白小的时候一点也不喜欢念书,常常逃学,到学校外面去玩。
    有一天,老师让他念书,他念到一半,有跑出去玩了。
    这天很热,小李白就跑到河边去玩。他看见一位老奶奶拿着一根大铁杵在一块石头上磨牙磨牙。老奶奶磨的很认真,满头都是
    小李白觉得很奇怪,就问:“你在做什么呀,老奶奶?”
    老奶奶一边磨着,一边说:“我在磨这根铁杵呀。”
    小李白觉得更奇怪了,又问:“磨这个做什么啊?”
    老奶奶抬起头,看了看李白说,“做一根针呀。”
    “什么?!”小李白大叫起来,“你想把这么的铁杵磨成小小的针?!这可是要多少年的时间呀!”
    老人的话深深地打动了小李白,从此,他认真学习,成了一位大诗人。
    后来,人们常常把“铁杵磨成针”用来说明一个人只要有认真,就一定能够成功,做到他想要做的事情。

铁杵磨成针

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.

一边……,一边……

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:

“一边磨着,一边说”
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.

“一边+[verb],一边+[verb]”

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:

“你想这么粗的铁杵磨成小小的针?”
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:

后来,人们常常“铁杵磨成针”用来说明一个人只要有认真,就一定能够成功,做到他想要做的事情。

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:

“…一个人只要有认真,就一定能够成功,做到他想要做的事情。”

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.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s