Stories from Ancient China: Great Achievements Begin With Small Steps

By Epoch Times Staff

There is an ancient Chinese saying, “Continuously dripping water eventually penetrates a large stone.” What this means is that we shouldn’t scorn or dismiss actions or efforts that appear small and insignificant, because they can have great effects over time. Great deeds are achieved by many small but continuous efforts. Likewise, grand plans can be disrupted by the growth and accumulation of many small mistakes.

China’s 5,000-year-old history is filled with many meaningful stories of how small actions- whether positive or negative – will eventually lead to great changes. We begin with the story of Chen Fan, who had to learn to sweep his house before he could learn to sweep the world off its feet.

Sweeping the World Off Its Feet Begins With Sweeping Your House

The “History of the Late Han” records a story about a proud young chap named Chen Fan. Chen was ambitious and wanted to achieve great things, but he did not bother to keep his life in order. As a result, his room was in a constant state of filth and untidiness.

One day, Xue Qin, a friend of Chen’s father, came to visit. When he saw how dirty Chen’s room was, he asked Chen, “Why don’t you clean up your room?”

Chen replied, “As a man of great ambition, why should I be wasting time on trivial things like sweeping my room, when I should be concentrating on sweeping the world off its feet?”

Xue Qin then mused, “How can one achieve great things when one can’t even keep his living space clean?” His remark left Chen speechless.

“How can one achieve great things when one can’t even keep his living space clean?” Xue Qin remonstrates the ambitious but lazy youth Chen Fan. (Zhi Qing/Epoch Times)

The famous Chinese philosopher Xun Zi once wrote,


“Without taking many small steps, one cannot complete a journey of a thousand miles. Without collecting many drops of water, one cannot form a river or sea.”


While Chen’s great aspirations were admirable, he had yet to realize that in order to achieve great things, one must begin with achieving small tasks. If one can’t even manage one’s own living space, how can one manage the important undertakings in life? If one is not even willing to do “menial” tasks, how can one achieve great things?


Rome was not built in a day, and great achievements do not happen overnight. History’s great achievers began with small accomplishments accumulated over many years.  It is through realising small achievements and improvements that we eventually work our way up to greater things.


A Journey of a Thousand Miles Begins With a Single Step

This famous quote comes from Laozi, to illustrate how significant things arise from constant perseverance:


“A massive tree – so wide that it can be encircled by two men – began as a tiny sapling. A nine-storey pagoda began as a pile of dirt on its foundation. A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”


In his book Wei Xue (“To Learn”), the Qing Dynasty writer Peng Duanshu tells this story of a rich monk and a poor monk, who lived along the border of Sichuan Province. Both monks wanted to make the pilgrimage across the South Sea to India, where they would pay their respects to Buddha.

The rich monk said to the poor monk, “For several years, I have been trying to hire a great ship to sail across the South Sea. Even after such a long time, my plans have yet to reach fruition. What are you, a poor monk, going to depend on to cross the South Sea?”

One year later, the poor monk returned from his pilgrimage across the South Sea, only to find that the rich monk still hadn’t started his journey. The poor monk told the thunderstruck rich monk, “Throughout my one-year journey, I depended on my water bottle and begging bowl, and that was all I needed to fulfill my wish.”

Relying on courage and a strong will, the poor monk accomplished his dream by taking one step after another. By contrast, the rich monk left his dream as a castle in the air, talking about his aspirations but failing to act on them. These differing mindsets resulted in very different outcomes.


For an ambitious person to realise his dreams, he must persevere in the small details while keeping the big picture in mind. Only by making continuous small efforts can one accomplish great things.


Great Defeats Begin With Minor Flaws

In our daily lives, the thoughts that pass through our minds are not insignificant. Minor bad habits or thoughts can accumulate and grow with time, and will eventually manifest in a serious way with grave consequences.

According to the Records of the Grand Historian, King Zhou of Shang once received a pair of ivory chopsticks, which he adored.

When his advisor Qi Zi saw this, he sighed and said, “The more one cares about the ivory chopsticks, the more one will realize that they are too fine to use with plain porcelain ware. They can only be paired with bowls of rhino horn and cups of white jade.

“When one has acquired such fine cutlery, one will find them too fine to contain wild vegetable soup or broken rice grains. They must be served with the finest delicacies.

“When one gets used to eating delicacies, one won’t want to wear coarse cloth or live in a simple grass hut. Instead, one will desire for expensive silk robes and great palaces.

“If this continues, the luxuries within our borders will not be enough for the King, and he will desire rare and exquisite items from other countries. Just from a pair of ivory chopsticks, I can already see what will happen, and I can’t help but worry for the King.”

King Zhou of Shang—his desire grew and grew. He abandoned all duties of governance, choosing to indulge in festive orgies and luxuries instead. (Internet Photo)

Qi Zi’s prediction did come true, and King Zhou’s desire grew and grew. He abandoned all duties of governance, choosing to indulge in festive orgies and luxuries instead. He levied heavy taxes to build opulent residences with pools of wine and forests of meat, where he hosted his parties.

King Zhou lost the respect and support of his people, and he was eventually overthrown by King Wu of the Zhou Dynasty. After his defeat, King Zhou set fire to his palace and his treasures, and committed suicide by throwing himself into the flames.


Instead of curbing his desires while they were still small, King Zhou let his greed for luxury grow untamed. What was once a small flaw became a major problem, and it ultimately cost him his kingdom and his life.  


“It cannot be, when the root is neglected, that what should spring from it will be well ordered.” It is crucial to constantly reflect upon and curb one’s shortcomings, before they become serious issues.

Yu Gong Levels the Mountains

The following story comes from the Taoist text Liezi, about an old man named Yu Gong. Long ago, there were two mountains named Taixing and Wangwu, which stood on the north banks of the Yellow River. They spanned over 700 miles and were several thousand feet high.

Because the mountains were so tall and wide, travellers going to and from the Yellow River had to take a long detour around the mountains. For years, this was witnessed by the 90-year-old Yu Gong, who lived directly opposite the Taixing and Wangwu mountains. Yu Gong was greatly vexed by the situation, and wanted to fix the problem for the people.

One day, Yu Gong gathered his family. After discussing with them, he decided that the only solution was to manually level the mountains. The next day, Yu Gong and three of his sons and grandsons went to the mountains to break stones and dig up the earth. They then transported the stones and earth in baskets to the banks of the Bohai Sea.

With sheer determination, Yu Gong and his sons level the mountains Taixing and Wangwu. (Su Su/Epoch Times)

Zhi Sou, who lived on the riverbend, laughed at Yu Gong. “With such miniscule manpower, how will you and your sons be able to level two mountains?”

But Yu Gong replied, “Even after I’ve passed on, my sons will carry on the job. My sons will also have grandsons, and my grandsons will have great-grandsons, and so on. There will always be future generations in my family to carry on the job.

“On the other hand, the mountains won’t grow any bigger. The day will eventually come when these two mountains are levelled. Why should it be considered an impossible task?”

Zhi Sou was at a loss for words.


Despite his advanced age and limited strength, Yu Gong never doubted that his lofty goals were unachievable. He believed that with small but continuous efforts, one will ultimately achieve one’s goal.


His positive spirit touched the Heavenly God, who instructed the sons of the mighty deity Kua Ershi to help Yu Gong move the mountains. From then on, travellers could reach the Yellow River without any obstructions.


If we nurture the spirit to never pass on a kind act, no matter how small, we eventually reap great rewards for our perseverance.


Losing a Country Over a Bowl of Mutton Soup

During the Warring States Period, there was a small state named Zhongshan. The ruler of the state, King Zhongshan, once held a banquet for all the officers in the capital, including the officer Sima Ziqi.

At the banquet, Sima Ziqi was the only person who did not receive a bowl of mutton soup. In a fit of anger, Sima Ziqi defected to the Chu State and persuaded the King of Chu to attack the Zhongshan State.

The powerful Chu army soon defeated the Zhongshan army, and King Zhongshan was forced to flee. While fleeing, he noticed two armed men following him.

The king asked, “Why are you following me?”

The men replied, “Our father was once on the verge of death from starvation, but you saved his life by giving him a bowl of food. Before he died, he told us to protect you with our lives should you meet with any danger. That is why we are here.”

King Zhongshan looked up into the sky and sighed,


“A gift’s value is not judged by how great or small the amount, but by how much the person needs it. Hatred is not determined by how deep or shallow the injury, but by how much a person is hurt. I gained two warriors for a bowl of food, yet I lost my kingdom over a bowl of mutton soup.”


“Never commit a bad deed, no matter how minor.” Even the smallest slights or the weakest disparagements can hurt people. How can we not be careful with the things we say and do in our daily lives?


“Never pass on a kind act, no matter how small.”


No good deed is too trivial to perform for others. After all, even the smallest kind deed may be the “warm coal in the snow” that a person really needs at that moment.

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