You can't make a meal without rice, or bricks without straw

Zhang Ciyun
Even the most resourceful person needs basic ingredients to achieve a positive outcome.
Zhang Ciyun

Lu You (1125-1210) was a renowned Chinese historian and poet of the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279). He wrote about 11,000 poems and left behind many beautiful verses and popular idioms.

In one of his books, entitled “Laoxue’an Biji,” or the “Notebook from the House of An Elderly Student,” there’s a story that produced a proverb still widely quoted today.

The story focuses on the dialog between a government official and an old monk.

One evening, a government official on a business trip was walking in a deserted area. Dusk was turning into night and there were no people or houses in the vicinity, save a dilapidated temple.

The official knocked on the door of the temple. A teenage monk came to answer the door, but when he saw the stranger dressed like an official, he said nothing and immediately ran back into the temple.

A white-bearded old monk subsequently appeared. The official told the old monk that he would like to stay the night at the temple.

However, the old monk apologized and said he couldn’t provide accommodation for him because the temple had barely any facilities.

“How can you manage a temple and let it deteriorate into such conditions?” asked the official.

The monk felt offended and replied: “Not even a very capable housewife can cook noodle soup without wheat flour.”

The official retorted sarcastically: “If there were wheat flour, even the dumbest housewife could make a noodle soup.”

Failing to find a plausible answer, the old monk quietly retreated into the temple.

This dialog was later condensed into the proverb qiaofu nanwei wumizhichui, or “even the most resourceful housewife cannot prepare a meal without rice.”


qiǎo fù nán wéi wú mǐ zhī chuī

In the proverb, the wheat flour was replaced with rice because it is a more common staple food for people living in southern China.

The saying is now often cited as an excuse for not beginning a business or project.

It could be deemed an equivalent to English proverbs such as “you can’t make bricks without straw” and “if you have no hand, you cannot make a fist.”

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