A small step can lead to a long journey, a small hole can collapse a dam

Zhang Ciyun
Pay attention to the small things in life. They can guide you to big things or also disrupt them.
Zhang Ciyun

A thousand miles can be used to describe something very long or very distant, be it a dam or a journey.

There are more than a dozen Chinese idioms using the phrase “a thousand miles” in a figurative way. Here are two common ones that seem to express a similar idea.

The first one is qianli zhidi kuiyu yixue, or “an ant’s hole may cause the collapse of a thousand-mile-long dam.”


qiān lǐ zhī dī kuì yú yǐ xué

This saying comes from “Han Feizi,” or “Writings of Master Han Fei,” one of the most important philosophical classics in ancient China. It sounds quite similar to a famous quotation by American statesman and inventor Benjamin Franklin, who warned about frittering money away by saying: “Beware of little expenses — a small leak will sink a great ship.”

The other Chinese idiom involving “a thousand miles” is a well-known quotation from Lao Tzu, a top ancient Chinese philosopher, author of “Daodejing,” or the “Tao Te Ching,” and founder of Taoism, who lived during the later years of the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 BC).

The philosopher once said qianli zhixing shiyu zuxia, or “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”


qiān lǐ zhī xíng shǐ yú zú xià

It’s true that if one doesn’t take that first step, a journey will forever remain a dream. This may also apply to the journey of life, an ambition or an understanding.

Both Chinese idioms here seem to emphasize that something may seem like a small amount, but it adds up over time. In English, there are several expressions that echo this same point: “Take care of the pennies and the pounds will take care of themselves,” and “little and often fills the purse.”

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