Chinese Idiom: Missing One Basket of Soil Spoils the Entire Effort to Build a Nine-Ren Mountain

There is an old Chinese idiom that says, “Missing one basket of soil spoils the entire effort to build a nine-ren mountain.” Ren is a unit of measurement for length in ancient China. It roughly equates to seven feet. The basket here refers to a bamboo container that the ancient Chinese people used to transport soil over short distances.

The legend has it that once upon a time in ancient China, a person started a project to build a nine-ren mountain. He moved one basket of soil after another and kept piling them up. When he had almost finished building the nine-ren mountain and needed only one more basket of soil to call it a success, he aborted the project due to a lack of persistence. Because of the lack of one last basket of soil, the entire effort to build a nine-ren mountain was spoiled by a narrow margin.

The story behind this idiom tells us that we should finish whatever we start, make persistent efforts until the very end, and that we must not ruin the whole plan because of a last-minute mistake or negligence. Many proverbs or maxims throughout history were derived from this idiom. All of them encourage people to persist in their efforts until they achieve success or perfection. For example, there is another famous proverb, “With one more basket of soil, a hill will be built. Do not build up your effort and then ruin it by last-minute negligence.”

Source: “The Travelling Mastiff” from The Book of Documents (Shang Shu)

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