This is an old Chinese idiom, but it seems to have a special importance in Chinese martial arts, where it might be said to be a central maxim. Essentially, some form of:

"To get good gongfu, you must eat bitter."

Why is this a part of the Chinese boxing oral tradition? What is it meant to convey? Is there more than one meaning?

  • 1
    Haha. I think you know what it means. :) Commented Aug 17, 2021 at 3:29
  • @SteveWeigand Yourself as well! But I want others to know!
    – DukeZhou
    Commented Aug 17, 2021 at 3:51

3 Answers 3


My understanding is that "eat bitter" is perseverance through hardship. There are old Chinese idioms that are 4 characters, like "eat bitter taste sweet" meaning something like suffering now brings rewards later - in this case the suffering is hard training and the reward is gongfu.

There's another one like "not bitter not tea" which means "if you're not suffering you're not living" - or as you've probably heard it: "no pain no gain"

  • That's a great take, consistent with Buddhist thought! Some form of: "Life is suffering. But there is a way out of suffering. This is the dharma."
    – DukeZhou
    Commented Sep 4, 2021 at 3:10

It means hard training, repetitive work, etc. Anything that tests your will and endurance in training. In the past when Chinese traditional martial arts were still aimed for actual combat, this means building muscle (and muscle memory), doing full contact sparring, and essentially anything that increases chances of survival.

Considering China's current policy on martial arts (cutting out effective self defense stuff and advocating traditional forms with no combat value), this "central maxim" is no longer valid in Chinese martial arts, and will likely never be valid again.

  • 1
    I hear you on contemporary wushu, and the goal there is to become a judgeable olympic sport, largely via gymnastics, but it's still fantastic core training, and Jet Li had to eat bitter. Even if he's not a fighter, Jet has good gongfu.
    – DukeZhou
    Commented Aug 17, 2021 at 3:54
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    Yeah, I'm not feeling this answer. Anyone who puts in hard work and long hours qualifies as eating bitter. Some of the hardest working people I know have been contemporary wushu people. They spend countless amounts of time repeating movements. Try practicing a butterfly twist or an aerial sometime. You'll fall on your head, shoulder, neck, etc. You'll snap your wrist. You'll sprain your ankle. Over and over. You'll rent out time at a gymnastics studio so you can practice with a foam pit to save you from getting killed. It's hard, painful, and requires strength in all senses of the word. Commented Aug 17, 2021 at 3:58
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    I agree with both of you above. Thanks for the correction :)
    – user11733
    Commented Aug 17, 2021 at 5:16
  • @SteveWeigand I think it's a good foundational answer though, and opens the door for perhaps some further explication.
    – DukeZhou
    Commented Aug 18, 2021 at 2:07

Winston's answer got me pondering this, and I'm still pondering, so the answer may evolve. But instinct is telling me:

  • It means painful sacrifice, in addition to hard work and physical pain.

My teacher used to say "Whole life. Full time. Only this." This meant giving up most of what the rest of us enjoy, such as active social lives, hobbies, time off, etc.

There's a saying "Either the family suffers, or the career suffers", and I suspect there is a parallel.

For the overwhelming majority of people, martial arts is not a good way to make money, such that even the decision to teach full time for many/most is not an optimal financial decision. It's a hard life, and, for most, there will be very little recognition.

This is what Olympic athletes do—sacrifice the other parts of their lives to focus solely on that one thing, for as long as they can do it. And of the potentially hundreds of athletes in an Olympic competition, only a few will win medals, and fewer still the golds. Yet every single one of them is an extraordinary athlete, the best of the best.

I don't think this means the rest of us have to give up everything, because most will not be Wayne Gretzky no matter how hard we work.

  • I've always heard the phrase used to connote "good" skill that anyone who is dedicated enough should be able to attain, not exclusively the "greatest" skill.

It could could mean that we should try to focus on it to the exclusion of every possible other thing for at least some period of our lives, to have that experience, training and extra edge.

  • Part of it might be realizing we'll never quite get to where we want to, and maybe most of us aren't quite as good as we thought, but we keep on going, regardless.

After all of that, maybe find we have something of value—"good gong fu."

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