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Delving into the Chinese Idiom “In for a penny, in for a pound”

In life, we encounter problems every day. Often, we give up before solving it. We struggle to finish things proven to be daunting. After all, when we encounter a problem we believe too immense, doubt takes over. We doubt ourselves in the face of hardship. That causes us to give up during the encounter. Thereby, we must remember that life is inherently a struggle. It is the amalgamation of thousands of different battles. There’s nothing left in it but to see our problems till the end. There’s nothing left but to defeat the hindrances we face. It is true that most of us struggle to finish encounters. Often, we give up halfway without seeing it through.  The next time doubt takes over in the face of hardship, whisper the Chinese idiom “yī bū zuò,èr bù xiū” (一不做,二不休 ) to yourself. 

chinese idiom yibuzuo erbuxiu
chinese idiom yibuzuo erbuxiu

“In for a penny, in for a pound.” 

Today is yet another day to examine a motivational Chinese Chengyu yī bū zuò,èr bù xiū” (一不做,二不休 ). It means “being determined to go the whole hog,” or “once started, go through with it.” The idiom is the western equivalent of “in for a penny, in for a pound.” Its usage essentially applies to any daunting tasks. It is a show of determination to finish the job, despite the problems along the way.  

The idiom is quite well-known locally. Veritably, Chinese people use it on an everyday basis. People use this idiom in their daily communication. It is an incredibly common idiomatic expression in China; everyone knows its context.

One might wonder where this popular idiom originated. It emanated from a classical Chinese allusion. To elaborate, we will go back to ancient times; into the Tang Dynasty.

Origin of the Chinese Idiom

In 755 AD, Jiedu (provincial governor in charge of civil and military affairs) of the Tang Dynasty caused Anlu Mountain to rebel. During the battle, an arrow hit imperial general Wang Sili’s mount.  In such a critical situation, a cavalry named Zhang Guangsheng gave him the horse to get him out of danger.

Eventually, they successfully vanquished the rebels. As a result, they promoted Wang Sili. However, he did not forget Zhang Guangsheng’s life-saving grace.  In recognition, he became brothers with Zhang Guangsheng and repeatedly recommended the court promote Zhang through the ranks. In 783, an army committed mutiny against the capital of Chang’an. Emperor Dezong fled to Fengtian (now Qianxian County, Shaanxi Province). The rebels elected Taiwei Zhu Ci as Emperor. Zhang Guangsheng thought that the Tang Dynasty’s energy was exhausted, so he attached to Zhu Ci and became his servant.

Zhu Ci proclaimed himself the Emperor of the Qin Dynasty and led the troops to conquer Fengtian. He appointed Zhang Guangsheng as the deputy general. Unexpectedly, it was unfavorable to leave the division. The siege failed to capture the city for more than a month, and the troops from various places to rescue Dezong were approaching Fengtian.  Faced with utter defeat, Zhu Ci and Zhang Guangsheng could only retreat to Chang’an.

In the following year, Zhu Ci changed his country name to Han and proclaimed himself the Emperor of Han Yuan. He named Zhang Guangsheng the prime minister. At this time, the Tang army’s general Li Sheng and others approached Chang’an. Zhu Ci handed over five thousand elite soldiers to Zhang Guangsheng and ordered him to station in Jiuqu to defend against the Tang army.

Seeing that Zhu Ci’s general situation settled, Zhang Guangsheng secretly sent someone to get in touch with Tang Army General Li Sheng, hoping to return to the court. Li Sheng welcomed him and commanded the army to storm Chang’an. As an internal respondent, Zhang Guangsheng advised Zhu Ci to leave Chang’an as soon as possible and personally escorted him out of the city. After Zhu Ci fled, he returned to Chang’an and led the remnants to surrender to Li Sheng. Li Sheng promised to sue the court to reduce his crime of defecting to the enemy. Zhang Guangsheng was grateful to Li Sheng.

Since then, every time Li Sheng held a banquet, he invited Zhang Guangsheng to attend and treated him as a guest. The guests took a scunner with this, and some broke out in public, expressing that they did not want to sit with the anti-thief. Seeing that the anger was hard to commit, Li Sheng had to take care of Zhang Guangsheng and wait for the court to deal with it. Soon, Dezong issued an edict and executed the rebellious Zhang Guangsheng. Li Sheng could no longer intercede for Zhang Guangsheng, so he had to be executed.

When he was dying, Zhang Guangsheng said sadly: “Tell my words to the people of future generations: Once it is started, go through with it! “一不做,二不休 ( yī bū zuò,èr bù xiū )”

With that, the tale of where 一不做,二不休 ( yī bū zuò,èr bù xiū ) originated comes into the limelight. It is truly a fascinating and powerful origin.

With the origin done, let us now delve into the examples of the idiom’s usage.


Wǒ men yě xǔ yīng gāi zài zhè yī diǎn shàng tíng xià lái, dàn wǒ men yǐ jīng tóu zī le zhè me duō, zhèng rú tā men suǒ shuō, yī bú zuò, èr bú xiū


We probably should have stopped at that point, but we had already invested so much, and as they say, in for a penny, in for a pound.

Dào zhè dì bù, wǒ men zhǐ hǎo yī bú zuò èr bú xiū


Now that we’ve gone as far as this, we must go the whole hog or drop it altogether.

When using this idiom, you must remember the central premise. That is “finishing a task once it starts” despite how daunting the task may be. This idiom is common yet powerful. It tells people to go past the task. It inculcates people to finish the tasks at hand.

Not only is this Chinese idiom powerful but it is also helpful. It serves as a motivation to keep moving forward. It induces a strength in people to finish the task at hand. Just tell yourself, in the face of a hard task, where 一不做,二不休 ( yī bū zuò,èr bù xiū ), “in for a penny, in for a pound.”

Till our next idiom, take care!


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