I've been practicing my reading with the Du Chinese app. In one of the readings I came across this phrase: 天下无难事,只怕有心人. The app translates it as "Nothing in the world is too hard to do if we set our minds on it."

To me it sounds like the phrase is saying, "Nothing in the world is hard; only be afraid of resolute people" which doesn't seem like the same thing as the given translation.

I suppose it might be interpreted as "there is nothing to fear but someone who has set their mind on something" which is similar to "Nothing in the world is too hard if we set our minds on it", but they're not quite the same.

Why is this saying translated this way? And why is fear mentioned in the original but not in the translation?

  • 1
    If you wish to be idiomatic, then try, "Determination is the enemy of adversity" What is Adversity afraid of? -- Determination. Jan 21, 2022 at 1:50

5 Answers 5


天下无难事 - There's no difficult thing in the world

只怕有心人 - (difficult things) just overcome by determined people

When we say A 怕 B, it usually means A is afraid of B. But it can also be interpreted as B 克服 A (B overcome A)


老鼠怕貓 (mice are afraid of cats) = 貓克服老鼠 (cats overcome mice)

貓怕小孩 (cats are afraid of children) = 小孩克服貓 (children overcome cats)

小孩怕老鼠 (children are afraid of mice) = 老鼠克服小孩 (mice overcome children)

  • (难事)怕有心人 - (difficult things) are afraid of determined people

  • 有心人克服(难事) - determined people overcome (difficult things)

This phrase is used to encourage people to use determination to overcome the difficult task they face


The term I use is 世上无难事,只怕有心人. Since both 天下 and 世上 mean "in the world" I presume they are variant of each other

  • Could 只拍有心人 also be understood as "only people who are afraid of being resolute"? That is, 怕有心 is taken as a modifier of 人? Jan 20, 2022 at 17:21
  • 1
    @2ndQuantized No, the omitted subject is 难事 -- difficult things only afraid of determined people = only determined people overcome difficult things
    – Tang Ho
    Jan 20, 2022 at 17:22

天下无"难事", 只怕有心人. Direct translation - In the world, there are no difficult things, only afraid of someone with determination.

In the translation above, who or what is afraid of the person with determination? It is the "难事". So you can think of this sentence as saying:

天下无"难事", "难事"只怕有心人.

This is now much easier to understand, but it lacks the power to make the sentence an emphatical idiom or slogan, thus the second 难事 was treated as an unnecessary phrase (贅詞/語) that was not included.


I don't like translating 天下 so mundanely as "In the world", that's not very poetic!



It means if only one has a determined mind,
if you are ready to use that mind,
then one can deal with (any) worldly problems.

No trouble under heaven,
too difficult for determination.

  • "只怕有心人。 too difficult for determination." Shouldn't it be "not difficult for determination?"
    – dan
    Jan 21, 2022 at 0:36
  • 1
    (There is) No trouble under heaven (which is) too difficult for a determined person. "not difficult" would mean "all troubles are difficult"
    – Pedroski
    Jan 21, 2022 at 9:23

The other answers that claim that "只怕" here means that "难事" is figuratively afraid of (i.e. can be overcome by) "有心人" are wrong. Here is an accurate translation:

Under the sky nothing is hard, but [I'm] afraid [it's about] people with the heart.

A loose English rendering could be:

It is never a matter that is hard, but a person's heart.

This construction "A,只怕B。", where "只怕" is not used in the other sense of "but only afraid of", invariably means that one has to be concerned about B when thinking about A. This is expressed idiomatically in English by "A, but I'm afraid B.", which is similar to the Chinese except that we add the "I'm". For examples taken from straight off the internet:

If you bite at and devour each other, [I'm] afraid [you] will be mutually destroyed.

Indeed [I'm] afraid those women are more and more uncontrolled; eventually if again [there] spread some words that damage the little prince's reputation, wanting to prohibit at that time, [I'm] afraid, is also too late.

To emphasize, in "A,只怕B。" it is always the speaker who is saying that he/she is afraid/concerned with something (often implying that the audience should be concerned too), never something in "A" that is afraid!

Side remark: "天下" is idiomatic for "in the whole world", but it actually reflects the historical worldview that we humans are restricted to what's under the sky/heavens. Since it is a universal notion across languages, the figurative expression can be retained.


It's because "怕" is being used here as an adverb. Many Chinese characters have more than one meaning depending on context. In this case, when used as an adverb, "怕" does not mean being literally afraid, but rather denote something like "perhaps", "isn't it", or "if".

See for example, the Taiwanese Ministry of Education dictionary's entry:

  1. 可能、或許、大概。表估計。如:「這堆橘子怕有十來斤吧!」《儒林外史》第二六回:「他怕不也有二十五六歲,他對人自說二十一歲。」

  2. 豈、難道。表反問。《初刻拍案驚奇》卷三八:「我怕不要周全?只是關著財利上事,連夫妻兩個,心肝不託著五臟的。」《老殘遊記》第五回:「他再有個長短,這家業怕不是眾親族一分?」

  3. 如果、倘若。《永樂大典戲文三種.小孫屠.第三出》:「梅香,怕有賞春佳客來買酒,你與我安排了酒器,整頓則個。」《董西廂》卷五:「可憐我四海無家獨自個,怕得工夫肯略來看覷我麼?」

This can be confirmed in most other online dictionaries, for instance even Wiktionary or zdic.net:

(1) 用在謂語前面或句首,對某一情況進行估計、猜測,表示疑惑或商榷,相當於“恐怕”、“也許”、“或許”;在現代漢語裏,句尾常帶有“吧” [I’m afraid;perhaps;maybe]。如:怕是有什麼意外,平時他總是準時來的;怕不(恐怕,也許);怕敢(恐怕也許)
(2) 豈,難道 [as]。如:怕不待(豈不,難道不)
(3) 如其, [if]

For the purposes of this phrase, the relevant meaning is the one I've bolded: '倘', '倘若' meaning "if". In other words, the proper literal translation of '天下无难事,只怕有心人' is:

Nothing in the world is difficult, if only someone is determined.

edit to add: '只怕' is an establishedd adverb; even wiktionary lists it as such. You can affirm this in various literay analysis texts; few are readily available, but Google Books offer excerpts from a couple:

  1. 《聊斋俚曲》语法研究, Henan University, 2003, page 343:


  1. 宿松方言研究, Culture Art Publishing House, 2005, page 319:

“不少”可以与副词“只怕 恐怕, 可能”配合使用,意思不变。

  • 1
    I think this is the best interpretation. I don't think it is a case of subject omission; and the "I'm afraid that" sense doesn't fit well here (since it usually negates the preceding sentence).
    – xngtng
    Jan 21, 2022 at 19:09
  • @xngtng: I think this is wrong. I can't disprove it, but Semaphore didn't provide any empirical evidence for interpreting "只怕" as an adverb; the "只" is important and cannot be left out.
    – user21820
    Jan 21, 2022 at 19:57
  • @user21820 I'm not sure what kind of empirical evidence you're looking for here, but '只怕' is a set adverb. Note also the character 只 is an extremely common adverb, see e.g. The MoE dictionary which lists the adverb usage first.
    – Semaphore
    Jan 21, 2022 at 22:21
  • 1.只怕 is not a set adverb, 只得 or 只好 (can only) is. 2.怕 in 只怕 (just afraid) is not an adverb but a verb. Example: 想收購中國企業只怕政府不許 (If you want to buy a Chinese company, I am afraid that the government will not allow it)
    – Tang Ho
    Jan 22, 2022 at 0:43
  • 怕 in 怕是有什麼意外 is also not an adverb but a verb, the sentence means "(I'm) afraid that there's some accident --> afraid is a verb. It said 怕 相當於 “恐怕” is correct, but it is not the same as “也許” (maybe). The editor suggested 怕是有什麼意外 = 可能是有什麼意外 is based on extended logic. When you are [afraid] of something that might happen, the fear is speculative
    – Tang Ho
    Jan 22, 2022 at 0:47

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