I can not really figure out to translate this sentence. I guess it basically means that not eating is a bad thing. The first sentences - do they indicate that "iron" and "steel" belongs together, and so does "man" and "food", and it there is one, there better be the other, and thus - not eating is a terrible thing.

Would this be a correct understanding - or what else is the logic behind this sentence?

Thank you

  • 6
    the correct phrase is 人是铁,饭是钢,一顿不吃**饿**得慌
    – user58955
    Commented Jan 1, 2014 at 11:18
  • 2
    Here's a great discussion in Chinese: bbs.zdic.net/thread-184770-1-1.html Commented Jan 1, 2014 at 13:30
  • It seems like both versions of the sentence are correct - at least I have found both of them in a number of sources
    – miree
    Commented Jan 3, 2014 at 12:45
  • @miree: Your version here gets 8 Google hits whereas user58955's version gets 2,190,000. I think a factor of 273,750 is pretty clear for this one. Commented Jan 12, 2014 at 11:12
  • 1
    Google isn't a waterproof source of language usage, but if you get 8 hits on one phrase and 2 190 000 on another phrase, you can be quite sure the first one wrong (or at least extremely uncommon).
    – Olle Linge
    Commented Jan 15, 2014 at 4:50

8 Answers 8


在改革开放以前,大陆这边搞政治运动和大跃进嘛。为了“赶英超美”,提出“大炼钢铁”,所以就喜欢把人称为“铁人”、”铁姑娘“来表示这个人能吃苦、会劳动,是对人的一种褒美。 而对于饭,俗文化中认为“吃软饭”代表一个男人靠他的女人过活,所以“饭硬得像钢“也是对饭和人的褒美。


引用汉典论坛的讨论,“人是铁,饭是钢”有两个含义:1. 人是铁,但饭比铁厉害,铁是斗不过钢的。不吃饭是不行的。2. 人是铁,经过吃饭,锻炼成钢。以上的观点源自商务印书馆出版、由日本语言学者集体编写的《现代汉日辞海》中谚语“人是铁,饭是钢”一词的解释。

Before the Reformation and Open Doors, in mainland China were many political movements and the Great Leap Forward Movement (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Leap_Forward). The Chinese leaders that time dreamed of 赶英超美 ('leaping' beyond UK and USA), and since the production is the basis of heavy industry, it was very much emphasized. As a result, in that time, we used to describe a man or woman as 'iron'(“铁人”、”铁姑娘“) to show our admiration towards their toughness and as an honor.

As for rice being steel, in vulgar culture, 吃软饭 ((to be used to) eating soft(well-cooked) rice) for a man means to live upon his wife/lover's wealth, which is not good. So, this metaphor here is to emphasize a good sense in it, and it really goes with this expression because of the rhyme and the consistency between 铁 & 钢.

Even though, at that time, saying something like this aloud will be regarded as not understanding true Communism, and might be sentenced sinful privately in the name of "reversing production with conspiracy", which suggests it might have nothing to do with politics.

According to some web discussion posted @ 汉典, someone has looked in the Chinese-Japanese dictionary 现代汉日辞海 where 2 explanations are given. 1. The human is iron, but rice is more useful than 'iron'. Since iron is weaker, it is incredible to have no rice. 2. He who is iron, after having rice becomes steal. The whole process is abbreviated to the word 是, since it is an idiom who must conncentrate it into a single character.

  • The inner logic here is that we need steel and iron to construct a strong community. Commented Jan 3, 2014 at 19:52
  • I don't think this phrase is really so related to politics. Does this answer come from experience or is it your personal speculation?
    – arax
    Commented Jan 6, 2014 at 12:57
  • I remember hearing someone else saying so, but cannot recall who it was. However, it is true that in HK, TW, Malaysia or Singapore, people use this phrase far less frequently than in mainland China. Commented Jan 6, 2014 at 23:36
  • 1
    I think that's just cultural difference. And as you may be aware, people in HK & TW have a tendency to describe the mainland China as strongly collectivistic and completely driven by the CCP, which is far from the reality. I'm not trying to discuss politics or the society here but I promise I've only heard this saying when I was little and my grandma tried to get me to the dinner table. But I do agree that this phrase comes from long ago, and very likely during the time of the Great Leap.
    – arax
    Commented Jan 7, 2014 at 3:03
  • Ah, you have reason, because i have just read here...zhidao.baidu.com/search?word=人是铁饭是钢&fr=qb_search_exp&ie=utf8I will edit my answer a little later Commented Jan 8, 2014 at 1:01

The idiom's meaning is reinforced by the rhyme. I think you have the basic meaning correct. Maybe if you rhyme it in English it'll come out more like the Chinese:

"People are iron/Rice is steel/You'll feel like crap without a meal" - not a literal meaning, but conveying the gist.

  • 4
    +1 for a translation preserving the rhyme scheme! Commented Jan 2, 2014 at 17:20

To understand such an unsophisticated phrase, one should look for the most straight-forward and culturally obvious explanation. That is, I don't think analysing the chemical properties of iron and steel will be the right way to go.

Instead, there is one very obvious relationship between iron and steel: steel is tougher than iron. This fact is historically and culturally well known in China; for example there's a chengyu called "恨铁不成钢" (lit. to wish that iron can turn into steel), which can be seen in Dream of the Red Chamber.

Therefore, I believe the logic is that "you may think you are tough, but you are not tough at all without a meal".


This is a Chinese slang which doesn't have very solid logic in it. It's very hard to track the original source of this expression but most people guess it's getting more and more popular in 1980s.

When I was a child, my grandma often said this when I wasn't likely to have food on time.

I personally think this is because Chinese people were so hungry in 1960s.

You may want to read the following topics:




人是铁,饭是钢,一顿不吃烦得慌. Rén shì tiě, fàn shì gāng, yī dùn bù chī fán de huāng. People are iron, rice is steel, to not eat a meal is to be hungry and need to be in a panic.



Quick translation: iron and steel describe people and food; metaphorically the importance of food is greater than that of people just as steel is tougher than iron. In other words, if people are iron, then food is steel; you absolutely have to eat.

  • Welcome to Chinese.SE! This post is deemed "of low quality" automatically by the system. According to "Should I post in English or Chinese", it suggests "If the question is in English, please answer in English". So it's better to refine it. BTW, if this answer has referred to any source, please cite it :)
    – Stan
    Commented Jan 11, 2014 at 6:07

Taiwanese MoE dictionary defines it as: (諺語)比喻吃飽了飯才有力氣。如:「俗話說:『人是鐵,飯是鋼。』三天沒吃東西了,鐵打的身體也受不了,更何況還要做粗活呢!」

Isn't that rather similar to the English saying "an empty sack cannot stand upright"?


Human is iron as if the meal is steel,you will be hungry if you don't eat. Meaning is no one can live without food.

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