The famous saying "欲成大器, 必先退之" is first said by Han Yu's wife, which is the origin of his courtesy name. How to translate this sentense into English though?

My first try is:

One should first learn self-effacement before he can achieve something great.

3 Answers 3


"退" means "stepping back". To achieve greatness, one must know to step back and look at the whole picture.

although "退" can be translated to mean "retreat", "back down" or "compromise" as @Semaphore already pointed out, I tend to think that these are not applicable in its original context.

Han Yu's wife said that to Han Yu after he told her that he had failed in his application for a government job. We cannot speak of further "retreat" or "backing down" in a failure.

  • +1 "stepping back" is a really good translation.
    – Semaphore
    Commented Aug 9, 2014 at 15:22

The idea here is the same as the set phrase: 以退為進, literally, "To advance by retreating." So a literal translation is "To become a great person, one must first learn to back down / be flexible / compromise / back off / retreat".

Personally, I'd suggest something like "True greatness comes after learning when to let go / compromise" which might be better flowing English.

See also the below:


- 唐·韓愈《答侯繼書》


"Modesty is the key to success."

"退" here means:

.... 遜讓也。《禮·曲禮》君子恭敬撙節退讓以明禮。《後漢·鍾皓傳》好學慕古,有退讓風。


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