There goes a Chinese maxim "前人 强 不如 后人 强".

前人= former generation, ancestor;

后人= later generation, descendant;

强= strong, powerful;

不如= not as good/well as, inferior to, less desirable than.

The sentence literally means "That the ancestors are successful is less desirable than that the descendants are successful."

The maxim reminds you that your future is your children, so you should invest a lot of efforts (like education, discipline, etc.) in your offspring. If they fail, you will fade eventually, no matter how great you are now. Sometimes it's wise to even "sacrifice"[note] your own success for your kids' success.

note: “When I hear people talk about juggling, or the sacrifices they make for their children, I look at them like they're crazy, because 'sacrifice' infers that there was something better to do than being with your children.” - Chris Rock

I suppose English native speakers share the same wisdom. So please tell me a few common English sayings which convey "that the ancestors are successful is inferior to that the descendants are successful."

The maxim compares whose prosperity is more important instead of greater. That's to say, even if you can achieve more by "investing yourself" than by investing your children, you should still invest your kids.

The Chinese maxim doesn't (at least not directly) refer to the whole society. It talks about "you" (as your children's ancestor) and "your children" (as your descendant).

To ensure your offspring's prosperity, you should, of course, have offspring in the first place. The Chinese maxim also implies this meaning.

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    I would choose less desirable than rather than inferior to as the translation of your fourth character. Inferior is used more of objects than of ideas. Jun 15, 2020 at 7:22
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    Would a more idiomatic translation be “It's more important for children to be successful than for their parents to be.”?
    – gidds
    Jun 15, 2020 at 14:58
  • I think I would phrase it as "Prosperous ancestors are great; prosperous descendants are greater." Or replace 'prosperous' with 'mighty'.
    – Artelius
    Jun 15, 2020 at 23:04
  • The maxim compares whose prosperity is more important instead of greater. That's to say, even if you can achieve more by "investing yourself" than by investing your children, you should still invest your kids. @Artelius
    – Zhang Jian
    Jun 16, 2020 at 3:47
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    Might that be better translated as "That the ancestors were successful matters less than that the descendants should be”? Either way, I think you'll spend a very long time trying to find an existing English phrase to match that. Jun 17, 2020 at 22:44

9 Answers 9


A quote from David O. McKay says,

No worldly success can compensate for failure in the home.

However, unlike the quote mentioned by Jason Bassford, this is not as common a saying, I think. It also doesn't necessarily mean or include secular success.

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    I don't really see the relevance of this quote. The OP is asking how to express that a society's future good fortune is more important than its historical good fortune. This quote is contrasting public success with a fulfilling private life. There's no reference to past or future generations.
    – Ben R.
    Jun 16, 2020 at 8:29
  • The answer got the point. The Chinese maxim doesn't (at least not directly) refer to the whole society. It talks about "you" (as your children's ancestor) and "your children" (as your descendant). @BenR.
    – Zhang Jian
    Jun 17, 2020 at 9:05
  • Does "No worldly success can compensate for failure in the home" imply that you should have a baby in the first place?
    – Zhang Jian
    Jun 17, 2020 at 13:23
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    @ZhangJian ah it might. Latter-day Saint culture has a strong emphasis on raising your own children (adopted or otherwise). Sorry for replying late. I hope you found your answer.
    – Aj Godinez
    Jul 17, 2020 at 6:18

“Society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.”

I would say this quote gets across the same meaning. That is it is more important that successes be push forward to future generations, and not just enjoyed by the previous ones.

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    That's a great quote! (Though I can't find an attribution more specific than ‘ancient Greek proverb’.) But I doubt enough people have heard of it (let alone use it) to make it a ‘saying’.
    – gidds
    Jun 15, 2020 at 14:56
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    @gidds: For what it's worth, I've heard it recently, in "After Life" by Ricky Gervais : youtu.be/eDZpaA63g30?t=86 Jun 16, 2020 at 7:14
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    Don't leave your prepositions dangling! Proper grammer would be: “Society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they know they shall never sit.”
    – neph
    Jun 16, 2020 at 17:34
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    @neph “Dangling prepositions” is a truly pedantic “rule” that was never particularly established in the English language, that a select few (well-placed) grammarians attempted to foist on the population in an explicit attempt to make English conform to the rules of Latin, as if there was any reason it should. (Likewise with split infinitives.) See here for just one of many descriptions of the situation. Often, a dangling preposition is a poor choice, but one shouldn’t arbitrarily avoid them when they are good, as here.
    – KRyan
    Jun 16, 2020 at 23:34
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    @neph I got a quote for you: "Dangling prepositions is something up with which I will not put." sounds awful.
    – Nzall
    Jun 17, 2020 at 11:56

The maxim reminds you that your future is your children …

There's the following expression:

We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children.

According to Quote Investigator, this current form of the expression—which is now commonly use, originated in a different form by Wendell Berry in the book The Unforeseen Wilderness: An Essay on Kentucky’s Red River Gorge:

We can learn about it from exceptional people of our own culture, and from other cultures less destructive than ours. I am speaking of the life of a man who knows that the world is not given by his fathers, but borrowed from his children; who has undertaken to cherish it and do it no damage, not because he is duty-bound, but because he loves the world and loves his children…

The site enotes says:

This advice prods us to consider the future, and not to focus on the present or on the past. Instead of living just for today and gratifying our own immediate needs, we should think about how our current actions will affect the planet and the future generations who will live on it.

While the saying is concerned with our treatment of the earth, it still considers our children to be our future—and wants us to give them a good one.

Of course, there's also the Whitney Houston song "Greatest Love of All," which includes the following lyrics:

I believe the children are our future
Teach them well and let them lead the way
Show them all the beauty they possess inside
Give them a sense of pride
To make it easier
Let the children's laughter remind us how we used to be

  • Although this maxim is quite true, I don't think it quite means what the original Chinese text is trying to say. Your legacy going forward, and what it means to the world, will be of more importance than what you (or an ancestor) did in the dim past. In economic terms, the Present Value is a larger number than the original amount, and the Future Value will be even greater (time value of money). Perhaps the closest English phrase would be "don't rest on your laurels"?
    – Phil Perry
    Jun 16, 2020 at 13:19
  • That's a great expression (even though probably not what OP meant). I did not know it, thanks.
    – WoJ
    Jun 16, 2020 at 16:08
  • Is it true though? Everyone has ancestors, but not everyone has children!
    – smcs
    Jun 17, 2020 at 11:22
  • "the children are our future" Does it suggest that you should have children in the first place?
    – Zhang Jian
    Jun 17, 2020 at 13:25
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    @ZhangJian As a maxim, it's something that would be taken in a general sense. Maxims don't normally address individuals, they address people as a whole. So, as a maxim, we and our refer to humanity as a group. While I specifically might not have children, I would still want to make the world a better place for the children of all of us. I can like, educate, care for, and plan for children, even those not my own. That's what teachers do. Jun 17, 2020 at 13:29

Though not a proverb, there is a famous attributed to Abraham Lincoln which is along the same lines:

"I don't know who my grandfather was; I am much more concerned to know what his grandson will be."

So that is to say, the quality of the descendant is more important than that of the ancestor.

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    Can you really compare them, though? The important thing about "his grandson" is that it's Abraham Lincoln himself, not that it's a grandson. The quote is simply a more clever way to write : "I don't know who my grandfather was; I am much more concerned to know what I will be." Jun 16, 2020 at 7:19

Western culture in general is less prone to ancestor-worship than the Chinese culture. And at least until recently, the above maxim would not have even been considered.

The "English way" has always traditionally been that it is the duty of the children to continue the dynasty of one's father. The more recent tradition where one is now supposed to pour everything into fulfilling the ephemeral whim of your offspring is a recent thing which has actually happened only in the last couple of generations.

When I was a child, the children did what the parents wanted. Nowadays the parents do what the children want.

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    1 "than the Chinese culture" Should "the" be deleted? 2 There's no ancestor-worship here at all. 3 The way to ensure your children's success, of course, contains education, discipline, and guide.
    – Zhang Jian
    Jun 15, 2020 at 5:56
  • If you were to write the sentence yourself, you may well want to delete the "the". In my own writing, I prefer to include the "the", because on this level it is a matter of philosophy and not grammatical accuracy. As for the rest of your comment, that is also a matter of philosophy and not English grammar, so is not relevant for this site. Jun 15, 2020 at 5:58
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    -1, This answer contains philosophical beliefs and social generalizations that aren't relevant to the question at at hand, though I agree with your answer at a top-level. I would've just scrolled by, had you not called out OP for doing the same thing you did. Jun 15, 2020 at 22:57

How about:

Your heritage is less important than your legacy.


Though much less specific, the phrase Pay it forward (in contrast to Pay it back) is in a similar spirit.


A sentiment I have heard is something like

Our parents were (factory workers/miners/farmers) so we could be (doctors/lawyers/businessmen), and we are (doctors/lawyers/businessmen) so our children can be (authors/artists/poets).

(With all kinds of different potential stand-ins for the various generations, but generally with a progression from “manual labor” to “skilled labor” to “the arts.”)

It emphasizes that the quality we honor and seek to emulate in our ancestors is the work they did to allow us greater freedom and ability to succeed:

  • The “worker/miner/farmer” generation lacked the financial means to invest in education—their circumstances forced them to get to work immediately just to get food on the table.

  • The “doctor/lawyer/businessman” generation benefits from the hard work of the previous one in that now there is enough financial support to allow a delay in getting into work—a delay that allows for greater education and thus greater income once they do enter the workforce.

  • And then the “author/artist/poet” generation benefits from that money, allowing them to pursue the arts even if those aren’t necessarily the most profitable, because they come from enough wealth to be able to afford to potentially make less money.

There are all kinds of potentially-unfortunate implications we could unpack from this, but nonetheless I feel like it’s a nice sentiment. There is a strong “leave things better than you found them,” (at least for your own family) vibe to it, and I like that the capstone here is the arts, because it takes a very money-focused trend and turns that money into something that can (should?) uplift people and provide a greater value than just money (while at the same time acknowledging that you cannot do that without things like farming and doctoring being covered first).


"You can't fake good kids"

I think this conveys something close to your meaning. If your children grow up to be successful and morally good adults, they are the "proof" that you succeeded at your most important responsibility. You might be able to "fake" your own success -- by acquiring money or fame or status -- but if you're not a good parent, you cannot produce good children.

This saying suggests that we compare parents by comparing their children. One family may appear successful because they are wealthy or important, but a more humble family can demonstrate superior quality by producing better children.

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    Straying into the realms of philosophy: the proverb is of course a fallacy. I know plenty of people who have grown up to be decent people despite the most appalling parents. Jun 15, 2020 at 21:55
  • @Prime I think it more means that a bad parent can't produce them, in that if the kids turn out good, it wasn't due to the parents. Jun 15, 2020 at 23:00

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