‘The cleverest housewife can’t cook without rice’ — phrase of the week

Business & Technology

A career coach can’t help laid-off tech workers if they don’t have the right stuff, and there’s a saying for that.

chef red background
Illustration for SupChina by Derek Zheng

Our phrase of the week is: The cleverest housewife can’t cook without rice (巧妇难为无米之炊 qiǎo fù nán wéi wú mǐ zhī chuī).


Chinese tech companies are laying off thousands of employees as they deal with an economic slowdown and regulatory pressures.

Tencent — which announced layoffs of approximately 10% to 20% in its cloud and internet services division last week — along with search giant Baidu, ecommerce monsters Alibaba and JD.com, and video-sharing platform Kuaishou have all announced redundancies in recent weeks.

Employees at these firms are anxious. For some, it’s a chance for a career change and an opportunity to get out of a highly stressful working environment. But many of those losing jobs are recent graduates going into an even more competitive job market.

Interviews with two career coaches (in Chinese) by business and tech news site 36kr reveal the challenges that laid-off graduate employees have as they look for new work. One coach said:


If my mentees did not have the right mindset of broadening their experience while they were at university, and are stuck in the thinking of just being good at taking tests, no matter how good my services are, I can’t help them.


If they don’t have the right mindset, I can’t help them, or literally, The cleverest housewife can’t cook without rice, is a Chinese colloquialism.

The phrase can be traced back to the Song dynasty historian and poet Lù Yóu 陆游 from his work Notebook From the House of a Person Who Studies When He Is Old (老学庵笔记 lǎo xué ān bǐjì).

Lu was born in 1125, during the latter years of the Song dynasty, at a time when China was threatened by invasion from the north. He is known as one of China’s most prolific poets — writing over 11,000 poems.

The cleverest housewife can’t cook without rice means no matter how talented, skilled, or clever a person is, if they lack the basic skills, tools, or in this case, mindset, they cannot do the job.

It’s similar to the English idiom You can’t make bricks without straw.

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Andrew Methven