I came across this question and thought that it might be interesting to post it here and share with you some of my findings and my interpretation. 




This is what I found from my search on the internet.


Literally speaking, people have translated it as:


(1) Three feet of ice is not frozen in one day.            http://www.austincc.edu/~songhome/WISDOMCHINA.htm


(2) As Chinese would put it, “three feet of ice does not result from one day of freezing water”.  This was an article published by International Monetary Fund organization (IMF) in Washington D.C.  This article led me to believe that the meaning of this is not understood only by the Chinese.   



 (3) "It takes more than one cold day for a river to freeze three feet deep."



Moral: A predicament is not formed without a period of events creating it.



Another way to say is: (something bad) has been brewing for some time.

=> The outbreak of war was not totally unexpected. Hostility between the two countries had been brewing for some time.  (found by Vivi)


article from 生。




So the next question is that is there any English proverb comparable to this Chinese saying?


Just for your reference, I thought that the following English proverbs may be close in meaning (just my gut feeling) but they also offer completely different meanings. 


(1) Tall oaks from little acorns grow

- Everything has a small beginning before becoming big

=> To me, this can mean a good thing as in “every success man starts from nobody”.  However, I was wondering if you can also interpret it as “small problems will grow to be big problems if not dealt with” as in “由小積大”.


(2) It is not the size of the tree but the depth of its roots that make it strong.  Procrastination usually has very deep roots.

=> To me, this means that the foundation is what matters.  However, the article seems to use it to relate to procrastination that the problems if not dealt with quickly can become deep rooted.



(3) An oak is not felled at one stroke (橡樹之倒,非一砍之力 )。

=> To me, this means that it takes time to cut down the oak tree.  It implies “to be patient” as found in the following article.   stated this to have the meaning of 冰凍三尺非一日之寒 in the above article. (found by Vivi)



(4) Rome wasn’t built in a day

=> To me, this means that when a task is too big to be accomplished quickly.



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