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"千金买马骨” literally means buying horse bones with much gold.

This Chinese idiom comes from "Stratagems of the Warring States- Yan Dynasty" 《战国策·燕策一·燕昭王收破燕后即位》.

It is said that an ancient courtier bought a horse for the king, but only bought the bones of the dead horse, and the king was furious. The king didn’t understand.

The courtier explained to the confused king that if they see that the king has bought just the bones of the dead horse with so much gold, the people will think that the king is really fervent to find superb horses and is willing to pay handsomely. People will naturally bring their best horses to the door.

Pursuing a certain thing or a certain talent does not necessarily mean to catch up with it. But rather, one can work on the fundamentals like improving one’s own ability, quality and strength and good things will naturally come.

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  • Sorry, but I think posting Chinese here is a bit odd. – Lambie Dec 13 '18 at 22:51
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    I don’t understand the relevance of the last paragraph. It seems to be describing something completely different from the “courtier and the king” story above. – Jim Dec 14 '18 at 1:00
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    With requests to translate idioms from other languages, I think it’s helpful to provide the idiom in the original language. @Jim I think the last paragraph is the OP’s interpretation of the Chinese idiom, for which they are seeking an English equivalent. There’s probably been some measure of semantic drift between the original story and contemporary (?) usage. – Lawrence Dec 14 '18 at 1:50
  • @Lawrence - While I assume you’re right, I don’t see even a hint of a connection between the two. How is the courtier working on fundamental improvements from which good things follow? It’s more like if you mislead people you can trick them into doing what you want. – Jim Dec 14 '18 at 4:49
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    @Jim I’m not asserting the connection - just pointing out that the last paragraph is the OP’s interpretation/usage of the idiom. Your point about it being some kind of trick is probably not too far off the mark, bringing to mind stone soup as another story in the broader genre. There’s also something of watch the pennies and the pounds will take care of themselves in it. I agree the connection seems a bit of a long bow, but unless we want to critique the interpretation, I think we should just treat the story as background material and give the actual request as the primary question. – Lawrence Dec 14 '18 at 6:48
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For the story’s plot about showing just a hint to elicit interest, consider: “Sell the sizzle, not the steak”.

Anyway you say it, it all comes down to the simple fact that people “Buy on Emotion and Justify Their Purchases Using Facts“. - Simple Small Business

For your interpretation regarding focusing on the fundamentals, consider “back to basics”:

back to basics Returning to the fundamental aspects of something. Since you're struggling to play chords, let's get back to basics and look at the notes on the scale. - The Free Dictionary, citing Farlex Dictionary of Idioms

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    +1 for “Sell the sizzle, ..." – Kris Dec 14 '18 at 9:34
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I think an idiom that is close is the saying "there's more than one way to skin a cat," meaning that there's more than one way of accomplishing a goal. While this doesn't seem to have quite the same connotation as your phrase, I hope it's somewhat in the right direction.

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