A systematic experimental and theoretical investigation of the elastic and failure properties of ZnO nanowires (NWs) under different loading modes has been carried out. In situ scanning electron microscopy (SEM) tension and buckling tests on single ZnO NWs along the polar direction  were conducted. Both tensile modulus (from tension) and bending modulus (from buckling) were found to increase as the NW diameter decreased from 80 to 20 nm. The bending modulus increased more rapidly than the tensile modulus, which demonstrates that the elasticity size effects in ZnO NWs are mainly due to surface stiffening. Two models based on continuum mechanics were able to fit the experimental data very well. The tension experiments showed that fracture strain and strength of ZnO NWs increased as the NW diameter decreased. The excellent resilience of ZnO NWs is advantageous for their applications in nanoscale actuation, sensing, and energy conversion.