The Year of the Horse Chengyu
07 Feb 2014
This is my second “Year of the Horse” Chinese New Year in China, and there’s one thing I’ve noticed: a certain chengyu (Chinese idiom, typically 4 characters long) gets thrown around like crazy in Chinese New Year’s greetings.
That chengyu is 马到成功.
There are a few interesting things about this chengyu, and some points worth exploring.
Is it worth knowing?
Like many learners, you may not want to junk up your brain space with too many useless chengyu. So is this one worth it? Well, it sure gets liberally tossed around at the beginning of the Year of the Horse, that’s for sure.
But aside from that, it’s not a terribly uncommon chengyu. I’ve learned it without trying just by living through one Year of the Horse CNY, and you probably can too, if you live in China or if you’re tuned into Chinese media for the holiday. Tons of repetition of this chengyu.
What does it mean, really?
The nice thing about 马到成功 is that its components are so easy:
– 马: horse (easy!)
– 到: to arrive (easy!)
– 成功: to succeed (not bad, intermediate-level vocab)
It’s all high-frequency vocabulary, so that’s great. What does it really mean, though? “Horse arrives, success!” Something is missing. Is there some mystical luck-horse that runs around providing success to all it encounters? Not exactly.
If you look up 马到成功 in a dictionary, you get something like this:
> win instant success
Or, more literally:
> win success immediately upon arrival
OK, so if you take 马到 to mean “instant,” than isn’t it just the same as 马上, “immediately?”
But it’s not. At Chinese New Year, the chengyu is used in New Year’s wishes to others. If you were wishing people “马上成功” it sounds like they’ve already started something, and you want them to succeed immediately (like really soon!). Wishing them 马到成功 is wishing a speedy success to whatever endeavor someone undertakes. That makes a lot more sense.
OK, but does that explain why it’s 马到? Not really. Fortunately Baidu has the answer (in Chinese, of course). The chengyu actually refers to ancient warfare, in which cavalry played an important role. If your cavalry could get there on time right as the battle began, you’d frequently be assured a swift victory. (There’s a more complicated story behind the chengyu which Baidu relates, but it’s related to cavalry.)
This isn’t to say that Chinese people have images of cavalry slaughtering their enemies as they wish their friends 马到成功. In fact, most Chinese people probably aren’t aware of the origin of the saying. If you Baidu image search it, you see a whole bunch of images of horses frolicking around, not an enemy soldier in sight.
Even though the 马到成功 literally means “swift success,” you can also use it by itself to wish someone success in the New Year. You don’t need to add 祝你 in the front for “I wish you” (even though it’s not wrong to say that).
A common greeting that won’t stretch any intermediate learner’s abilities is:
> 新年快乐，马到成功！ (Happy New Year, and swift successes!)
And with that, I wish everybody a 马到成功 in their Chinese studies!