I understand the meaning of the sentence, but I don't understand what is "一" doing in there? Could it be dropped? Would it change the meaning? Is it a part of the "一开始" as a phrase?
Chinese Language Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for students, teachers, and linguists wanting to discuss the finer points of the Chinese language. It only takes a minute to sign up.Sign up to join this community
Here, 一 should not be parsed by itself, but instead put together with 开始 to form the phrase 一开始, which means "at the beginning" or "initially". So the correct translation would be:
At the beginning, everything was going smoothly, but later we encountered difficulties.
Here are some more examples:
一开始，我不喜欢她。后来，我爱上了她。 At the beginning, I didn't like her. Later, I fell in love with her.
我一开始以为你很笨，后来发现其实你很聪明！ Initially, I thought you were dumb, but later I discovered that you are actually very smart.
Hope that helps! Happy learning.
I tend to understand 一开始 as a whole, which means "at the beginning". You can omit the 一 in most situations without changing the meaning much. However, adding 一 (which alone could be interpreted as "once" or "as soon as") puts an emphasis on “beginning”, giving a hint that the speaker might later want to compare it with how things are like " in the end", or to emphasize something happened very early. Also, in some sentence structures, it may not be so obvious whether 开始 should be parsed as the verb "to begin" or "in the beginning" at the first glance, whereas 一开始 invokes no such ambiguity.
I personally use 一开始 much more often than 开始.