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So I just happened to watch a youtube video that has displayed in the background an artwork with horses and the phrase 马到成功.

Google Translate offered these: It's a success. Gain an immediate victory. Win instant success.

Another website gives this: 意思是形容事情顺利,刚开始就取得成功。

I know this has to do with 成功. But what is the precise meaning? Why not 马上成功? What does 马 represent?

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马 (horse) was the main transportation before cars.

A single horse was the most common personal ride. That's why a horse arrived also meant a person has arrived.

马到 --> 人到

马到成功 -->人一到就成功了 (success as soon as the person arrives)

That's why dictionaries translated it as '事情顺利,刚开始就取得成功' - being successful at the earliest stage of the engagement. It is similar to 旗开得胜 (victory as soon as the flag is shown)

出馬 (send the horse out) --> (人)出動 = (a person) takes action/ engages a task

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Note: I do not remember who or what explained this to me and added on top is my own understanding. Take it with a grain of salt.

马到成功 马 being horse sometimes cavalry, 到 being "to arrive", 成功 being "success"

We have somewhat similiar phrase "the cavalry has arrived" which also means "the day/battle is won"

An Example: In the game Overwatch Tracer says "Cavalry's here", implying "don't worry, we've won"

马到 vs 马上 "horses,cavalry arrive" vs "on horseback" The meaning is quite different here, being on horseback would give you an advantage, but would not mean you would certainly win.

The idea comes from the superiority of cavalry riding down the enemy in battle.

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百度:

古时打仗,
In ancient times before a battle,

常以“旗开得胜,马到成功”
they often said, "Unfurl the flag of victory, ride to success."

祝愿迅速取得胜利。
to wish a speedy victory.

现在用来形容人一到那里,
Nowadays it is used to describe the fact that somebody just arrived somewhere,

工作刚开始就取得成就。
just started working and already been successful.

Didn't work too well for the Light Brigade in the Battle of Balaclava on 25 October 1854 in the Crimean War.

Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

A communications error!

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Others have already well explained the meaning of the idiom, here is the folk story about when and where the idiom was started (per article from "zhidao.baidu.com")

In 220BC, the first emperor of the Qin Dynasty, who believe in the myth taught by the extrinsic Daoism, was told that a colorful stone had been the material left by the lady (女娲) who used it to fill the hole in the sky, thus owning the stone could ensure/strengthen his control of the empire due to its magic power. In order to get the stone from the remote location, he ordered building a road that enables the horses and carriages to travel, later the road was named the "horse path" (马道).

It (getting the stone) was a success and the emperor had everything went his way thereafter. In compliment to the emperor's action and success, his beloved/trusted Daoist "徐福" made a poem -“万"马"千军御驰"道",始皇拜石得"成功"。” However, the idiom "马到成功" wasn't created until the famous writer 关汉卿 of the Yuan Dynasty written in his work 《五侯宴》to echo 徐福's poem.

Note: 徐福, the Daoist, was ordered by the emperor to travel to Japan to find the medicine for eternity, who had never returned.

这个成语的出处自“秦皇拜石”的传说。

秦始皇于统一全国的第二年,即公元前220年来荣成成山头拜日途中,听说花斑彩石是女娲补天时遗落的神石,能保佑江山稳固,便专程礼拜花斑彩石。当时他率领万马千军,沿着修好的专用驰道,直奔花斑彩石所在处,恭敬而拜。回朝后果然事事如意,天下太平,便龙颜大喜,让百官做诗庆贺。当时便有术士徐福(就是后来出海求仙不归的徐福老先生)诗曰:“万马千军御驰道,始皇拜石得成功。”可惜当时这首文采一般的贺诗没得到秦始皇的青睐和众人的喝彩。但花斑彩石所在的附近沿海却因此称之为“马道”。

马道”地名的出处:一是秦始皇曾率万马千军到此拜石,二是秦始皇东巡所修驰道由此经过。

一直到了元朝,著名大作家关汉卿慧眼识宝,由“秦皇拜石”的典故创造出了“马到成功”这个成语。他在《五侯宴》这部作品中第一次提到他创造出了“马到成功”这个成语。

有关典故1:那老尉迟这一去,马到成功。(元·无名氏《小尉迟》第二折)

有关典故2:唐朝时期,绎州龙门大黄庄农民薛仁贵,自幼喜欢武术,到20岁时已学成十八般武艺。他一心想投军报国,父母担心他并劝阻他。他对父母说:“今当国家用人之际,要扫除夷虎,肃靖边疆,凭你孩儿学成武艺,智勇双全,若在两阵之间,怕不马到成功。”

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QUESTION:- "What does 马 represent?"

In modern mechanics, the "horse" represents "strength / power", thus we have "horsepower", (马力)

The horse in ancient China, however, represents "swiftness / speed" (strength was represented by the Ox, thus we say 牛力)

In the idiom, 马到成功, "到", means more than just the physical arrival of horses, it has the archaic meaning of "the existence / appearance / the essence of..." (remember this idiom was coined by 关汉卿 around the 1300 AD) We therefore also have the phrase 到家, which though literally means to "physically arrive home", also, as a verb, means "to achieve a high level of attainment"

So, "马到", in "马到成功", following its archaic meaning, means to "have the existence / appearance / the essence of horses"; meaning "the achievement of success", (成功), has the innate characteristics of horses, i.e. "speed / swiftness"

So, 马到成功, comes to mean "speedy / swift achievement of success"

QUESTION:- "Why not 马上成功"?

马上 is a compound which means "immediately" which is "faster / speedier" than 马到 which just means quick.

However, 马, (meaning speedy / swift), is still found in 马上, but now combined with the 上, (meaning higher, superior, on top of), it has thus "Up" the ante, as it were, and becomes "immediate"

Yes, it is perfectly grammatical to say 马上成功, (immediately successful), in an appropriate situational context. But it would not be an Idiom anymore, just a normal descriptive phrase.

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