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?

5 Answers 5


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.


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


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.



In ancient times before a battle,

they often said, "Unfurl the flag of victory, ride to success."

to wish a speedy victory.

Nowadays it is used to describe the fact that somebody just arrived somewhere,

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!


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.







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