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December 28, 2012 / Katie

A Horse is a Horse

One weekend at dim sum in Brooklyn, I happened to notice a kitschy painting hanging on the restaurant wall. I was able to make out the four characters printed in the corner: 马到成功 (mǎ dào chéng gōng). I translated the phrase literally in my head: horse arrives success. Or, perhaps, more emphatically: horse arrives = success!


Since when have horses been a symbol of success? Sure, I know the gold-attracting cat, but Mr. Ed with money bags? I shared my observation with a friend sitting next to me, and she responded matter of factly: “Yeah, when the horses arrive it means success.”

Apparently, I missed that proverb lesson in Chinese class. Of course, it helps to have a more coherent translation at your disposal. Here is what the phrase really means: “When the horse arrives, success will come.” People often use this cliche in conversation to predict or wish someone instant success. It can also be used to describe beginner’s luck. This particular kind of four-character phrase is a chengyu–a popular idiomatic saying in Chinese, similar to English proverbs like “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink,” only with 5,000 years of history behind it.

a galloping horse, of course, of courseSeveral hours of aggressive googling reveal that ma dao cheng gong has its origins in the reign of Qin Shi Huang, the king who united the warring states and became the first Emperor of China. He’s also the baller who had his grave filled with thousands of terracotta warriors and horses. His exploits (something involving a piebald-colored stone and a relentless search for the elixir of life) were later immortalized by poet Guan Hanqing during the Yuan Dynasty. Guan coined the phrase in a poem to describe the Emperor’s seemingly effortless success.

Now that you know what to look for, you’ll start seeing horses everywhere you look in Chinese culture–from philosophical musings on when a white horse is not a horse and the allegory of “The Old Man Who Lost His Horse,” to the mythical, highly-coveted red hare horses written about in Romance of the Three Kingdoms.

The best Chinese horse I’ve seen in a while, though, has got to be the one on Marly Building Supply‘s billboard in Queens. The company’s Chinese name is 马力 (mǎlì), which means horsepower, literally. I like it when people keep their horse allusions simple.

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