One of the aspects of language and communication that I find really interesting are idioms.
We all have favourite phrases that we use to describe a situation, the same ones we probably heard our parents or friends use as we were growing up.
I’m talking about the common phrases like, “a rolling stone gathers no moss”, “where there’s a will, there’s a way”, and “better to be silent and thought a fool than to open one’s mouth and remove all doubt”.
You’ll hear them everywhere – on television, on the radio and anywhere that people are talking because they’re a standard part of colloquial speech.
The funny thing is that I never considered that the idioms I commonly used might have their own counterparts in other languages. But of course they do.
I encountered one this evening while I was talking to my friend in Beijing.
有志者事竟成 (yǒu zhì zhě shì jìng chéng)
Translated literally, it means:
- 有 To have
- 志 aspiration/will/ambition
- 者 those who
- 事 thing/affair/job/trouble
- 竟 to finish
- 成 to become
“To have aspiration/will, those whose affairs become finished”
Re-ordering the translation into something a little more sensible, we get:
“Those that have the will or aspiration finish their affairs”
Or as we commonly say it in English:
“Where’s there’s a will, there’s a way.”
Aspiration is not the same as willpower
Personally, I rather like the Chinese version because to aspire to something is very different than just using will power to achieve it. There’s an element of hope and dreaming in there which I think adds a far more though-provoking aspect to the phrase than just willpower alone suggests.
Most of the people that have achieved great things have dreamed of achieving them before they’ve even considered applying any will power to meet their goals. Take Taylor Swift, for example:
One thing I’ve tried to never do is make wish lists. I try to have a very stepping-stone mentality about this whole thing, where as soon as you make one step you visualize the next step, not five steps ahead.
Taylor Swift, talking to Entertainment Weekly in 2013
Something that many successful people have said is that they visualised what they were trying to achieve before they tried to do it.
The origin of the phrase
According to this page, the origins of the phrase lie way back in Chinese history (3 – 58 AD).
A Chinese general called Geng Yan was tasked with defeating an army with far superior numbers.
Although his subordinates balked at the task, he found the strategic means to overcome his foe.
When the king arrived, he praised Geng Yan’s actions, saying: 有志者事竟成, “a man who has firm resolve will surely succeed”.
I’m sure many of the phrases we commonly use had their origins in other cultures but I’d like to think that many phrases are so universally accepted that they’d exist in isolation anyway.
I think it’s so very cool that idioms we commonly use have their places in other languages, often in expressions that inspire thought.
By the way – my Chinese is nowhere near good enough (yet) to have translated this on my own. Fortunately there’s some great resources out there like this page.