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The meaning and origin of the expression: A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step

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A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step

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What's the meaning of the phrase 'A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step'?

The proverb 'a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step' puts forward the notion that, however difficult a task is, you can only complete it if you first start it.

What's the origin of the phrase 'A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step'?

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single stepThis proverbial saying is a classic of the sort that gets put onto posters and into self-help books as an inspirational thought. Many similar proverbs, for instance, the darkest hour is just before the dawn, speak softly and carry a big stick, a picture paints a thousand words etc., are wrongly assumed to have an ancient Chinese origin.

'A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step' is different in that it actually was coined in China. Any saying that is associated with ancient China is generally labelled as being the work of Confucius. This one isn't.

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Confucius he say... no he didn't.
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Westerners like myself, who don't speak Chinese and have no real knowledge or understanding of Chinese history and culture, need to tread carefully when making pronouncements about who did what in China over two thousand years ago. What is generally accepted by scholars with a better grasp of Chinese and China is this...

The proverb 'A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step' is first found in the Tao Te Ching, which is a classical Chinese Taoist text usually credited to Laozi (a.k.a. Lao Tzu), and probably written between the 4th and 6th century BC. The original text is:

"A journey of a thousand li [a Chinese mile] starts beneath one's feet"

The Tao Te Ching, is not a neatly bound and dated book with a definitive ISBN number that you might buy on Amazon. There are numerous fragmentary copies differing in content, language and authorship and dating over several centuries. The authorship is uncertain and disputed and some scholars dispute even the existence of Lao Tzu, claiming him to be mythical sage rather than a real living person.

We might usefully consider the Tao Te Ching as having a similar standing in Chinese culture as Aesop's Fables has in the West. It is now widely believed that Aesop's Fables weren't written by one author and, even if they were, it wasn't Aesop who may well not have existed in the flesh.

The 'self-help' nature of the phrase has led to some parody, including this from the Anglo/Australian writer Kathy Lette:

A journey of self-discovery starts with a single step… But so does falling down a flight of stairs.

See also: the List of Proverbs.

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