Chinese Language

Proverbs | 20

Zhi xu zhou guan fang huo, bu xu bai xing dian deng : While a County mandarin is at liberty to set houses on fire, a common man is not allowed to light a lamp (lantern)

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Zhong wen

While a County mandarin is at liberty to set houses on fire, a common man is not allowed to light a lamp (lantern)
只许州官放火, 不许百姓点灯

Source: Lao Xu An Notebook by Lu You of Song dynasty.

The story was told about a County prefect by the name of Tian Deng. Tian was a self-important tin-pot mandarin who forbade people to use the word 'deng', (lamp or lantern) simply because it sounded exactly like his own name - (meaning 'to climb'). Anyone who had the audacity to contravene this ruling would be in for the high jump - usually a public flogging.

For that reason, people in that County had to call a 'lamp' (deng) a 'fire' (huo). An official notice appeared on the public notice board one morning on the Lantern Festival Day, 15th of January by the Chinese lunar calendar, which ran: 'In accordance with tradition, this County will set houses on fire for three days'.

What the notice was meant to say was, in effect, that the County would celebrate the Lantern Festival by displaying lanterns for three days. As the word ('lanterns') was taboo, it had to be substituted by the word 'fire' instead. Hence 'This County will set houses on fire for three days. The folks seized the opportunity of taking the micky out of the old so and so by coining a new catch-phrase which is still going strong today -'While a County mandarin is at liberty to set houses on fire, a common man is not allowed to light a lamp'.

There is a good parallel in the English saying 'One man may steal a horse, while another may not look over a hedge.'

Notes:

1. It was usually a Royal prerogative to forbid people to use any words sounding like the name of the Emperor.
2. Literally translated, ('fang huo') means 'set fire' which is a Chinese phrase for 'setting house(s) on fire'.

© Copyright Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding (SACU) 2006 reprinted from SACU's China Now 123, Page 34, December 1987

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