Lighting lamps and double standards, three fires and cracking the whip

Zhang Ciyun
Ancient descriptions use the imagery of fire to describe the actions of government officials.
Zhang Ciyun
Lighting lamps and double standards, three fires and cracking the whip
Li Chaoquan

There are more than a dozen popular Chinese proverbs involving the word "fire," and interestingly, two of them link fires with officials.

One of the proverbs says zhixu zhouguan fanghuo, buxu baixing diandeng, or literally "only allow the prefectural official to set fires, but don't allow common people to kindle their lamps."


zhǐ xǔ zhōu guān fàng huǒ, bù xǔ bǎi xìng diǎn dēng

The saying refers, according to a story, to a local magistrate during the Northern Song Dynasty (AD 960-1127). The official didn't allow people in his prefecture to use the word diandeng, or "light a lamp," because it sounded like his name Tian Deng. Anyone violating his edict would be beaten or caned.

Nowadays, the saying is used figuratively to criticize the double standards of those in power.

The proverb sounds a bit like the English expression: "One man may steal a horse, while another may not look over a hedge."

Another Chinese proverb linking officials with fires is xinguan shangren sanbahuo, which could be translated literally as "an official new in a position usually will burn three fires."


xīn guān shàng rèn sān bǎ huǒ

The saying means that a new official will adopt stricter rules and policies to prove his competency or build up his authority in the organization.

In English people might say "cracking the whip three times," or, in other words, using one's authority to make others behave better and work harder.

Also, this Chinese saying may be compared with the English expression: "A new broom sweeps clean."

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