‘Those who play with fire perish by it’ — phrase of the week

Foreign Affairs

As tensions in the Taiwan Strait and between the U.S. and China ratchet up, the language used by Chinese officials is becoming more colorful and bellicose.

Illustration by Derek Zheng

Our phrase of the week is: Those who play with fire perish by it (玩火自焚 wánhuǒ zìfén).

Context

Don’t play with fire and we are ready for battle sum up the rhetoric coming out of Beijing in response to U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan this week.

In his call with Joe Biden before the visit on Friday, July 29, Xí Jìnpíng 习近平 said:

Resolutely safeguarding China’s national sovereignty and territorial integrity is the firm will of the more than 1.4 billion Chinese people. The will of the people cannot be broken, those who play with fire shall die by it!

坚决维护中国国家主权和领土完整是14亿多中国人民的坚定意志,民意不可违,玩火必自焚!

Jiānjué wéihù zhōngguó guójiā zhǔquán hé lǐngtǔ wánzhěng shì shísì yì duō zhōngguó rénmín de jiāndìng yìzhì, mínyì bùkě wéi, wánhuǒ bì zìfén!

China’s ambassador to the U.S., Qín Gāng 秦刚, repeated exactly the same message this week in Washington, when Pelosi landed in Taiwan on Tuesday.

Xi is consistent on the Taiwan issue. He had a similar point to make in his video call with Biden in November last year:

Some people in the U.S. intend to “use Taiwan to control China.” This trend is very dangerous, it is playing with fire, and those who play with fire will burn.

美方一些人有意搞“以台制华”。这一趋势十分危险,是在玩火,而玩火者必自焚。

Měifāng yīxiē rén yǒuyì gǎo “yǐ tái zhì huá.” Zhè yī qūshì shífēn wēixiǎn, shì zài wánhuǒ, ér wánhuǒ zhě bì zìfén.

Translation

Those who play with fire is a colloquial Chinese phrase that has its roots in the Spring and Autumn period in Chinese history (770–476 B.C.E.). This was a tumultuous time when China was divided, states were at war, and ideas flourished.

The phrase is credited to the philosopher Zuǒ Qiūmíng 左丘明, from his ancient historical account, Commentary of Zuo (左传 zuò zhuàn).

Zuo was an influential historian and essayist who lived around the fifth century B.C.E. He was a contemporary and disciple of China’s most influential philosopher, Confucius.

Zuo is believed to have compiled Commentary of Zuo, which is an ancient Chinese narrative history of that era. Its 30 chapters cover a period from 722 to 468 B.C.E., focusing on political, diplomatic, and military affairs of the period. For many centuries, it was the primary text through which educated Chinese gained an understanding of their ancient history.

His lesson about playing with fire is captured in this beautiful classical expression:

Fighting a war is like playing with fire. If it is not stopped in time, the army can bring trouble on itself.

夫兵,犹火也,弗戢,将自焚也。

Fū bīng, yóu huǒ yě, fú jí, jiāng zìfén yě.

In other words, antagonizing your opponent will sooner or later end in trouble.

The colloquial phrase can also be expressed as a four-character idiom, 玩火自焚 wánhuǒ zìfén, and as a more floral eight-character idiom:

Armies that play with fire and do not stop will burn.

兵犹火也,不戢自焚。

Bīng yóu huǒ yě, bù jí zìfén.

China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs had an equally blunt point to make on Monday with an idiom that dates back to a similar time in Chinese history:

We want to once again make it clear to the U.S. side that the Chinese side is fully prepared for any eventuality and that the People’s Liberation Army of China will never sit idly by.

我们要再次正告美方,中方正严阵以待,中国人民解放军绝不会坐视不管。

Wǒmen yào zàicì zhènggào měifāng, zhōngfāng zhèng yánzhènyǐdài, zhōngguó rénmín jiěfàngjūn jué bù huì zuòshì bùguǎn.

The English translation of fully prepared for any eventuality takes the sting out of the original Chinese idiom 严正以待 yánzhèn yǐdài, which would be better translated as ”alert and ready for battle.”

This is another idiom that has its roots in a time of unrest in China’s history: during the Han dynasty (202 B.C.E.–A.D. 9, A.D. 25–220), when the empire was divided into East and West. This is a period that followed the Warring States period (475–221 B.C.E.) and the earlier Spring and Autumn period, when Zuo is believed to have compiled the Commentary of Zuo.

The idiom alert and ready for battle first appears in Comprehensive Mirror in Aid of Governance (资治通鉴 zī zhì tōng jiàn), which was published during the Song dynasty in A.D. 1084. It chronicles Chinese history from 403 B.C.E. to A.D. 959, covering 16 dynasties and spanning almost 1,400 years.

On the 17th day, Liu Xiu took personal charge of the army in preparation for the battle.

甲辰,帝亲勒六军,严阵以待之。

Jiǎ chén, dì qīn lēi liù jūn, yánzhènyǐdài zhī.

Andrew Methven