with three people, the tiger becomes real
(san1 ren2 cheng2 hu3)
(Even if you do nothing wrong, it’s best to keep a low profile. People can be jealous and spread rumors, and once it’s out there it’s difficult to prove otherwise.)
if you repeat a lie often enough it becomes the truth
This idiom originally comes from the second part of the Strategies of Wei in the ancient Chinese text the Strategies of the Warring States, or Zhan Guo Ce.
Wei was one of the major states during the Warring States, a period of political upheaval and weak central government, as was the state of Zhao. When the exchange below occurs, the “king” of Wei’s son is to be sent to Zhao to act as hostage guarantor for a treaty between the two states. Pang Cong, a senior Wei official, is to accompany the prince on his journey. He has no idea when he will return. He approaches the king, and asks him not to believe malicious rumors about him in his absence.
Pang Cong says to the king, “If today somebody says there is a tiger loose in the city streets, would you believe him?” The king answers “no, I would not.” Pang presses with, “And if two people say there is a tiger loose in the city streets, would you believe them?” The king replies, “I would start to suspect it to be true.” Pang then asks what the king would think if three people said a tiger were loose in the streets. The king admitted that he would have to believe it.
From this story comes the idiom 三人成虎, meaning that if several people say there is a tiger, then it becomes believable as truth.
For those interested, Pang did leave, rumors did abound in his absence, the king did start to believe them, and their relationship faltered on Pang’s return.
This saying is particularly pertinent these days, when so many people are talking about our entering a “post-truth” phase, aided and abetted by the ubiquity of the Internet. In fact, this has been true since ancient times (or so I say). If enough people say something, it becomes — to all intents and purposes — true. All you need do is repeat a lie enough times — and often the more absurd and falsifiable the lie, the better — then people will start to believe it. (Paul Cooper, Taipei Times)
■ Rumors spread like wildfire on the Internet, and when they do, they get repeated by many people. In the end nobody is sure what to believe.