(wan2 huo3 zi4 fen2)
Photo: Wikimedia Commons
play with fire and get burnt
上週的「活用成語」單元提到了英文習語「do not play with fire, or you will get your fingers burned」（不要玩火，不然你會燒傷手指），這是用來警告人別再繼續做某事，因為它可能會引發一連串後果，到最後會反過頭來傷害到自己，就像玩火失了控，起火的人自己最後卻被火舌吞噬。
成語「玩火自焚」──字面意思是玩火卻燒了自己──與英文「do not play with fire, or you will get your fingers burned」的意思若合符節。
英文「do not play with fire, or you will get your fingers burned」和中文「玩火自焚」這兩個成語，其起源年代相差了數千年、來自完全不同的文化，卻都使用了相同的比喻，以火的不可預測性和力量，來表達相同的意思。
(These politicians have been stoking divisions to attract votes, but ended up causing even greater social unrest. They’ve been playing with fire.)
(You think you’re just having fun, but you could end up getting your fingers burned. You might not find it that easy to extricate yourself, and you might end up losing your marriage. That will cost you.)
do not play with fire,
or you will get your fingers burned
Last week’s Using Idioms mentioned the saying “do not play with fire, or you will get your fingers burned,” used as a warning not to proceed in one’s current course of action, as it may set off a course of events that will come back to hurt you, like a fire going out of control and ultimately engulfing the person who started it.
In Chinese, the idiom 玩火自焚 — literally, play with fire and get burnt — is a good match.
This idiom comes from the zuo zhuan (Commentary of Zuo), a series of commentaries — written years after the recorded events — expanding on the tersely worded annals of the state of Lu, the chunqiu (Spring and Autumn Annals), covering the Spring and Autumn period (722 to 481 BC). Both the zuozhuan and the chunqiu are included among the ancient Chinese classics.
Consider this extract from the Fourth Year of Duke Yin entry of the chunqiu, on the events of 719BC, commented on in the zuo zhuan:
“In the year of Wushen, Zhou Xu of Wei murdered his ruler, Huan.
In summer, the duke met with the duke of Song at Qing.
The duke of Song, the marquis of Chen, an army of Cai and an army of Wei invaded Zheng.
In autumn, Hui led a force, and joined the duke of Song, the marquis of Chen, the army of Cai, and the army of Wei, in the invasion of Zheng.
In the ninth month, the people of Wei put Zhou Xu to death in Pu.”
That is, Zhou Xu usurped the state rulership by murdering his half-brother, Duke Huan, but was himself put to death a matter of months later.
According to the commentary, Zhou Xu’s usurpation of power in Wei wasn’t well-received by either his ministers or his people, and he determined to wage war with another state to win himself some credibility and to get the people behind him. He chose Zheng, a state with which Wei had a troubled relationship. At roughly the same time, a change in leadership had occurred in the state of Song. Although the ministers and people had preferred the ruler’s son, Prince Feng, a prior agreement had obligated the ruler to name a different successor, and Prince Feng was sent to the state of Zheng. Duke Shang of Song was concerned Zheng wanted to help the prince return to Song and claim power.
Zhou Xu and the duke of Song conspired to combine their forces, together with the armies of the states of Chen and Cai, and attack Zheng.
After their initial attempt failed, Duke Yin of Lu asked a senior official, Zhong Zhong, whether Zhou Xu would succeed. Zhong Zhong replied that he had heard of rulers winning their people over through kindness and virtue, but never through ruthlessness and violence. By prosecuting this cruel war, the official advised, Zhou Xu would only alienate himself from his friends and family and cause the people to rise against him. Zhong Zhong concluded by saying 夫兵，猶火也，弗戢，將自焚也: armies are like fire: if you don’t keep events under control, you will burn.
In the end, Zheng was defeated, but Zhou Xu remained unpopular at home, and was eventually put to death. Zhong Zhong had been right in his prediction: the Duke was eventually engulfed in flames of his own making.
Both the English and Chinese idioms, whose origins are separated by millennia and come from entirely different cultures, use the same metaphor, citing the unpredictable nature and power of fire, to refer to the same idea.
(Paul Cooper, Taipei Times)
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