Friday, October 30, 2009


In modern Chinese, the idiom 郢書燕說 (yǐngshūyānshuō) means to give a distorted interpretation, to distort the meaning in order to fit one's ideas. It's from an anecdote told by Han Feizi (ca. 280–233 BC):


郢人 有遺 燕相國書 者,夜書,火不明,因謂持燭者曰:「舉燭。」云而過書舉燭,舉燭,非書意也,燕相受書而說之,曰:「舉燭者,尚明也,尚明也者,舉賢而任之。」燕相白王,王大說,國以治,治則治矣,非書意也。今世舉學者多似此類 。

There was a man from Ying who wrote a letter to the chief minister of Yan. He wrote at night, the fire was dim, so he addressed the one holding the candle, "Raise the light." As he was speaking he accidentally wrote, "Raise the light." "Raise the light" was not the meaning of the letter, but when the minister of Yan received it, he delighted in it. He said, "'Raise the light' means 'honor the enlightened.' 'Honor the enlightened' means 'promote the worthy and employ them.'" The minister of Yan told the king, and the king was greatly pleased. The state thereby was regulated. It is true is was regulated, but this was not the intent of the letter. Those of the present generation who employ scholars are largely of this kind.

Mark Edward Lewis, Writing and Authority in Early China, Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999, p. 277.