Zhǐ xǔ zhōuguān fànghuǒ, bù xǔ bǎixìng diǎndēng
Translation: A prefect is free to commit arson while forbidding his people to light a lantern.
Meaning: People with power can do what they like while controlling and limiting the freedom of others.
The Chinese language is laden with homophones: Words that sound the same but carry different meanings. Traditionally people with power and influence often forbade others to use words that were homophonic with their names. Tian Deng, a prefect of the Song dynasty (960—1279), was such a person. As his first name Deng sounded the same as “lamp” or “lantern” in Chinese, he hated to hear people say “light a lamp” or “light a lantern” all the time, as if he were being lit up when they said so. He demanded that the word “light a lamp” or “light a lantern” be replaced by the Chinese word for “set fire,” even though that actually means “arson.”
When the Lantern Festival came, a visitor to the prefecture was puzzled by what he heard all around him. People said “set fire” when they really meant to light their lanterns. After he learned about the taboo, he scolded the prefect, saying “The prefect is free to commit arson while forbidding his people to light a lantern.”
This proverb is used as a sarcastic remark to jeer at those in power: They can do what they want while curtailing the freedom of his people to do even much less.
|许||xǔ||to allow (V)|
|放火||fànghuǒ||to set fire, commit arson (VO)|
|百姓||bǎixìng||the common people (lit.: the 100 surnames)|
|点灯||diǎndēng||to light a lamp (VO)|
During the Cultural Revolution, Jiang Qing, Mao’s wife, and others could see foreign movies while confining the Chinese to her “Revolutionary Operas.” That was really like the case where a prefect could commit arson while forbidding his people to even light a lamp.