Ask Language Log: "He who plays with fire will get burned"

« previous post | next post »

From Claudia Rosett:

I have a question about a phrase that China’s foreign ministry attributed to Xi in his call with Biden last week:

In English:  “Those who play with fire will perish by it.”

That phrase, in English translation, is exactly the same as threats Chinese officials issued against Hong Kong during the protests in 2019.

I am wondering if this is a standard threat in Chinese — much as it is a proverb in the West — or something that for effect in English they have swiped from us.

I’m not sure it’s of any great importance which way that goes, but in the cataloguing of PRC threats made in English, it stands out as memorable, a phrase the press latches onto. Perhaps because it is so familiar to us.

If you have any insights on this, I’d be grateful.

I replied:

It's a common saying with a long heritage that is only complicated by the fact that it closely parallels the well-known English saying, "he who plays with fire will get burned".

From Zuo zhuan 左傳 (Chronicle of Zuo), Duke Yin  隱公 4 (4th year of Duke Yin [719 BC]):  Fū bīng yóu huǒ yě. Fú jí, jiāng zìfén yě. 夫兵猶火也。弗戢,將自焚也。("Armies are like fire; if you don't keep them under control*, you will burn yourself")

[*more literally, "put them away; store them up" — refers specifically in the most fundamental sense to weapons]

This is a set phrase (chéngyǔ 成語), explained fully here.

A modern formulation of the saying is "wán huǒ zhě bì zìfén 玩火者必自焚" ("he who plays with fire will surely burn himself").  It is slightly different from the English saying "those who play with fire will get burned by it,” because the Chinese saying emphasizes "zìfén 自焚" ("burn oneself", i.e., self-inflicted harm), rather than get burned by the fire.

From Chinese accounts of the Biden-Xi call on July 28, 2022, Xi Jinping expressed the set phrase thus:  "wán huǒ bì zìfén 玩火必自焚" ("he who plays with fire will surely burn himself"), e.g., see here.

This is virtually identical to the formulation of the set phrase as used by Chinese officials in their statement on the Hong Kong protesters in 2019, for which see here.  The only difference is the addition of the nominalizing / relativizing particle "zhě 者" ("one / he who"), which usually doesn't appear in spoken iterations of the phrase.

Bottom line:  NP may seem to have stolen a march on the PRC by sneaking into and out of Taiwan beneath their nose, and they may be fuming in vexation, snapping and sniping at each other like Goebellsian Meisterpropagandist Hu Xijin (Global Times) and Blogmeister Chairman Rabbit (Weibo).  However, we should not forget that what the CCP threatened would happen to Hong Kong — total imposition of the National Security Law — swiftly came to pass, 27 years ahead of schedule.

Beneath the bottom line: 

The Constitution

Article II, Section 2, Clause 1:  The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States….

25th Amendment, Section 1:  In case of the removal of the President from office or of his death or resignation, the Vice President shall become President.


Selected readings


  1. Victor Mair said,

    August 6, 2022 @ 6:10 am

    "The Queen Mother of the West in Taiwan"

    Posted on 05/08/2022 by

  2. Chris Button said,

    August 6, 2022 @ 9:24 am

    Further to some of the comments in this thread:

    … the case of 焚 is a pure pictogram/ideogram in a clear schwa/“a” relationship with 燔

  3. chris said,

    August 6, 2022 @ 9:56 am

    The fact that the idiom refers to burning *yourself* makes it a bit odd to use as a threat. I now have the image (which I sadly lack the artistic talent to make a reality) of Winnie the Pooh carrying a flamethrower saying "careful not to burn yourself". (It probably wouldn't even be necessary to show him actually taking aim at a Pelosi-like figure to get the point across.)

  4. Jonathan Smith said,

    August 6, 2022 @ 4:01 pm

    夫兵猶火也。弗戢,將自焚也 seems rather to say 'armies/weapons are like fire; unchecked they [=armies/fire] will burn of their own accord OR consume themselves…'; this whole "玩火者必自焚“ looks like a newfangled modern-classical-Western mashup.

  5. Stephen Hart said,

    August 6, 2022 @ 5:17 pm

    chris said: "The fact that the idiom refers to burning *yourself* makes it a bit odd to use as a threat."

    I took that as shifting the blame from the fire (China) to the victim, the one who played with fire. Similar to "Why do you make me hit you?"

  6. cliff arroyo said,

    August 7, 2022 @ 1:04 pm

    "he who plays with fire will get burned"

    I don't actually think I would ever say that, in conversation I'm much more likely to use the impersonal 'you'…

    "Play with fire and you're gonna get burned," is the most natural way of saying it for me

  7. Francois Lang said,

    August 8, 2022 @ 7:28 am

    "All who draw the sword shall perish with the sword".

    Matthew 26:52

  8. Andreas Johansson said,

    August 11, 2022 @ 1:58 am

    It would, I think, be unusual for me to actually spell out what happens to those who play with fire. I'd just say "you/he/Pelosi are/is playing with fire" and assume the listener knows what that implies.

RSS feed for comments on this post