Li Baojia – A Revelation of Official Circles


When South Koreans tuned into the official announcement of Jang Song Thaek’s (張成澤, 장성택, 1946-2013) arrest and execution by North Korea on South Korean news stations, they were not only surprised at what occurred, but also by the language used by the North Korean anchor. The announcement was laden with many four character idioms (四字成語, 사자성어), some of which many South Koreans did not know:

  • 萬古逆賊(만고역적) – Eternal traitor.
  • 天人共怒(천인공노) – Heaven and mankind are both furious.
  • 同床異夢(동상이몽) – Same bed, but different dreams. Refers to putting on an act in unison but having different objectives.
  • 左之右之(좌지우지) – To go left and then to go right. Refers to doing things one’s own way contrary to others.
  • 傲慢不遜(오만불손) – To be arrogant and not humble.
  • 摘發肅淸(적발숙청) – To uncover something secret and then purge. (Not used in South Korea.)
  • 安逸解弛(안일해이) – To be at peace and idle, while laughing. (Not used in South Korea.)
  • 浮華放蕩(부화방탕) – To be ostentatious and debaucherous.

Perhaps the most noted four character idiom was 陽奉陰違(양봉음위), which means “to obey externally, i.e., by putting on an act, but to act contrary internally.” This was the most searched word in conjunction with the term “Jang Song Thaek” on, the most frequented search engine in Korea. Although it appears in South Korean dictionaries, the four character idiom was not well known before the North Korean announcement. The idiom was first used in A Revelation of Official Circlesor Guanchang Xianxing Ji (官場現形記, 관장현형기, Gwanjang Hyeonhyeong Gi), by Li Baojia (李寶嘉, 이보가, Yi Boga, 1867-1906). The novel describes the dysfunction and corruption of the Chinese bureaucracy during the latter days of the Qing Dynasty. Since the work is in Mandarin and this blogger does not know the language, he had one of his Mandarin-literate friends translate.

亦曾當面勸過他, 無知卜知府陽奉陰違, 也就奈何他不得.

I told him in a friendly persuasive manner as to what to do. Since he on the outside affirmed but on the inside rejected, I had nothing to do with him.

There are other four character idioms with the same meaning that are more frequently used in South Korea, such as: 口是心非(구시심비), 口蜜腹劍(구밀복검), and 面從腹背(면종복배).

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