Korea’s Pick for the Four Character Idiom of the Year for 2014 – 指鹿爲馬(지록위마)


Every year, countries in the Sinosphere (漢字文化圈, 한자문화권) that still regularly use Chinese characters (漢字, 한자) pick a Chinese character that represent the theme of the year. In China, the character 法(법) meaning “law” was picked to reflect the Chinese Communist Party’s initiatives to reign in corrupt officials. In Taiwan, the character 黑(흑) meaning “black” was selected to represent the scandals within the food industry where some restaurants used gutter oil as cooking oil. In Singapore, the character 亂(란) meaning “chaos” was chosen in response to many conflicts across the globe. In Japan, the character 稅(세) meaning “taxes” was tabbed to signify the Abe government’s move to raise the consumption tax rate from 5% to 8%.

Korea does not have a “character of the year” as the other countries listed. Instead, the Korean Professors’ Newspaper (敎授新聞, 교수신문) picks a four character idiom (四字成語, 사자성어) for the year. This year, out of 724 professors polled, 201 of them (27.8%) voted for the idiom 指鹿爲馬(지록위마) meaning “To call a deer a horse” (or more literally “To point at a deer and deem it a horse”). It refers to turning falsehoods into truths, and vice-versa, to deceive others, especially those in power. The idiom is a reflection of the many tragedies that occurred this year. It was chosen also to criticize how President Park Geunhye (朴槿惠, 박근혜, 1952-) and government officials mismanaged in reacting to these events. The idiom is in reference to an incident towards the end of the Qin dynasty (秦, 진, 9th century-221 BC) as recorded in the Annals of the Qin Shi Huang (秦始皇本紀, 진시황본기) of the Records of the Grand Historian (史記, 사기), which was written by Sima Qian (司馬遷, 사마천, 145 or 135-86BC):

八月己亥, 趙高欲爲亂, 恐群臣不聽, 乃先設驗, 持鹿獻於二世, 曰: “馬也.”
팔월기해, 조고욕위란, 공군신불청, 내선설험, 지록헌어이세, 왈: “마야.”

On the Jihai day (己亥, 기해) of the eighth month, Zhao Gao (趙高, 조고, ?-207BC) wanted to start a revolt, but feared that his ministers would not listen. Therefore, he first tried to test them, and took a deer as an offering to the Qin dynasty’s second generation emperor saying, “This is a horse.”

  • Zhao Gao (趙高, 조고, ?-207BC) – A corrupt and greedy prime minister and eunuch (宦官, 환관) in the Qin dynasty royal court, he played a pivotal role in bringing down the Qin dynasty and is vilified in Chinese history for his treachery.

二世笑曰: 丞相誤邪? 謂鹿爲馬.
이세소왈: 승상오아? 위록위마.

The second generation emperor laughed saying, “Prime minister, are you mistaken? You called a deer a horse.”

問左右, 左右或默, 或言馬以阿順趙高.
문좌우, 좌우혹묵, 혹언마이아순조고.

The emperor asked ministers on his left and right. Out of the ministers, some were quiet. Others stated that it was a horse in order to flatter and follow Zhao Gao.

或言鹿, 高因陰中諸言鹿者以法.
혹언록, 고인음중제언록자이법.

Some said it was a deer. Zhao Gao thus in secret had all those who said it was a deer ensnared.


Thereafter, all the ministers feared Zhao Gao.

As for the other choices in the poll, the idiom 削足適履(삭족적리) meaning “To cut off the feet and match to shoes” came second, 至痛在心(지통재심) meaning “Extreme pain exists in the heart” came third, 慘不忍睹(참불인도) meaning “So horrendous that no one can bare to watch” came fourth, and 四分五裂(사분오열) meaning “To divide into four and cut into five” came fifth. Last year’s choice was 倒行逆施(도행역시) meaning “To act contrary to reason,” another idiom based on the Records of the Grand Historian. 



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