Fascinating China Writers’ Group email exchange, with a deep dive into Sino-culture and the people’s longstanding democracy.

The Chinese have always had way more people’s democracy than the West, going back thousands of years. Leaders in China have always been held accountable to the citizens, who, if dissatisfied, simply run them out office. It is something I have written much about (https://chinarising.puntopress.com/search/?q=democracy). Herewith is a wonderful China Writers’ Group email exchange on this topic.

My emailed question

I am trying to find the Chinese saying,

Grab spears and storm the palace.

Meaning, that when the government leaders are incompetent, they need to be replaced, so run them out of the palace and demand new ones.

I have gone through my dictionary searching with “戈” and “枪”  and am coming up empty handed.

Thanks if you can help! Jeff

Kwan Lee’s reply


This simple translation is not from a traditional 成 语 (cheng2 yu3) but might be useful. I chose 矛 (Mao2) as the translation for ‘spear’. It is homophone with Mao Zedong; both ‘Mao’ (毛 & 矛) are pronounced at the second tone.

拿 起 长 矛 冲 进 宫 殿 : Na3 Qi3 Chang2 Mao2 Chong1 Jin4 Gong1 Dian4

Rise up, grab a long spear & storm the palace.

I added ‘long’ (长) and ‘Rise up’ (起) for getting a symmetry : 4 characters on the left side & 4 characters on the right side.

Txau ! Quan

Wei Ling Chua’s reply

Hi Jeff, 

I think this is what you are looking for:




1) you can cut and paste “德不配位,必有灾殃。德薄而位尊,智小而谋大,力小而任重,鲜不及矣” to find different hyperlink to the above.

2) the meaning of 德不配位,必有灾殃 is: if one ability/ethic doesn’t match the position one hold, a disaster is ensured. 



Dongping Han’s reply

Jeff: maybe you are looking for jieganerqi (揭竿而起).

It’s a set phrase, describing the peasant uprising at the end of the Qin dynasty.  The peasants didn’t have weapons, and they rebelled with sticks.

Peter Man’s reply

Interestingly, Dongping’s phrase, which shows up in a Baidu search, is different from the phrase I learned as a child in Hong Kong. The background story is also different, and searching through Baidu, I cannot find any reference to the Hong Kong version at all. This is not to say any version is right or wrong, but that there are regional differences, and the story behind the Hong Kong version is obviously apocryphal. I’ll share it here.

While Dongping’s 揭竿而起 translates as raising the poles (flag) to rise up, the Hong Kong version I learned as a child from children’s set-phrase books is 揭竿起义, raising or revealing bamboo pikes to start a righteous rebellion (revolution). It is not only a peasant rebellion but also a righteous one. Rather than referring to peasants rebelling against the Qin Empire, the background for the Hong Kong version is the peasant rebellion that overthrew the Mongolian Yuan dynasty, kicking out the barbarian rulers who had oppressed Chinese peasants for ninety years. Perhaps this set phrase has nationalistic connotations for the modern times, hinting of the kicking out of colonial forces. 

The term 揭竿, means “raising the poles” but can also mean “revealing the pikes.” The word 揭 is generally defined as reveal and used in most phrases to mean reveal. The Hong Kong version spins a good yarn. When the Mongols ruled China, the southern Chinese, which the rulers categorized as southern Han, was classified as the lowest of four castes (Mongols, other foreign tribes acting as henchmen, long subjugated northern Han, and newly conquered southern Han), depriving them of any rights against Mongols (a Mongol could take the property and kill a southern Han peasant with impunity). Sothern Han peasants were strictly controlled and not allowed to keep metallic implements except those that were necessary (such as cleavers for butchers), in which case, they would be shared between many homes, chained and monitored. Such a situation was rather unique during Mongolian rule and not for other periods. That was why when the southern Han peasants planned to rebel, their main weapons were sharpened bamboo pikes which they stashed and hid from the Mongol officials. For most other peasant rebellions, the peasants actually had hoes, picks, knives and axes. 

This is where the folklore of the secret message hidden in the mooncakes comes in. Once the peasants learned the date and place for the rebellion from the mooncake messages, they took the pikes out of hiding (raised or revealed the pikes) and raised a righteous army for a righteous war to overthrow the barbarian Mongolian dynasty. 

I checked the Phrase Dictionary (辞海) published in Taiwan in 1986. It only has the Hong Kong version of the phrase, which it simply defines as “a revolution.” I checked the Phrase Dictionary published in China in 1979 (three huge tomes). It has neither. It simply defines “raising the pole” as “a peasant rebellion.”

Godfree Roberts

As Mao warned before launching the Cultural Revolution, “If we don’t, the peasants will take up their sticks, and we’ll be turfed out”.

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