Don’t get fat eating your own words
In 1943, during the Sino-Japanese War, Mao Zedong criticized Chiang Kai-shek for “getting fat on his own words.” Chiang promised to attack Japan using the alliance between the Chinese Nationalist Party and the Communist Party of China but had his forces seize the Communists instead. But the expression, “get fat on one’s own words” was not Mao’s creation. It was born in the Warring States Period (403-221 B.C.).
Duke Ai of the state of Lu was not pleased with Minister Meng Wu Bo because he was boastful and never took responsibility for his words. One day, the duke held a banquet, and in attendance were Meng and another minister named Guo Chong. Guo was overweight and a favorite of the duke, so Meng was jealous of him. To insult Guo, Meng asked, “What do you eat that makes you so fat?” Before Guo could respond, Duke Ai said, “He always eats his own words. How can he not get fat?” Meng may have been rude, but he had enough sense to realize that the duke was mocking him.
In present day, politicians in Korea are getting fat with their frequent empty promises. This tendency has continued even over important national affairs such as the Korea-U.S. free trade agreement. Those who had described the FTA as a “survival strategy for the nation” when they were in power changed their words after becoming the opposition and now criticize the deal as a “treacherous negotiation.”
Duke Ai was actually referring to the wisdom of King Tang of the Shang Dynasty. The king said, “Come and help me and the rewards will all be yours. I will never eat my words” as he set out to overthrow the tyrant Jie of Xia.
Johns Hopkins University Professor Francis Fukuayma made a modern interpretation of King Tang’s words: “Social capital is an instantiated informal norm that promotes cooperation between individuals.”
When politicians eat their own words, they destroy the social capital that helps them advance toward a mutual purpose. And as we saw during the mad cow crisis, it comes at a great cost. It is truly pathetic that politicians cannot learn even after the lesson of past elections. If they keep on eating their words, they might as well eat up their political careers.
The writer is the J Editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Lee Hoon-beom