Be wary of falling into your own trap
The punishment called “the phoenix spreads its wings” involved binding prisoners’ hands and feet to a log, tying a rope around their necks and then pulling the rope. If prisoners do not admit to crimes, their necks break. In “presenting fruit to a wizard,” a naked prisoner was made to kneel on broken tiles and hold a knife with two hands above his head.
These names may have been softened to offset feelings of guilt after an inhumane punishment was doled out to a prisoner. But the names were essentially an insult to language itself. It was the alchemy of turning copper into gold, monumental achievements in Chinese-style exaggeration and beautification.
As the law and respect for human rights have become the norm, no one tries to maintain power by imposing severe punishments. That’s because there are ways to harass people without resorting to physical harm. Nowadays, digital fingerprints have become commonplace, so people use far more clever tactics. By tracking a person’s e-mail and text message exchanges, phone records, or account transactions, you can turn even the most innocent civilian into a criminal offender.
But if you try to maintain power with abnormal measures, you will fall into the trap yourself. Lai Junchen, the closest aid to Wu Zetian and her most feared interrogator, asked his fellow secret police officer, Zhou Xing, how to convince a stubborn prisoner to admit that he had conspired to organize a rebellion. Zhou Xing said, “That’s easy. Take a big urn and set a fire under it. Put the accused inside and surely he will confess everything.” Lai Junchen then set up the urn just as Zhou Xing had advised and told him, “You have been charged with treason. Please get into the urn.” That incident inspired the phrase, “invite a gentleman into the urn,” which refers to putting a person into a trap that he himself set.
As the end of the administration approaches, we are hearing about cases of people falling into their own traps. Power does not last five years, just as even the most beautiful flowers do not last more than 10 days. Who will be the next to enter the urn?
*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
By Bae Myung-bok