‘Time to settle old scores’ — phrase of the week

Society & Culture

The Shanghai’s government’s heavy-handed punishment of a bakery that served bread to hungry citizens during the city’s lockdown recalls an idiom about revenge.

Illustration for The China Project by Derek Zheng

Our phrase of the week is: time to settle old scores (秋后算账 qiū hòu suànzhàng).

Context  

The Korean bakery chain Paris Baguette (巴黎贝甜 bālí bèi tián) was fined 585,000 yuan ($85,000) by the Shanghai Municipal Administration for Market Regulation this week for baking and selling bread without permission during Shanghai’s lockdown in April.

Employees of a Shanghai branch were barred from returning home at the beginning of the citywide lockdown in Shanghai, with some staying at one of the company’s training centers.

With even basic food hard to come by at that time, they began taking group orders (团购 tuán gòu) from the local residents, who were desperate for anything to eat. But unlike many other businesses, Paris Baguette did not raise its prices. 

Shanghai’s market regulator decided that was not allowed; China’s food safety regulations require all equipment and raw materials used in food production to be licensed. The kit at the training center was found not to have the correct permits, so it was confiscated, and the operation closed down. 

This week, the market regulator said that in line with this law, Paris Baguette will be fined 10 times the amount that its unlicensed operation made during the lockdown.

Customers, however, have rushed to support the brand, buying bread, cakes, and other foods from outlets in Shanghai and across China, and posting recommendations on social media urging their friends to do the same.

Internet users say the authorities should not punish the company, with the fine having the opposite effect: 

这张罚单,是反向带货,成了他们最好的广告. 

This fine has backfired. It has become its best advertisement.

zhè zhāng fádān, shì fǎxiàng dài huò, chéng le tāmen zuìhǎo de guǎnggào.

Social media users also criticized the authorities for their decision: 

Autumn is here; it is time to settle old scores. 

秋天到了,很多事也要秋后算账了.

qiūtiān dàole, hěnduō shì yě yào qiū hòu suànzhàng le.

Translation 

This idiom literally translates as “after autumn” (秋后 qiū hòu) and “settle accounts” (算账 suànzhàng), referring to farmers settling their financial accounts after the harvest at the end of autumn. It’s usually not used literally, but as a metaphor for revenge. 

The idiom first appeared in the 1980 General’s Chant (将军吟 jiāng jūn yín) by the novelist Mò Yīngfēng 莫应丰.

General’s Chant follows the stories of three air force generals who are badly caught up in the chaos of the Cultural Revolution (1966–76). The novel is highly critical of the politics of the time.  

The sentence with our cryptic autumn idiom is: 

Some people don’t see it that way. They will hold on tightly to that bit of damning evidence, and will wait to settle those scores when the time comes!  

有些人可不这样看,死死抱住那点黑材料,准备秋后算账呢! 

yǒu xiē rén kě bú zhèyàng kàn, sǐsǐ bàozhù nà diǎn hēi cáiliào, zhǔnbèi qiū hòu suànzhàng ne!

It’s a metaphor for waiting until the final moment, or after something has already finished, before making an accusation of wrongdoing, trying to catch someone out, or taking revenge. 

The employees at Paris Baguette were merely doing what they could in a difficult situation, responding to their customers and delivering bread at fair prices. But the heavy-handed approach of the authorities did not take that into account, and instead dished out a large fine. 

Netizens also evoked another Chinese saying in their creative criticism of local authorities, which some even said could become Paris Baguette’s new advertising slogan: 

We must not let those who bake bread for the rest of us be punished.

为众人烤面包者,不可使其冻毙于风雪.

wèi zhòngrén kǎo miànbāo zhě, bùkě shǐ qí dòng bì yú fēngxuě.

This draws from the colloquial saying: 

We must not let those who bring firewood for the rest of us freeze to death on the road. 

为众人抱薪者,不可冻毙于风雪. 

wèi zhòngrén bào xīn zhě, bùkě dòng bì yú fēngxuě.

In the new variation, bring firewood (抱薪 bào xīn) is replaced with bake bread (烤面包 kǎo miànbāo).

Andrew Methven