Punish One to Warn Many
If you're one of those people who like making an example of one person to keep all the others in line, this idiom is just for you.
Today we learn a new phrase: cheng yi jing bai, which literally means to “punish one, frighten one hundred.” So you can guess the meaning - to punish or execute somebody as a warning to others. Here is the story behind it.
It happened during the Western Han Dynasty, about two thousand years ago. Huo Guang, a high official, enjoyed immense power in the palace because the late emperor had ordered that he be the senior advisor to the young emperor. Even his family servants back in his hometown outside the capital took advantage of their master's powerful position. They did as they pleased at the local market, even threatening the vendors with knives and taking things without paying for them. The local officials turned a deaf ear to people's appeals for help, for they dare not offend Huo Guang's family. Then a man named Yin Wonggui was appointed market manager. He was well known for his expert swordsmanship, had served as a prison guard when he was young, and knew a lot about the law. Moreover, he was a man of high integrity. So after he took up his post, he didn't spare anyone who bulled people at the market. Under Yin Wonggui's strict but fair control, the market was soon running smoothly, and Huo Guang's servants had to behave themselves.
One day, the head of the prefecture, Tian Yannian, came to the county where Yin Wonggui worked on an inspection tour. When receiving all the county officials, Tian ordered them to stand in two lines according to what they were good at, martial arts or literature. To Tian's surprise Yin Wonggui stood between the two lines. When asked for an explanation, Yin Wonggui said: I'm very proficient in both polite letters and martial arts, and am ready for any task you set me. After a long private talk, Tian Yannian was convinced of Yin's ability, and asked him to work by his side. Yin didn't let Tian down, and did an excellent job. Later, thanks to his achievements, Yin was appointed head of another prefecture, a place where the local people lived in constant fear of the thugs and hooligans who had taken over. Soon after taking up his new position, Yin Wonggui looked into the matter and learned that the most powerful tyrant was Xu Zhongsun. He savagely oppressed the local people, who hated him as much as they feared him. But because he had a wide circle of very influential relations, the former heads of the prefecture dared not offend him. Yin Wonggui, however, was determined to see justice done. After careful investigation of Xu Zhongsun's crimes, Yin had him arrested and executed in public. This frightened all the other bullies and evil people. After that, they had to abide by the law and the region was peaceful.
From Yin Wonggui's making an example of the gang leader Xu came the idiom, Cheng yi jing bai: Punish one, warn one hundred. Actually, another Chinese idiom has the same meaning. It reads: sha ji xia hou, which literally means “to kill the chicken to frighten the monkeys.” We'll check out the story behind it another time.