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April 12, 2009

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旗鼓相当 (qi2 gu3 xiang1 dang1) - Uniting flags, drums

In the absence of modern equipment such as computers and modern telecommunication facilities, flags and drums played a key role in directing troops in field battles in ancient China.

Flags of different colors were used to conduct communication and the deploying of troops in battle formations while the drums served as an instrument to boost soldiers' morale and to issue movement orders.

So, it was natural that the two instruments found their way into a number of Chinese sayings and expressions.

Of those which are still widely quoted is the idiom qi2 gu3 xiang1 dang1, or "having the same number of flags and drums."

It originates from a letter written by Emperor Guangwu during the early years of the Eastern Han Dynasty (AD 25-220). At that time, the new regime was facing strong opposition in remote provinces. Gongsun Shu named himself "emperor" in today's Sichuan Province and Wei Xiao set up a rebel army in the bordering Longxi Area.

Besides opposing the court, the two rebel factions were also involved in deep border disputes with each other.

Emperor Guangwu, who had long planned to take advantage of the brawl between Gongsun and Wei to alleviate opposition pressure in the northwest and southwest provinces, one day wrote a letter to Wei, proposing an alliance against Gongsun.

In the letter, the emperor said: "At present, most of the royal troops are fighting rebels in the east. So, I do not have a large number of contingents to be deployed in the west.

"But, if Gongsun launches invasions into any of the central province, he will definitely first try to seize the area now under your command. Therefore, I believe that only by forming an alliance between us could we have the same number of flags and drums as Gongsun does."

Wei accepted the emperor's proposal and an anti-Gongsun alliance was soon established.

In the following years, the alliance not only undermined Gongsun's plans of invading the central provinces, but also launched a number of successful offenses against the military positions of the self-enthroned "emperor."

Today, Chinese speakers tend to cite this idiom qi2 gu3 xiang1 dang1 to indicate that someone is a match for another or it is "nip-and-tuck" between two rival teams.


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