There is an interesting answer by Valorum over on Scifi, which includes a quote from source material about a 'Viscount Yi':

“I combined that notion with the kind of imagistic shorthand sometimes used in ancient China: like ‘Viscount Yi.’ If you don’t know that Yi was a minister at the court of a madman and what he did to survive, then you don’t know what that phrase is supposed to convey.”

Star Trek Magazine: December 2002 Volume 3 Issue 8

This piqued my curiosity, but a search has me drawing a blank. There is a Wikipedia article on Xiong Yi, an 11th century BC 'first viscount and an early ruler of the State of Chu during early Zhou Dynasty'.

Is this the same person? The article's biographical sketch doesn't mention anything about his liege being a madman or anything alluded to in the source quotation.

Who was 'Viscount Yi', and what did he do "to survive in the court of a madman" ?

  • Feedback is welcome, especially re tags- I wasn't sure if others are warranted. Thanks!
    – bertieb
    Commented Jun 3, 2019 at 12:32
  • I personally suspect that the author of this quote (writer Joe Menosky) was making up an example.
    – Richard
    Commented Jun 3, 2019 at 13:44
  • 1
    Doesn't the author want to convey exactly this sense of confusion? The text is talking about how knowledge of stories/myths is required to understand metaphors drawn from those stories.
    – 0range
    Commented Jun 3, 2019 at 14:01
  • More to the point: Yi is quite a common name (also considering that Chinese has tones, so there are various words that would be written in Latin characters as Yi. There were many viscounts Yi in history. E.g. another one in the Gonyang Commentary on the Spring and Autumn Annals. He is a quasi-independent ruler, his capital is captured in 488 BCE, and he is deported to Lu.
    – 0range
    Commented Jun 3, 2019 at 14:01
  • 2
    @Richard I personally suspect that the author of the quote made up the Chinese name as an illustration but had some particular chengyu in mind, in particular Zhao Gao and "calling a deer a horse" for the benefit of the Second Emperor. That's one of the most famous chengyu (particularly w/r/t to tyrannical rulers) and there was a Meng Yi killed under the same emperor. It seems like he just mangled it a bit since he doubted anyone would call him on it.
    – lly
    Commented Jun 3, 2019 at 15:21

1 Answer 1


This doesn't precisely address a "Viscount Yi" but, as noted in my comment above, I think Mr Menosky (a) is clearly talking about chengyu, the fixed allusive idioms of the Chinese language and (b) mangled it a bit on the understandable assumption that no one in the near future was going to do much follow-up on the details of his point. There are no famous (or even not-so-famous) chengyu about a "Viscount Yi" but there is a very famous chengyu nearly every educated Chinese will know about arbitrary tyranny.

Call(ing) a Deer a Horse (指鹿為馬, zhǐlùwéimǎ)

According to Sima Qian's Records of the Grand Historian, when the First Emperor finally died, a clique of officials around Prince Huhai (the inept youngest son) conspired against the more capable crown prince Fusu. They faked orders for Fusu to commit suicide & accept his brother's succession, which he (being a filial son) obeyed.

Later, needing to see who was loyal and who not, the conspirator Zhao Gao brought a deer to court and presented it to the emperor as a horse. The Second Emperor considered this a prank and laughingly asked the other advisors what they thought it was. Zhao watched while some stayed silent, some replied 'deer', and others replied 'horse'. Those who were silent or who opposed him, he later found excuses for demoting or executing, while the others who had cravenly agreed with him were rewarded.

"Thereafter the officials were all terrified of Zhao Gao[, and he] gained military power as a result" (Watson, 1993, p. 70).

There was a Meng Yi killed by Zhao around the same time, but he had previously disciplined Zhao on behalf of the First Emperor and he and his family were famously done in by Zhao's clique as part of the initial coup. That may have been where Mr Menosky picked up the name, although Meng doesn't really appear in any chengyu on his own.

In any case, this effect—where a seemingly opaque phrase like "pointing at a deer as if it were a horse" calls to mind the entire situation of saying black is white to avoid offending a tyrant—is exactly the kind of linguistic trick being discussed. It is, of course, not remotely limited to Chinese: English behaves exactly the same way towards its own historical figures, the Bible, and Shakespeare.

  • Well phrased, good context, seems plausible. Also introduces the very relevant concept of chengyu. Nice answer!
    – bertieb
    Commented Jun 4, 2019 at 1:10

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