Archive for September 4th, 2011

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Phrasebook: fàng nǐ yī mǎ

Commenting on a People’s Daily article on individual income tax (个人所得税, or shorter, 个税) changes, Chinese blogger Huo Long (活龙)  objects to the use of 免交 (tax exemption) in the context. The news is about a raise of the individual-income-tax threshold (个税起征点) which came into effect on Thursday.

Now, Huo Long’s objection is that the threshold had been clearly defined, by the NPC’s standing committee which had written the change into the personal income tax law (个人所得税法). Roughly, Huo Long seems to point out that tax exemption (免交)  isn’t the appropriate nomenclature when it comes to some 60 million taxpayers’ right (权利) to earn any amount below 3,500 Yuan RMB per month without having to pay taxes, or

The journalist with the People’s Daily doesn’t seem to understand that, if the standing committee of NPC writes the income tax threshold into law, it means the taxpayers automatically don’t have the responsibility to pay income tax if their monthly income is below that threshold. If there is no responsibility in the first place, mian [] is not the right word because it only applies to existing responsibility.

Just as an exempt from punishment (免予刑事处分) wouldn’t spell a lucky offender’s innocence, a tax exempt (免税) wouldn’t mean that the tax payer actually doesn’t owe the state the money he may keep as an exempt, he argues. The right to earn a certain amount of money without being taxable anyway, on the other hand, was more comparable to a situation where a culprit wasn’t found guilty at all – quite naturally, an acquittal can’t warrant punishment.

To discretionary spare someone punishment, tax payments, etc. (these are two of the many situations where you might use the word 免 ), even if punishment or tax payment would be due,  may also be stated by the phrase in question here:

放你一马 (fàng nǐ yī mǎ)



That’s the phrase that makes me write this post. I’m no tax expert – but both the use of the phrase, and its origins, are piquing my curiosity.

Yes, you could levy that tax, but on your own discretion choose not to do so, or you could put the drunken driver into jail, or you could kill off Cao Cao and his men or take them prisoners of war – but you decide to 放他们一马, to let them go – this time, that is. All those people, or that flea that bit you, thus saving your life.

An urban legend online suggests that  the 放你一马 saying stems from 三国演义 (The Romance of the Three Kingdoms) by Luo Guanzhong (罗贯中) – more precisely, from the Battle of the Red Cliff (赤壁之战) chapter. But then, people in China are easily inclined to turn to venerable old stories when trying to explain things, and fàng nǐ yī mǎ sounds unusually casual for a novel written during the late Yuan or early Ming period.

This is what Huolong found when he checked his 三国演义 copy. 四散摆开 doesn’t really look like 放你一马.

So, what is it in your book? You might take this thread into account, too, while making your guesses.



» A simplified account of the actual Battle of the Red Cliff, posting date unknown
» More Phrasebook entries


%d bloggers like this: