An estimated 10,000 medical workers gather in solidarity with Hongkongers, in Central, in August. Photo: Edmond So
by Wee Kek Koon
by Wee Kek Koon

Why Hong Kong’s protesters do not want to ‘cut the reed mat’ – they believe they are stronger together

  • ‘Cutting the reed mat’ comes from an ancient Chinese tale of two friends falling out
  • The phrase has been adopted by those in the anti-government camp, urging solidarity regardless of conscience
One of the more curious tactics adopted by the anti-government camp in Hong Kong is the upholding of solidarity regardless of conscience. Even if the more moderate opposition politicians and peaceful protesters harbour misgivings about the violence of the fanatic fringe, they keep their peace. They would rather put up with, or ignore, the Molotov cocktails and trashing of public facilities than condemn these actions and hence compromise the unity of the movement. The potential for discord is in fact suggested by the very slogan they use: bat got zik (“not cutting the reed mat”). Why else would one consider cutting anything if everyone was in agreement?

The phrase “cutting the reed mat” (got zik in Cantonese; ge xi in Mandarin) refers to the severance of ties between allies. It originated in the story of two friends Guan Ning (158–241) and Hua Qin (157–232). One day in their youth, the pair were planting vegetables together in the garden when Guan’s hoe struck a piece of gold. Guan ignored it but Hua picked up the piece of precious metal, looked at it for some moments before tossing it aside.

On another occasion, they were sitting on a reed mat studying when a retinue of people in resplendent clothing passed by. Guan ignored the procession but Hua put down his book and went to take a look at the spectacle. In response, Guan took a knife and cut the reed mat they had been sitting on in two, saying to Hua: “You are not my friend.” From this story, came the Chinese phrase for the conscious termination of a friendship or alliance due to differences of purpose.

Guan and Hua went their separate ways after completing their studies. To escape the chaos of the Yellow Turban Rebellion and the fighting between warlords that followed, Guan fled north to Liaodong (present-day Liaoning province), where he was warmly welcomed by its administrator, who had been enamoured of Guan’s famed erudition. Guan, however, refused to serve in any official capacity and instead devoted himself to education. As a teacher, he was well-loved and highly respected in Liaodong.

Mothers gather in show of solidarity with Hong Kong’s young protesters

When a semblance of peace returned to China, Guan decided to return home from the far north. Both Emperor Wen of the Wei dynasty, who ruled the country north of the Yangtze River, and his successor Emperor Ming appointed Guan to high positions in government, but he declined the positions, as well as repeated requests from the latter to serve at court, citing his advanced age and ill health. He died at the age of 84, a renowned scholar without any official rank or title.

Unlike Guan, Hua pursued a political career. He served in the government of the enfeebled Eastern Han dynasty, before switching his allegiance to a succession of warlords. He finally found permanent employ with Cao Cao, a de facto ruler of the Eastern Han. Hua became one of Cao’s most trusted lieutenants. After Cao died, his son Cao Pi decided to put an end to the Eastern Han and make himself emperor of a new dynasty. Hua was among the ministers who arranged for the abdication of the last Eastern Han emperor and the enthronement of Cao Pi as the above-mentioned Emperor Wen of the Wei dynasty in 220.

When Emperor Wen died in 226 after a short reign, Hua wished to retire due to illness, and the person whom he recommended to the new Emperor Ming to replace him was none other than Guan, his former friend who years before had “unfriended” him by cutting the reed mat in two. The high-minded Guan Ning, of course, did not take up the post. Hua died six years later, at the age of 75.