How to remain clear-eyed in the face of flattery
An ancient Chinese tale from the Eastern Han dynasty (25 — 220) contains an important lesson on flattery: A young official was riding his horse through a crowded main street one morning. The calm nature and strong physique of the horse drew compliments from passersby, who praised the man and his mount and encouraged him to run faster.
Giddy with the admiration, the rider became more and more bold, squeezing the horses sides ever tighter and urging it into a gallop of ever-increasing speed. Eventually, the poor horse became exhausted, collapsed underneath him, and died.
This story, recorded in Comprehensive Meaning of Customs and Mores (《风俗通义》), is known as “Those Who Killed the Horse are the Passersby (杀君马者道旁儿).” It was written by Ying Shao (应劭), a well-known scholar of the time. The fable warns us to be wary of excessive praise, now known among Chinese netizens as 捧杀 (pěngshā, to kill with praise).
The term 捧杀 comes from the essay “Killing with Abuse and Killing with Praise (《骂杀与捧杀》)” by 20th century literary figure Lu Xun in which he wrote: “Those who are unhappy with present literary criticism always say that the so-called criticism these years is all just overpraise or abuse.”
There are many situations in which one may fall victim to 捧杀, potentially leading to 骄傲自满 (jiāo'ào zìmǎn, complacency). While praise can offer motivation and positive encouragement, exaggerated or unwarranted flattery may actually be employed by manipulators who deliberately praise others for bad work in the hope of gaining an advantage over them. Netizens have made 捧杀 into a buzzword to mock mean-spirited praise-givers who seek to keep others down through fake or highfalutin compliments.
For example, when your latest project at work gets rejected by your boss, your colleague may seem to comfort you or 打抱不平 (dǎbào bùpíng, fight against injustice):
Your plan is so perfect. Why didn’t the manager realize that?
Nǐ zhège fāng'àn zuò de tài wánměi le! Zěnme bùmén jīnglǐ jiùshì méi zhùyì dào ne?
While you may think they are being friendly and genuine, this is likely a classic 捧杀 move. Your colleague may be praising you without merit so that you begin to believe your work is great regardless of what your boss thinks, making you stubborn and unwilling to improve—and likely annoying your boss so that they prefer your colleague over you for future assignments.
It takes skill to decipher what praise might be “糖衣炮弹 (tángyī pàodàn, sugar-coated bullets)” or designed to “明捧暗踩 (míngpěng àncǎi, praise you on the surface but secretly belittle you).”
For example, your colleagues compliment you on your academic credentials and say you are destined for much greater things than the small company and modest salary you currently work for. They might say:
You are wasted as a sales manager in your present job!
Nǐ zài zhège dìfang dāng gè xiāoshòu jīnglǐ shízài shì tài qūcái le!
But this is also dangerous. You might start doubting your career choices, and eventually freak out:
That's right, I’m from the Peking university! How can I spend each day doing this terrible job?
Wǒ kěshì běidà de ya, tiāntiān zuò zhè làntānzi shì.
Those seeking to kill you softly with praise may take another approach: “踩一捧一 (cǎi yī pěng yī, take one down but flatter the other).” Like when you break up with a partner, instead of encouraging self-reflection and growth, others (well-meaning or not) might say:
He doesn’t deserve you. You deserve someone better.
Tā gēnběn pèibushàng nǐ, nǐ zhídé gèng hǎo de rén.
If you quarrel with each other, it must be his fault.
Rúguǒ nǐmen chǎojià le, yīdìng shì duìfāng de cuò!
Celebrities in particular need to beware 捧杀, as they face the constant danger of overhype and sensationalization. For example, when Zhou Qimo won the comedy variety TV show Rock & Roast (《脱口秀大会》）in 2017, but failed miserably in the 2021 iteration of the show, some of his fans blamed his failure on the hype that surrounded him.
Zhou Qimo is pretty good, but don't overrate him. It’ll just disappoints the audience.
Zhōu Qímò hěn yōuxiù a, dàn búyào bǎ tā chuī dé tiānhuā luànzhuì a, tīngwán guānzhòng yòu juéde shīwàng.
When encouragement turns out to be fatal to a celebrity or sportsperson’s fate it is sometimes known as 毒奶 (dú nǎi, poisonous milk), a phrase which emerged from esports fans. Giving poison milk to someone is akin to bringing them bad luck or “jinxing” them. For example, sports fans might say:
I really think this team will win!
Wǒ fēicháng kànhǎo zhè zhī duìwǔ!
But when they finally lose others might respond:
Don’t jinx the team you support any more.
Nǐ kuài bié dú nǎi zìjiā de duìwǔ le.
It's best to take praise with a pinch of salt, or at least remember that complacency is an ever-present danger. And try to keep in mind the Chinese saying: “It takes bitter medicine to cure a disease properly, and it takes blunt advice to put us on the right track (良药苦口利于病，忠言逆耳利于行 Liángyào kǔkǒu lìyú bìng, zhōngyán nì'ěr lìyú xíng).”