Calling a deer a horse 指鹿为马

It is an example of a borrowed metaphor, which uses objects, in this case a deer and a horse, to convey a subtle message. It is also an example of an insinuating metaphor, in that it insinuates a person uses his authorities or powers to dominate or control another person.

Background

指鹿为马 (zhí lù wéi má)  literally means pointing at a deer, but calling it a horse

This proverb was originated from Records of the Grand Historian (史记) written by Sima Qian of the Qin Dynasty in around 100 BC. History has it that during the reign of the Emperor Qin the second, there was a head of the executive bureau (丞相) named  Zhao Gao (赵高), who was one ambitious man and had always wanted to be an emperor. However, he was unsure as to, among his subordinates, who were on his side and who were not. Zhao came up with a scheme. One day at the the Emperor’s palace, Zhao brought out a deer before his subordinates and said to the Emperor “Here is a horse for your highness!”. The Emperor laughed and said to Zhao that “You must be wrong, it is a deer”. Zhao ignored the Emperor and demanded that each of his subordinates to say whether it was a horse or a deer. Some said it was a deer, but some tried not to offend Zhao and chose to say that it was a horse.  Later those who told the truth by saying it was a deer were killed by Zhao.

Meaning

To give a misleading representation for a personal gain

Examples  

  • In politics (President Bush asked its “allies” to send troops to Iraq alleging that it possessed weapons of mass destruct ion, only Britain and a handful of countries did, whereas France, Germany and other usual “allies” of the US did not. Bush was in effect calling a deer a horse and now he knew who are his allies.)
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