As the OSI food safety scandal rolls on, with some McDonald’s restaurants reportedly selling only drinks and French fries, Victor Mair explores a meat plant worker’s comment that “rules are dead, and people are alive.” From Language Log (via Donald Clarke)
A colleague from the PRC explained it this way:
This is an old and common expression. It’s been in use for as long as I can remember. It conveys a fairly typical Chinese attitude towards any rules/laws/regulations: they are made to break, bend and be compromised. View it positively, this indicates a way of problem solving. There is another expression “大活人还能让尿憋死,” which is less known, more crude and more regional, but expresses a similar meaning.
[…] As one Chinese friend summed up the dilemma, it all boils down to the division between fǎzhì 法治 (“the rule of law”) and rénzhì 人治 (“the rule of man”). In China, the latter generally takes precedence over the former, hence the flagrant disregard for rules and regulations, of which the worker’s statement concerning the SOP regarding bad meat with which we began this post is a typical instance. [Source]