Amongst friendly and even high profile competitions there is a phrase in China that can be heard thrown around: “立flag” (lì flag), or more specifically “不要立flag” (bùyào lì flag) . The phrase 立flag literally means to “set up a flag”, giving it the nuance: “don’t set up a flag”. However, this phrase is not meant to be taken literally, as no one is going around setting up physical flags. Instead the phrase means to set up a non-physical goal or expectation. For example, if someone was competing in a tournament and they remarked “The next game should be an easy win since we have been on a winning streak lately.” someone else may comment “不要立flag.” This second person is teasingly warning the first person not to set up an expectation of their team’s success because you never know what may happen and “setting up a flag” is just asking for it to be unexpectedly knocked over. English speakers have an equivalent to this phrase. If the earlier example took place in the United States for instance, the second person may instead comment “Don’t jinx us.” Both the English and Chinese phrases carry the same sentiment of reminding another not to bring bad luck down on them.
This phrase can also be taken outside of a competitive setting. As a second example, someone could wake up one morning and say to themselves “Today is going to be a good day.” this is also considered as an instance of “立flag”. And since this phrase is used somewhat sarcastically normally, it can also be used to paradoxically invite good luck. Modifying our earlier scenario we can clarify this idea. Let’s say the person competing has been on a losing streak, than they can 立flag like this: “We will definitely lose the next game.” The established “flag” has become to lose the next game and now they are inviting that flag to be knocked down by having them instead win the game. It is a versatile phrase.
It should also be noted that the English word “flag” is used by Chinese speakers when saying this phrase. Although they have their own words for flag, those words are not used in this expression and it would sound odd to Chinese speakers if you used their word for flag. The reason for this is because the English word flag was used in the Japanese phrase “死亡flag”, death flag. Death flag is a common trope in media where one character promises something but ultimately is unable to fulfill it because they die before they get the chance. If a character in a movie promises their children they will return home safely from the war then that character is sure to die because they have raised their own death flag. So since the original phrase Chinese speakers borrowed the idea from carried an English word already, it felt more natural to keep the word that to just outright replace the word and strip it of the context that ultimately gives it meaning.