When the stables burned

廄焚,子退朝,曰:「傷人乎?」不問馬。
When the stables burned, Confucius left court and asked: “Was anyone hurt?” He did not ask about the horses.

This passage is often cited as an example of Confucius’s “humanism” because he is more concerned about the fate of the lowly stable hands than the loss of the much more valuable horses.

Not surprisingly, some people have found the last sentence, with its implication that Confucius didn’t care at all about the fate of the horses, deeply troubling and have suggested two alternative versions of the chapter. While the characters are exactly the same, changes in punctuation make the meaning very different:

Version I (see above)
廄焚。子退朝,曰:“傷人乎?”不問馬。
When the stables burned, Confucius left court and asked: “Was anyone hurt?” He did not ask about the horses.

Version II (see bold)
廄焚。子退朝,曰:“傷人乎?”問馬。
When the stables burned, Confucius left court and asked: “Was anyone hurt or not?” Then he asked about the horses.

Version III (see bold)
廄焚。子退朝,曰:“傷人乎?”不。”問馬
When the stables burned, Confucius left court and asked: “Was anyone hurt?” “No.” Then he asked about the horses.

I suppose that the latter two alternatives are possible, but I can’t say I’m convinced by either of them since the main purpose of this chapter is clearly to illustrate Confucius’s enlightened concern for his fellow men, no matter what their social station was, rather than his love of animals.

I would like to think I’m wrong, however. After all, in Chapter XXVI of Book 7, he did at least give the prey he hunted a fair chance:

子釣而不綱,弋不射宿。
Confucius fished using a line – not a net. When hunting, he never shot at a bird that was nesting.

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