Leadership lessons from Confucius: when the stables caught fire

when the stables caught fire

廄焚,子退朝,曰:「傷人乎?」不問馬。
When the stables caught fire, Confucius returned from court and asked: “Was anyone hurt?” He didn’t ask about the horses. (1) (2)

How do you decide what’s truly important to you? Your family? Your friends? Your job? The beautiful house you were finally able to purchase after years of hard work and scrimping and saving? Or perhaps even your pets?

In this famous passage, Confucius shows that he places people above everything else – even if they are lowly stable hands and therefore worth much less in monetary terms than his valuable horses. It would be no exaggeration to say that opinions on his choice vary considerably!

Notes

This article features a translation of Chapter 17 of Book 10 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 10 here.

(1) I am not sure how this chapter snuck into Book 10. It has nothing to do with the ones preceding and following it.

(2) 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 caught fire, Confucius returned from court and asked: “Was anyone hurt?” He did not ask about the horses.

Version II (see bold)

廄焚。子退朝,曰:“傷人乎不?”問馬
When the stables caught fire, Confucius returned from 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 caught fire, Confucius returned from 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 took this image at the Temple of Confucius in Yilan, Taiwan.

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