On Not Treating People Like Pigs or Pets

Everyone sooner or later winds up in the position of taking care of someone, and many of us will take care of our parents. This is one essential part of being human — especially since we too at some point will be taken care of by someone. Looking after parents is difficult enough: not only do we have their physical needs to attend to, but we also have to negotiate the irritability, inflexibility, and repetitiousness that comes with getting older. This can be taxing and exhausting, but to Confucius, filiality, or xiao, requires a deeper engagement than just this fusion of helpfulness and patience.

Zi You asked about the meaning of filial piety. Confucius said, “Nowadays filial piety means being able to feed your parents. But everyone does this for even horses and dogs. Without respect, what’s the difference?” (Analects 2.7, tr. A.C.Muller)
   A hundred years after Confucius, Mencius articulates the same thought with more power:

“To feed people without loving them — that is to treat them like pigs. To love people without respecting them — that is to keep them like pets.” ( Mencius, 7.A.37)

   Thus Confucius’ vision reaches far beyond xiao to all our interactions with people. I find myself reflecting on these rich aphorisms a lot in my daily interactions with the people who depend on me — my children and other family members, as well as people who need help in my work. Often their moods and mental states make them hard to love or respect, and at such times it is easier to grind dutifully through the actions of service. It helps then to pull back and reflect: If I were in their position, I would hate to be endured, put up with, while being served. The feeling of being served without love or respect makes the service all the more demeaning, such that I would prefer to be left alone to die in dignity. So, knowing well how I would feel, I quietly readjust my attitude and find in myself the capacity to love and respect — because Mencius is right, people are neither pigs nor pets. In my own experience sensitive people always know whenever they are being treated without love and respect; it is impossible to fake it.

   This principle surely extends to most forms of li (ritual, propriety, courtesy, all social formalities). With the handshake, for example, are we merely going through a rote gesture without thought or feeling — using it, as it were, to promote other ends? I think of the Donald Trump handshake, which hijacks a ritual by using it to demonstrate power. Or do we rather reflect on those two aspects of the handshake — the clasping of hands, indicating a willingness to get close enough for physical contact and a decision to trust the other; and the dance of hand-shaking, which expresses mutual concord and respect between equals? To be fully present in something like a handshake — as opposed to hiding behind it for some extraneous motive — we need to mean the handshake, not just do it. This is Confucius’ simple point about filial actions, li, and that great Confucian aspiration, sincerity: we must strive to mean what we do



6 thoughts on “On Not Treating People Like Pigs or Pets”

  1. Krishnan,

    Right on point. In the Western sense of ‘xiao shun’ – right from the heart, that is, we mean it sincerely.

    Of course the Chinese culture of the ethics of ‘li’ is not about sincerity as such, but about the ‘spirit’ behind the manner and form, and ‘heart’ in the Chinese sense is not physically the ‘heart’ but the essence of ‘being’ or the spirit of life in you – the sense or feeling of belonging and inter-belonging. It is a more fluid and dynamic intuition and in fact quite esoteric like the Tao.

    The filial sense of duty and devotion must therefore be in meaning what we do, as you said, and more. It cannot be on par with sanctifying life as loving animals or pets or respecting all living things. It is to benevolent and indulgent enough to have total reverence for the very source of your life, your very being on Earth, like as if your parents were Gods.

    One cannot be intuitively filial, if one does not therefore preface or preamble each unkind or bad or chore-like thought of one’s parents with mental reminders that they gave birth to me, they brought me up and provided for me and I have a debt I can never possibly karmically repay. Whatever ill I should think of them, I must bear them in part payment of this karmic debt. I should treat any ill or chore or burden in being filial as a mosquito bite.

    What is the true meaning in the Tao of this unconditional intuitive essence of the ‘heart’ relationship between parent and child, if neither parent or child can forgive the other of any trespass? This forgiving nature we must intuitively have for our parents, whatever their trespasses against us, is what puts ‘xiao shun’ above how we ‘feed’ pigs and pets.


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  2. Krishnan.

    The Chinese expression for ‘forgiveness – ‘yuan liang’ or ‘yuen leong’ in Cantonese is not strictly speaking the forgiveness in the Western sense or meaning. There is no forgiveness or forget in the Chinese sense as such. The perpetrator cannot get forgiven by the victim because the victim has no power to forgive, as I shall explain later.

    To be Confucian is to be idealistic in a practical worldly sense.

    A broken rope is a broken rope. We can only mend it back but it will never be the same! We are only blind if we think that it is. What we should do is learn not to break the rope further as the more mending the more fragile it would become. Relationships are like that. Being ‘forgiving’ must be taken hand in hand with not re-offending, about repenting, about mending one’s waywardness by the other party. It is a two-way thing.

    ‘Yuan liang’ is more like ‘let it be’, let bygone be bygone, let the past be the past, let us not think about it, let us move on, let us not dwell on the past.

    The Confucian equation in ‘li’ collaborative correlative terms is between the ‘juanxi’ and his exemplary behaviour of the ‘ren’. It is about the subject or actor himself as to how he reacts in ‘ren’ terms to insult, displeasure, anger and resentment etc within the family or society. It is how he should react in accordance with the requisite ‘ren’ that brings about harmony in society as instilled or innate in the Tao of the ‘Zhong’ (the Mean) of Mother Nature. It has nothing to do with the object or the other party.

    Take the ‘yuan’ of ‘resentment’. When we let go or set aside as in ‘liang’, we then have the ‘yuan liang’ of Chinese forgiveness. But there is no ‘forgive and forget’! It is simply the ‘letting go’ – ‘I will let it ride. I will no longer think about it. Let us move on to the future with both learning from the mishaps of the past.

    How can the Confucian Chinese ‘forgive and forget’ the Unequal Treaties, the Opium Wars, the burning, looting, plundering and sacking of the Summer Palace? We cannot change history. But we can all learn and be wiser from history. We, as Confucian Chinese can only as ‘junxi’ act with ‘ren’.

    How would Western forgiveness by the Chinese make future Western imperialist powers having designs on China act with ‘ren’? In acting with ‘ren’ as Confucian Chinese we can only ‘yuan liang’ and not seek revenge or vengeance. Why? The indiscriminate immutable law of karma inherent in the mysterious Tao of Mother Nature will render its own fair retributive justice. How can Confucius pretend to overrule or contradict the aegis of karmic Mother Nature.

    Accordingly, Confucius has nothing to say about ‘forgiveness and forget’ in the Western sense.


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    1. That all makes sense, Vince. Even in the West, among its pagan cultures, there is no “forgiveness”; no Greek ever apologizes because no Greek thinks any action can be undone. Only with Christian theology does there begin to be a “theory” of forgiveness. In the East I’m not sure when the idea came in that the guru or enlightened one could “take away” the karma of the devotee — but one hears it a lot these days. I suspect it entered he Eastern mindset after Christianity took root. So, in Confucius or Mencius, is there talk of “yuan liang” anywhere?


  3. Krishnan,

    I think Analect 5.23 – The Master said, Bo Yi and Shu Qi forget (did not harbour remember) old grievances (grudges or wrongs done to them). Their resentment diminished or went (was little or rare).

    The expression ‘yuan liang’ is either modern or colloquil.



  4. Krishnan,

    In Guanyin devotion we (in Cantonese) ‘kow’ (invoke or implore) her to ‘yuen leong’ (Chinese ‘forgiveness’ of ‘no resentment’) and ‘poeh yow’ (‘bless’ – basically transfer some of her limitless karmic credits over to) us.

    So, even a ‘blessing’ is not a blessing in the Western spiritual sense.



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