2 Students of Confucius Perceive Gain and Loss Differently

Confucius, gouache on paper (The Granger Collection, New York) (Cold Season / Wikipedia)
Confucius, gouache on paper (The Granger Collection, New York) (Cold Season / Wikipedia)

Kong Mie was a nephew of Confucius, while Bi Zijian was a student. Both of them were magistrates of two different counties.

One day, Confucius visited Kong Mie. On the way, he saw that many fields were deserted and overgrown with weeds. A group of obviously distraught farmers were standing idly outside their homes even though it was spring and the flowers were in full bloom. Confucius asked one of the farmers: “Why don’t you plow and plant your fields?” One farmer replied: “Since we didn’t pay enough in taxes last year, we are forbidden to farm our fields.” Confucius felt sorry for the disheartened farmers.

When Confucius met Kong Mie, he asked him: “What do you think you have gained and lost since you became a magistrate?” Kong Mie answered: “I didn’t gain anything, but I lost much. The emperor requires me to perform so many duties that I seldom have time to read or improve myself. My compensation is too low to support my family, so I can’t spare anything to support my other relatives, which has estranged our relationship. Finally, given the urgency of my duties, I don’t have time to visit those who are ill, which has led to a considerable amount of friction between me and my family and friends.”

Hearing his complaints, Confucius replied: “It was said that a governor should govern with compassion and love, and should be very careful when doling out punishment. If he only uses rules to guide people and punishment to constrain them, then they will just consider various ways to avoid punishment and will never feel shame. If the governor administers the people with virtue, and uses etiquette when constraining them, they will feel shame when they do something wrong, and will strive to be good, thus avoiding the need for cruel punishment. You should know that only with good guiding thoughts can a magistrate obtain other’s understanding and support.”

When Confucius went to Bi Zijian, he saw a pleasant scene; the people were rich, honest, and polite. Confucius asked Bi Zijian the same question: “What do you think you have gained and lost since you became a magistrate?” Bi Zijian answered: “I didn’t lose anything, but I gained much. Although my duties keep me very busy, I always use the scriptures of the Sage to guide me, so I learn much while governing the people. Although my compensation is small, I always find enough funds to support my relatives, which makes our relationship closer. Finally, despite the urgency of my duties, I never neglect the ill and always find the time to visit them, so everyone around me supports my work.”

Then they heard beautiful music outside; a young lady was singing a poem to encourage the people to work hard and be good. Confucius smiled and asked Bi Zijian: “You also use music to teach the people to be good? That is very good. But how do you make the people live so harmoniously?” Bi Zijian replied: “You taught me to love others, and I put your lessons into practice in my daily life. I treat older people like my parents, and look at children as if they were my own. I try to help reduce people’s debts and help the poor. I employ wise men to work for me, and whenever I meet anyone who is more intelligent than me, I humbly ask them for ideas to better govern the people.” Hearing these words, Confucius replied: “You are an upstanding person who teaches your people virtue, and governs them with compassion. You are blessed, and your people follow and support you.”

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