Classical Chinese philosophy and stories: Collect birds and set them free

By | July 15, 2013

Ancient Chinese culture teaches people to be kind and gentle. During years of famine, rich people will donate food and clothes to those who suffer from hunger and coldness; during the year of peace, rich people will approach another tradition to be kind, which is to set birds, fish and other animals free. People usually set the animals free on the Spring Festival, the beginning of the Chinese lunar year; this tradition is also known as “loving lives(爱生灵)”.

During the Spring and Autumn Period, in the state of Jin there was a senior government official called Zhao Jianzi.
Zhao had a habit to set birds free in the Spring Festival. On the first day of the Chinese New Year, ordinary people would offer the birds that they had caught to Zhao and Zhao in return would give them with generous reward. Thus on this day each year, people would queue to donate the birds they have on hand for Zhao’s setting the birds free.

One of Zhao’s retainers watched people going in and out of the big house and then came to talk to Zhao: “why do you do this?”

“To show my kindness to lives”, Zhao replied.

“My superior, it is very rare and very kind for you to set the birds free. But in case all people in this nation would come for rewards by offering birds to you. Then there must be birds that are killed or get hurt in accidence when people compete to catch them. If you really want to set them free, then please ban the human prey of birds. After considering Zhao adopted the suggestion and released a ban to ban people from catching birds.

The fable tells a simple rationality that bad things can be done with good intention. We shall consider all possible consequences before making a key decision.

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