One day, while passing the great Mount Tai with his disciples, Confucius passed a battered, old lady who appeared to be kneeling in front of a grave. Her bitter grief broke the silent dawn, while her mournful cries echoed around the surrounding ancient caves and steep hills.
Prompted by curiosity, Confucius commanded one of his disciples to reach out to the lady and find the reason for her despair. “By the sound of your mourning, you seem to be affected by a deep, hurtful sorrow,” he said carefully, approaching the lady. Still drowned in her own sadness, her head was bowed to the ground, revealing her long, gray hair; the gleam of it having been fading by time and replaced by the dulling dust of isolation: “Yes, a tiger preyed on my father-in-law and devoured him. Then my husband also faced the same fate. And now, my son has been eaten by another tiger.” She said, pointing on the vague grave that marked the tragic ending of her son. Her rickety, fragile voice echoed around the mountain in lament.
Confucius was concerned for the old lady. She seemed intent on staying alone, far away from civilization. “What is it that makes you stay, why don’t you leave this place? He asked.”Because, there is no tyrannical rule here.” Answered the lady. Her ironic statement startled Confucius. He contemplated what she had said before returning to his followers, telling them: “Keep it in mind, young fellows: tyranny is fiercer than a tiger.”
The above passage is an adaptation of one the most noted Confucian philosophical ideas, as captured in the the proverb 苛政猛于虎 (kēzhèng měng yú hǔ).
The Book of Rites (《礼记》) was an anthology written by a Confucian scholar outlining the etiquette and ceremonials of the Zhou Dynasty (1046–256 BCE). A Confucian tract, the Book of Rites is one of the five classics of Confucianism, with the other four being the Classic of Poetry (《诗经》), Book of Documents (《尚书》), Book of Changes (《易经》), and the Spring and Autumn Annals (《春秋》).
Specifically why 苛政猛于虎 is translated as “Tyranny is fiercer than a tiger” requires a complex answer that is deeply rooted in the mutability of semantics. In modern Chinese, 苛 (kē) is literally translated into the English word”harsh”. It’s then combined with other characters and usually refers to a negative stress on the adjectival.
Take the word “harsh poison” (苛毒 kē dú) for instance, or the word “blame” (苛责 kēzé). The combined verbatim use of 苛 from the particular proverb 苛政猛于虎, with the word “politics” (政 zhèng) in 苛政, originally would be translated into “harsh politics” according to each character’s natural usage, but the proverb might have popularized the earliest example of a semantic shift in the character, leading to an evolution in the words usage. In this situation resulting in a heuristic translation to the word “tyranny”.
While the character 猛 (měng) is literally translated into the English word “violent”, or “fierce”, the proverb’s usage is still in accordance with the original usage of the character, similar to the word 于 (yú) – which acts as an ancient equivalent of the the word “upon” or, “than”. Meanwhile 虎 (hǔ), here still possesses the original meaning of its character: tiger. As a result, by individual heuristic analysis of a character’s semantic shifts and a deeper understanding of the original allusions, we can conclude that 苛政猛于虎 can appropriately be translated into “Tyranny is Fiercer Than a Tiger.”
The proverb itself later on became an aphorism that serves as an indirect, satirical allusion, which acts to convey an oppressive government acting in a tyrannical manner. No doubt many grab the opportunity to use it in such a context today. Opportunities always abound.
The Zhou Dynasty is often seen as the peak period of Chinese feudalism, with its main political ideology, 封建 (fēngjiàn) concentrating on decentralized government. Many schools of thoughts emerged in this era, so much so that the period is often referred to as “the 100 Schools of Thought.” And of course the biggest and most influential school was Confucianism. Through allusion, satire and fable, the philosophical ideas of Confucius concentrate on the indirect teaching of human virtuousness through implication and the delivering of moral values universally possessed by human beings. In such a thought system it was thought that “Tyranny is fiercer than a tiger”, and was accordingly something that should be guarded against. So while you ought to be on the look out for tigers, you should be at least as vigilant about tyranny too.