The Origin of a Chinese Idiom: Stealing One Chicken Per Month

Mencius was very good at using analogies to illustrate his points. He said that ruling a country was a simple thing and it was only a matter of whether the ruler wanted to make the effort or not. Duke Xuan of the Qi State during the Spring and Autumn Period (722 – 481 B.C.) asked him, “Can you tell the difference between the lack of effort and inability?” Mencius replied, “If someone asks you to carry Mount Tai under your arm and leap over the North Sea with it, and you say, ‘I am unable to do it,’ it is because you are truly unable to do it. If someone asks you to snap a branch off a tree and you say ‘I am unable to do it,’ it is from a lack of effort. Governing a kingdom is not as difficult as carrying Mount Tai under your arm and leaping over the North Sea. It is as easy as snatching a branch off a tree. Because you want to take care of your own elderly relatives, you take care of elderly relatives of all people. Because you want to be good to your own children, you are good to all children. If you can do that, you will hold the kingdom in the palm of your hand.”

Dai Ying, an official from the Song State during the Spring and Autumn Period (722 – 481 B.C.), decided to reduce taxes. He asked Mencius, “I want to reduce taxes. But we don’t have enough revenue to offer as much of a tax cut this year as I would like. What would you think if we were to make a small tax cut this year and wait until next year before implementing the full tax cut?” Mencius said, “There is a man who used to steal one chicken from his neighbour every day. He was told, ‘This is not the way a moral man should behave.’ ‘Well, then I’ll reduce the number of chickens I steal,’ he replied, “I’ll steal only one chicken every month and next year I won’t steal any more.’ Since he knew he was doing something wrong, he ought to stop right away. Why wait till next year?”

“A chicken a month” refers to those who know what they are doing is wrong and yet do not immediately correct themselves.

Source: Mencius

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