Ancient Wisdoms, Asian Cultures, Festivity, History, Languages

The cunning hare has three burrows: A Chinese tale on smart strategies

God Påske! It is the time of the year again: in shop windows, home decoration, advertisement, social media, the Easter bunny is filling all empty space with overloading cuteness and colourful eggs. A symbol of fertility and life in the Western tradition, the fluffy innocent rabbit embodies the season of Spring. In Chinese culture, however, the long eared, short tailed leporid is something quite different: it is the cunning escape artist – who has been teaching Chinese students on smart strategies for centuries in a story captured in an idiom with an old story behind.

The cunning hare keeps three burrows  

During the warring state period (403-221BC), China was not yet a united empire, but a constant battle field between kings, who were actually warlords. Educated young men would travel between states to pursue a career of political consultant under different kings. It was an esteemed career but a risky and unstable life, and it was common to hire strategy advisors in their own think tank. One of such advisors named Feng Yuan was hired by Meng Changjun, a consultant under King Qi. Feng was not particularly hard-working, but he managed to make an easy life for himself. He also had extraordinary foresight and his counterintuitive advices eventually saved his employer.

One day, when he accompanied Meng on a mission to collect debt from a village, he advised his employer to burn all the bonds instead. The villagers rejoiced in this generous act and remembered his employer as a savior. Little did Meng knew, that Feng was laying down an escape route for him. Some years later, Meng was laid off and sent away by King Qi. While he had nowhere to go, he found refuge from this village which welcomed him passionately. His advisor did not stop there, though. Instead, he managed to persuade another King Yan, to employ Meng as his strategist. However, it was never Feng’s intension to have Meng work under King Yan. He advised Meng to refuse the repeated offer by King Yan. Words spread out, and Meng’s first employer started to feel he had made a mistake by laying him off, and subsequently offered Meng back to his position again.

In his last advice, Feng told Meng to make one more condition upon taking the offer by King Qi : that this time, he wanted the village who protected him to own a national treasure to be protected by the King. By doing this, Meng would be secure in every way: besides his position under King Qi, he would be welcomed and protected at the village, as well as under King Yan if he was ever laid off again. When Meng asked Feng to explain his brilliant strategy, Feng said, you see, the cunning hare always keep three burrows, then his life could be secure.

 (Adapted from Intrigues of the Warring States, 战国策
a collection of stories from the warring state period, 403-221BC)

Figure 1The Chinese character 逸 comprise of the character 兔, the hare or rabbit. This shows how the hare embodies the essence of escape in the Chinese culture

The moral of this old tale is captured in the commonly used four-character idiom 狡兔三窟,(jiǎo tù sān kū)which means that a smart person always keeps a few options open for himself in face of uncertainties. Though time has changed, and we are no longer living in perpetual warring states now, this seems to remain a sound piece of advice. Does this story inspire you to think of your life or business strategy a little differently?