Two sides of a coin: do unto others and an eye for an eye

Zhang Ciyun
Treating people as you want to be treated is admirable, but when someone treats you badly, it can become tit for tat.
Zhang Ciyun

Chinese speakers often quote two common sayings to explain how one should treat other people. It’s a sort of “do” and “don’t” in interpersonal relationships.

The first one is a variation of the principle of the Golden Rule: jisuobuyu wushiyuren, or “don’t treat others in a way you wouldn’t want to be treated.”

己所不欲勿施于人

jǐ suǒ bú yù wù shī yú rén

This saying comes from “Lun Yu,” or the “Analects of Confucius,” an ancient Chinese book written by the philosopher’s disciples and followers during the Warring States Period (475-221 BC).

It reflects the Chinese concept of ren (仁), or benevolence, which is also a core value of Confucian tradition. It urges people to love and respect others, so others will respect and love you in return.

The other saying comes from a book written by Zhu Xi (1130-1200), a famous historian, poet, philosopher and politician of the Song Dynasty (AD 960-1279).

He says in the book yiqirenzhidao huanzhiqirenzhishen, or “treat someone the way he has treated others.” The “treatment” here always refers to a misbehavior.

以其人之道,还治其人之身

yǐ qí rén zhī dào, huán zhì qí rén zhī shēn

So, it might be compared with English expressions of “giving somebody a taste of his own medicine” or “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.”

Some say these twin Chinese sayings are two sides of a coin. Perhaps the best summary of the dichotomy is a quotation from former Chinese leader Mao Zedong, who once said: “We will not attack others unless we are attacked; if we are attacked, we will certainly counterattack.”

Or put it in colloquial English: “Don’t mess with me and I won’t mess with you, but if somebody messes with me, you can bet I’ll mess with him.”


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