Let me tell you about tigers, said Zigong. If you shave the hair off it, a tiger or panther skin is no different from a dog’s or sheep’s.
This little moment from the Analects must reflect a prior debate about the kinds of things that bothered the thinkers of 5th-C BCE China. There were those who insisted that if only people followed the rituals of the ancients, and made sure that all the definitions were reflected in actual practices, things would be just dandy. And there were those who sneered at the archaizers as being mere specialists in smells and bells, with no grip on reality (economics, warfare, policy). Two words served as rallying flags in the polarized debate: 質 or substance, and 文 or pattern. In the way such debates around slogans go, everyone was getting stupider by the minute, trying to insult the other side by calling them aesthetes or cavemen, depending on where you started.
Zigong thought of an example that rebuked all of them alike for thinking that they could separate substance from pattern, pattern from substance. A panther’s or tiger’s skin is beautiful, conveys majesty, is worth a lot– but if you were so nihilistic as to shave it bare (removing the evidence of its stripy or spotty patterns), it would be no different from a dog’s skin, and only a fool would do that. The world had not yet advanced to the stage where the possessors of tiger skins would shave them defensively, to avoid being accused of wearing something finer than dog skin. In Zigong’s world, the reminder not to lose sight of what makes for distinction was enough.
I wish you all a happy year of the Tiger, and patterns commensurate with your substance.