Three Men Make a Tiger

May 18, 2009

Three men make a tiger is a Chinese proverb that refers to the idea that if an unfounded premise or urban legend is mentioned and repeated by many individuals, the premise will be erroneously accepted as the truth. This concept is analogous to communal reinforcement or the sociological concept known as argumentum ad populum (appeal to the people).

The proverb came from the story of an alleged speech by Pang Cong, an official of the state of Wei in the Warring States Period (475 BC – 221 BC) in Chinese History.

According to the Warring States Records, before he left on a trip to the state of Zhao, Pang Cong asked the King of Wei whether he would hypothetically believe in one civilian’s report that a tiger was roaming the markets in the capital city, to which the King replied no. Pang Cong asked what the King thought if two people reported the same thing, and the King said he would begin to wonder. Pang Cong then asked, “what if three people all claimed to have seen a tiger?” The King replied that he would believe in it.

Pang Cong reminded the King that the notion of a live tiger in a crowded market was absurd, yet when repeated by numerous people, it seemed real.

As a high-ranking official, Pang Cong had more than three opponents and critics; naturally, he urged the King to pay no attention to those who would spread rumors about him while he was away.

“I understand,” the King replied, and Pang Cong left for Zhao.

Yet, slanderous talk took place. When Pang Cong returned to Wei, the King stopped seeing him.

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