Chinese Virtues for Frugal Living

Imagine how much we waste in other areas of life when we don't value or cherish the things we are blessed enough to receive. (Image:  pixabay  /  CC0 1.0)
Imagine how much we waste in other areas of life when we don't value or cherish the things we are blessed enough to receive. (Image: pixabay / CC0 1.0)

When I was a child, I had to follow many household rules and learn about ancient Chinese virtues. Like, I had to eat every last grain of rice in my bowl at mealtime. I didn’t know why there were so many rules, but I still obeyed. Later, a Taoist told me that a grain of rice left on the ground was equivalent to a mountain of rice in Heaven. Think of what that adds up to when even more rice is thrown away or wasted. Imagine how much we waste in other areas of life when we don’t value or cherish the things we are blessed enough to receive.

When I was growing up, there was a story spreading through my village. The story told about how the wife of a landlord and the wife of his hired worker both gave birth to sons at the same moment. As fate had it, the landlord’s son died in his teens, but the hired worker’s son lived more than 70 years.

Why didn’t both sons have the same lifespan despite having the same astrological birth sign? How could the different outcomes be explained? A fortune teller said that the rich landlord’s son had been spoiled and lived extravagantly, wasted enormous amounts of food, and wore expensive clothing. He exhausted his allotted blessings and good fortune in this life, and then died. By contrast, the hired worker’s son lived frugally, mindfully, and without waste. As a result, he had a different fate. Whenever I see a group of people in a restaurant leaving, despite a table full of uneaten food, I often recall that story.

Emperor Xuanzong (Image: wikimedia / CC0 1.0)

Emperor Xuanzong (Image: wikimedia / CC0 1.0)

By contrast, the emperors and the royal families often set good examples of frugal living. There is a story from the Tang Dynasty. It talks of the reign of Emperor Xuanzong and his son, Prince Suzong. The emperor and the prince would often eat together. Once, when eating meat and cake, Xuanzong told Suzong to cut the meat into smaller pieces. When Suzong finished cutting the meat, his hands were covered with grease. He took a piece of cake to wipe the grease from his hands, and was going to let that greasy little piece of cake go to waste. His father saw this and glared at him sternly. The little prince knew he was wrong. He quickly gobbled up the greasy cake. Xuanzong was pleased when he saw this and said to the prince: “Blessings should not be squandered! The good fortune we have in life should be treasured.”

The rules I learned as a child, and the folk stories that I heard, all stressed cherishing what you have, and not carelessly wasting things. These are virtues to live by. They can guide a person to develop beneficial habits. Not just Chinese people, but all of mankind can truly benefit by not wasting things, and cherishing what good fortune they have in life.

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