In China, Giving Thanks Is to Repay Kindness

By Lucy Crawford | November 22, 2021
Born and raised in China, Lucy Crawford has been living in Canada for over 20 years. She has great sympathy for Chinese and human suffering in general. With a Master's degree in Education and having worked on various professions, she now translates and writes about stories in ancient and modern China. She lives in Calgary with her husband and four children.
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Plums-on-tree-pixabay
To “repay a peach with a plum” is a common idiom used in China, meaning that one should repay kindness with interest. (Image: domeckopol via Pixabay)

While in the West we value gratitude as a virtue to keep in the heart, the Chinese hold that gratitude should be actively shown in the form of repayment for kindness. Confucius always advocated “being a superior man (jūn zǐ 君子);” and one of the most important aspects of being a superior man was to repay kindness and remember the help one once received.

This spirit of giving thanks is deeply ingrained in Chinese traditions as exhibited in common idioms. For example, the phrase “to repay a peach with a plum” is widely used to mean “give thanks and return favors.”

The phrase comes from China’s oldest collection of poems The Classic of Poetry (詩經), dating from the 11th to 7th centuries BC.  “You throw a peach to me, and I give you a plum in return (tóu táo bào lǐ 投桃報李),” means that we should always repay goodwill with equal or greater kindness. 

The ancient Chinese also said, “Let one drop of kindness be repaid with a fountain of reward.” This concept is perfectly exemplified by Han Xin (韓信), a great general who helped built the Han Dynasty (漢朝), 202 BC–220 AD. 

Han Xin, a model for giving thanks

Han Xin lived over 2,000 years ago, about 200 years before Christ. In his youth, he was very poor and could not afford food. When food was present, he would often tarry in hopes of getting a meal. 

One place he frequented was the home of the local village pavilion chief (亭長).  Visiting him when mealtime approached made it convenient to stay and eat with the family. He did so every day for a few months. The chief’s wife started to get annoyed and suggested to the family that they eat before Han Xin arrived. When Han Xin came and saw that the family had already eaten, he took the hint and stopped visiting. 

Han Xin then tried fishing in a river to feed himself. At the river, many washer women were rinsing fresh picked cotton fibers (lint) to prepare it for use in material. It was a big job, and they brought food for their break. One of them saw the impoverished youth and took pity on him, giving Han Xin her own food to eat.

The work continued for dozens of days, and each time that woman came to wash the cotton, she brought food for Han Xin and herself. Then one day she said to him, “This job is finished. I won’t be coming tomorrow, so you have to figure out how to feed yourself.” Han Xin replied, “You have kindly offered me food for many days. I must repay you in the future.”

The woman was skeptical: “Young man, you can’t even feed yourself. I fed you out of pity. There is no need to repay me.” 

Humiliation repaid with kindness 

Later, Han Xin came to practice martial arts, and thus carried a sword. On one occasion, while walking in the streets, he encountered a hooligan who blocked his path.

Looking for a fight, the hooligan challenged Han Xin, demanding that he crawl between his legs before continuing, or else cut his head off. 

Crawling between another’s legs was regarded as an incredibly humiliating act, especially for a warrior. Cutting off a head would be seen as brave, yet Han Xin knew the consequences for killing, and decided against it. As the man jeered at him, he got down, crawled under him, and continued on his way.

As the years passed, Han Xin rose to greatness. True to his word, he went back to his hometown and sought out those who helped him before. 

He found the washerwoman who had once fed him from her meager means, and gave her a thousand taels of gold. This story has evolved into an idiom known as “Pay back one meal with one thousand gold (yī fàn qiān jīn 一飯千金),” which tells us to be grateful and repay those who have helped us in the past.  

The second person Han Xin went to look for was the pavilion chief, who was very well off but had wrangled a way out of feeding a poor, starving youth. Han Xin said to him, “You are a petty person who can’t carry through on a good deed to the end; so here are a hundred copper coins for you.” 

The third person was the man who humiliated Han Xin and had him crawl between his legs. This man must have been scared to death upon encountering Han Xin again, as he had become the King of Chu!

But Han Xin announced, “This man is a fighter. When he insulted me, couldn’t I have killed him? But what good would killing him do? It would just relieve a moment of anger. Because I had the heart to endure humiliation for the sake of more noble ambitions, I am here today to repay this man!”

Han Xin made the man a lieutenant of the state of Chu, an office roughly equivalent to the commander of the police force. Han Xin was a man who repaid even his grievances with virtue.

Seeing that the boy he once bullied had become such a distinguished personality, the man bowed down before Han Xin and begged for forgiveness.