Truth, Inspiration, Hope.

Seeming Betrayal Was Actually Assistance – A Chinese Tale of Friendship

Lucy Crawford
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.
Published: December 1, 2021
Depiction of the God of Good Fortune and his attendants, standing among the heavens, from the Album of 18 Daoist Paintings. As we see in this Chinese tale of friendship, good fortune can come in disguise. (Image: Zhang Lu (1464–1538) via Wikimedia Commons Public domain)

Zhang San and Li Si were good friends. Li Si’s family was running a very prosperous business while Zhang San’s family was not well off. When Zhang San wanted to go abroad on business to improve their situation, he entrusted his good friend with his family. Li readily agreed to look after them while Zhang was away seeking his fortune, yet this Chinese tale of friendship has its seemingly bitter moments.

Only a month after Zhang left, his family ran out of money and could barely afford to eat. Zhang’s wife sent her son to Li Si’s house to ask for help. To their surprise, Li Si was a changed man. Not only did he not offer any relief, but he sneered and said, “What I promised your father was just empty talk. You know plenty of people. If you all depend on me, even if I had a mountain of gold, it would be used up before long. Please make other plans.”

When Zhang’s son heard that, he despaired and begged him again for help. This time, Li Si refused even more firmly. The boy sadly returned home and told his mother what had happened. The wife sighed and said, “I’m afraid this is what the world has now for a so-called best friend.” The whole family was worried and stared at each other, not knowing what to do in the absence of their master.

Then, to their surprise, one of Li’s  old servants came to see them. Zhang San’s wife rebuked him for his master’s broken promise. The servant agreed and chimed in, “Indeed, Madam. Given how unreliable a friendship is, what’s the point of making friends?” He then suggested, “But please don’t be upset. I heard that your family is good at embroidery. Why don’t you use needles and thread to make a living? Isn’t this better than asking for help?”

She replied, thoughtfully, “You are probably right. But I have no money. How can I get started with nothing on hand?”

The old servant said, “If that is the case, I have a good solution. I manage the stores for my master, and I am trusted by him. If you need anything, I can provide it from the stores, and you can pay for them after the finished product is sold.

Zhang’s wife was very happy. She thanked him for his advice and asked the servant to help her borrow fabric and tools such as needles and thread. Thereafter, she urged her husband’s concubines, daughters, and daughters-in-law to concentrate on embroidery every day, working from morning to night. Every time they finished a piece of work, the servant would take it, presumably to sell, while in reality, he secretly brought it to his master.

‘Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day. Teach a man how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.’ Giving handouts is easy; helping one stand on one’s own feet requires effort and planning. One who is willing to do this is a true friend, as we see in this Chinese tale of friendship. (Image: Giuseppe Castiglione via Wikimedia Commons Public domain)

Li Si admired the exquisite embroidery done by Zhang San’s family and bought it at a high price. The family was no longer in need, and eventually they were even able to save. While they were grateful to Li Si’s old servant, they were still more resentful of Li himself. He never visited them or even asked about the family ever since Zhang San left. 

While away, Zhang had found himself a partner and started a business. After three years, he returned home with his pockets full. When he saw that his family was safe and sound and well-fed, he was very grateful to his old friend, Li Si, believing he had assisted the family for all that time.

However, when he talked to his wife, she spat and scolded him, saying, “Stop dreaming! If we really counted on that friend of yours, we might not be alive to see you!” She told her husband bitterly what Li Si had done, and at the same time, expressed her gratitude for the old servant’s kindness. She told her husband all that had happened after he left. Zhang could hardly believe it, and decided to confront his old friend.

Li Si was delighted to see Zhang back and shook his hand warmly to greet him. But then Zhang San, who was full of anger, said, “I entrusted my family to you when I left, and it’s lucky they didn’t starve to death. No thanks to you, they are doing well today.”

Li Si smiled and replied, “You are suspicious of me, aren’t you? I can understand that. In fact, my old servant arranged everything for your wife, which I had all planned out.”

“Three years ago, I was concerned that your wives and daughters were in a precarious situation. Since you were far away and the family was without a master, if I let them have a leisurely life, they might do foolish things while idle and comfortable. So I let them work hard through needlework to solidify their minds and bodies. As they became adept and serious with their work, I gave a higher price for their embroideries so that they could earn more money without becoming fatigued.”

“One could hardly say I was being disloyal by planning this for you. I had no need for all those  embroidery pieces I’ve collected.” Then, Li had his servants bring out a box full of the embroideries he had bought over the years. They were all in perfect, unused condition.

He told Zhang, “I don’t think it’s useful to keep these things. Please bring them home. They can be my wedding gift when your daughters get married one day.”

Now Zhang understood Li’s kindness and his true friendship. He cried, hugged, and thanked his friend sincerely. Upon returning home, he explained to his wife and children what had happened. When they finally realized the truth, they were grateful from the bottom of their hearts for his disguised assistance.