The Spirit of Giving and Charity in Ancient China
As we prepare for and take part in holiday festivities this time of year, celebration and merriment may come with increased demands that can add stress to our lives. But we can prevent that from getting the better of us. Reflecting on the true spirit of the season and the wisdom of kindness is one way that can help us boost our mood and dissolve the blues.
In this context, traditional Chinese culture, through its long-established emphasis on benevolence toward others, offers inspiration that speaks to this wisdom and spirit of giving and charity.
An ancient Chinese saying from over 2,000 years ago declares, “To have virtuous citizens who are kind to their neighbors, this is precious treasure for a country.”
These words not only express the ancient Chinese people’s aspirations for good relationships with one another in their own country. They also reflect people’s wish for a peaceful world where similar close-knit and harmonious relations are cultivated among all nations.
Another saying from the same period tells us: “To help those who are suffering difficulties and to have sympathy for our neighbors, this is following the Dao. Those who follow the Dao will be blessed.”
Many stories can be found from classical China about people of noble character whose kindness made all the difference for those less fortunate. Their hearts were focused not on themselves but on the welfare of others. Their compassion compelled them to help their neighbors, including giving them the means by which they could help themselves. In turn, the benefactors found blessings and good fortune in their own lives.
Here are three such stories that convey the wisdom of kindness.
Dumplings of Kindness and Healing
The classic Chinese dumpling, called jiaozi, has been a much-loved Chinese food for nearly 2,000 years. According to folklore, jiaozi was invented by Zhang Zhongjing, an eminent doctor and county governor known for his kindness who lived during the Eastern Han Dynasty (A.D. 25–220).
When Zhang retired from his post and returned to his hometown, he was saddened to see many poor people living very hard lives. In the winter, many suffered from severely frostbitten ears, and Zhang resolved to help.
He did so by creating a remedy called “drive away cold from the delicate ears” soup. The recipe starts with making a filling of minced mutton, hot chili pepper, and medicinal herbs effective in strengthening the body to resist cold. The fillings were wrapped in thin dough in the shape of a human ear and then cooked in boiling water.
This type of dumpling became known as “jiao’er,” literally “delicate ear.” By eating jiao’er in a bowl of hot soup for a period of time, everyone’s ears eventually healed.
Zhang provided this remedy to the people throughout the winter until the Chinese New Year, when the weather began warming up and it was time to prepare for spring planting in the fields.
People later began to make a similar dumpling called jiaozi, which became a popular food eaten year-round but especially during the winter solstice and on Chinese New Year’s Eve.
Charity Toward Neighbors
Zi Rudao, who lived during the Yuan Dynasty (A.D. 1279–1368), was another historical figure known for his charitable deeds.
When some fellow villagers fell on hard times and became impoverished, Zi gave them each a piece of farmland as property that they could in turn lease to farmers. This gave them the means to earn a livelihood for themselves. Zi did not claim back the land until his fellow villagers passed away from old age.
One year, a plague spread through Zi’s village and it was said that the only cure was to eat a type of melon that induced sweating as a way of cleansing the body and repelling the disease.
Learning of this, Zi purchased many of these melons along with other food to be distributed to his neighbors. Despite the risk of contracting the plague, Zi did not worry about himself but personally delivered the food to every household in the area, thus saving many lives.
Zi was also known for lending grain to those in need in the springtime without wanting any interest in return and only accepting payment after the harvest. If there was a poor harvest one year and the borrowers did not have enough crops to repay their debt, Zi would simply burn the loan notes and tell them not to worry about repayment.
Zi often told his family: “The reason we store up grain in the first place is to safeguard against famine. Therefore, if we meet with a year of poor harvest, we certainly must help our neighbors who are less fortunate.”
Heaven Protects Generous ‘Two Gourd Halves’
Another story about kindness and generosity tells of a wealthy man surnamed Yang who was always happy to help others.
Yang was very willing to lend grain to fellow villagers in need without asking for repayment. His wish was to enable them to improve their lives through their own efforts. However, he also understood the fundamental principle when the villagers asserted that it was the right thing to do to repay a debt owed.
So he came up with an idea. Yang cut a gourd in two in order to make two containers for measuring out grain. He made one large and the other small. When lending out grain, he used the large cup. Then when accepting repayment of grain, he used the small cup to measure the amount to take back.
It was a long time before the villagers realized that Yang had been giving much more than he took back in return. He thus became known respectfully as the “Two Gourd Halves.”
One autumn day at harvest time, when Yang was already elderly and frail at 80 years of age, he decided to take a slow walk with his cane to the wheat fields to check on his crop. Suddenly, thunder roared and lighting flashed, signalling that a big storm was coming.
Yang felt that it was unlikely he would be able to find his way home in time. He believed he had reached the last day of his life, so he peacefully lay down in the wheat fields and prepared to meet his end.
At that moment, he heard a majestic voice from the heavens. It commanded: “God of Thunder, Goddess of Lightning, Water Dragon, hear this: Not a single drop of rain is permitted to land on Two Gourd Halves and his fields.”
The storm then arrived, battering the countryside with forceful gales and torrential rain. It went on for a long time. When it was over, Yang slowly got up to take a look. Indeed not a single drop of rain had fallen on him or his fields, but the wheat plants in the surrounding fields were all lying flattened in the mud.
Yang’s family had been anxiously looking for him and they were astonished when they finally found him safe and sound and perfectly dry.
Yang told them what had happened, and their whole family knelt down together to express sincere gratitude for Heaven’s blessing.
True Spirit of the Season
Humanity’s kind nature shines brightly not only in stories such as these. Many of us will be able to think of caring people that we know in our own lives.
Perhaps through acts of kindness and charity that reflect the true spirit of the season, we can help to bring about more goodness in the world and let the warm glow of this special time of year light up even stronger and last a great deal longer.
True to the wisdom of kindness, we may then find ourselves, our communities, and our nation blessed with health and happiness on the path to the brightest of futures.