Traditions of giving in Confucianism

Lai Pan-chiu and Peter Lee

In the Confucian tradition, shi (giving) is rarely singled out as a special subject for consideration. It would be more meaningful to look at it in the larger context of Confucian ethical teachings, in which ren (benevolence) and yi (righteousness) are central concepts.

The Book of Mencius begins with an incident in which Mencius (372-289 BCE), the second master of Confucianism, pays a visit to King Wei of Liang. King Wei says to Mencius, ‘Sir, you do not count it a long distance to travel 10,000 miles to come to see me. What profit would you bring to my country?’ Mencius says, ‘Why do you have to speak of profit? There are ren (benevolence) and yi (righteousness).’

Benevolence and righteousness

Ren and yi are eminently important concepts in Confucian thought. Ren is a word with rich meanings, variously translated as ‘the perfect virtue’, ‘humaneness’ and ‘benevolence’.  A few quotations should bring out the essential meaning of the word. Confucius did not write down his thought, but many of his sayings were recorded by his followers in a book known as the Analects. According to the Analects, one of Confucius’s followers asked, ‘How about a person who can confer benefits extensively and benefit all people? Can we call him/her a person of ren?’ Confucius replied, ‘Why only [a human being of] ren? S/he must be a sage!’ For Confucius, ren is part of human nature as well as the highest virtue of humanity.  He also said the memorable words: ‘To master oneself and return to propriety is ren.’

Mencius characterized ren in terms of compassion, as in showing compassion for the widow and widower, for the orphan and the elderly with no offspring to look after them. For simplicity’s sake, in view of the above quotations, we may translate ren as ‘benevolence’.

Yi is often linked with the words ‘appropriate’, ‘suitable’ or ‘correct’. Mencius is remembered for the words: ‘Ren is the heart, yi is the path.’ Yi, in other words, is right action, or simply righteousness. Yi translated as ‘righteousness’ means right or correct action coming out of the benevolent heart. The righteous person does not premeditate how good or righteous s/he is; s/he speaks the right word or acts in the right manner because the heart is in the right place. Righteousness does not calculate profit or gain for oneself, but extends itself for the good of others.

What is giving?

What is giving (shi), then, in the context of ren and yi? It is to act for the sake of others for whom the benevolent heart has compassion. Thus, when a benevolent person sees a widow or widower, an orphan or an elderly person with no one to care for them, s/he extends a helping hand. Giving in the Confucian sense is not confined to one’s family. There is a famous Confucian saying: ‘I not only attend to the elderly in my family, but the elderly in other families as well. I not only attend to the young in my family, but the young in other families as well.’

In this connection mention should be made of another important Confucian idea, shu (‘reciprocity’). Shu is a reciprocal relationship between oneself and the other. ‘Do not do unto others what you do not wish to be done to yourself’ is the famous Confucian ‘silver rule’ – in contrast to the positive ‘golden rule’ famous in the Western world (‘Do as you would be done by’). Actually, there is a positive side to shu: ‘Wishing to establish oneself, also establishes others; and wishing to be prominent oneself, also helps others to be prominent.’ Confucius taught his disciples this virtue not just by words but by deeds. According to the principle of shu, one should treat others as oneself. One’s giving to others can be very comprehensive, covering not just material needs but also psychological or spiritual needs.

In the Chinese language, the verb shi (giving) can be linked up with different nouns, including giving goods (shi shan) and giving medicine (shi-yi), but much more often with giving teaching/education (shi jiao). In the Confucian tradition, giving education is perhaps the most important. Giving, in the fuller sense, is not just a matter of helping the other; it is an enabling act to help others to stand on their own feet. Probably owing to this idea, providing free education is regarded as an essential aspect of charity work in Chinese society.

In fact, Mencius was not just an ordinary teacher; he was a social reformer as well. He did not confine his thinking to helping the needy; he wanted a society and an economy that would enable all to live a simple life and be self-reliant. Unfortunately, this developmental approach has been largely overlooked by Chinese charities in the past, and they continue to adopt a basically piecemeal approach.

The manner of giving and receiving

Mencius was also sensitive to the act or manner of giving and receiving. Once he received a gift from an influential person; at another time he received an even more generous gift from another. He accepted the first gift and returned the second. Why? The one giving the larger gift did not have the proper attitude and motivation, but the one giving the smaller gift did. Mencius thus graciously thanked one giver and firmly declined the other. According to this tradition, one should give with respect and avoid making the recipient feel inferior or uneasy.

Another attitude to giving advocated by Confucianism is summarized in a Chinese motto: ‘Remember what you received; forget what you gave.’ This is to say that one should be grateful to the givers and not expect any return or reward from the recipients or from gods. According to Confucian teaching, human beings receive an endowment from Heaven and Earth as well as from many other people, especially one’s parents, family and society. This endowment includes not only one’s material body but also a sense of morality or conscience. As Heaven and Earth nourish all lives graciously, human beings should act similarly to others. To give is therefore part of our duty (or righteousness) as human beings. One should live in gratitude and seek every possible opportunity to pay tribute to Heaven and Earth by helping others to achieve their goals.

According to this understanding, one should show benevolence not only to human beings but also to non-human beings, including animals. In modern terminology, our giving should benefit the whole ecology or environment.

Giving something to others necessarily involves giving up something of one’s own. In the Chinese language, the word ‘shi’ (giving) may combine with the word ‘she’ (giving up) to form the word ‘shi-she’ meaning almsgiving. Giving up oneself or one’s belongings for others, especially those who have no apparent relationship with us, with sympathy and respect, without expecting any reward, is giving par excellence in the Confucian sense.

Lai Pan-chiu is Professor, Department of Religion, Chinese University of Hong Kong. He can be contacted at
Peter K H Lee is Professor, Lutheran Theological Seminary, Hong Kong. He can be contacted at

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