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September 9, 2023

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If you want to feed a man, don’t give him a fish but rather teach him to fish

WE have been taught that one should help those in need, but we aren’t told how or when to dispense charity. Set your mind at ease! There are two common Chinese idioms to guide your benevolence.

As to how we help those in need, there’s a Chinese expression: shourenyiyu buru shourenyiyu, which translates literally as “it would be better to teach a hungry man how to fish rather than just to give him a fish.”

It means that you may feed a man for a day if you give him a fish, but he is fed for a lifetime if he learns how to catch his own.

Most Chinese scholars claim that this saying comes from an ancient philosophical book entitled “Huainanzi,” a collection of essays based on scholarly debates during the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 25).

However, some people attribute it to Lao Tzu, one of the greatest philosophers in ancient China and the founder of Taoism.

In fact, Moses ben Maimon (1138-1204), commonly known as Maimonides, a Seph­ardic Jewish philosopher, once made a similar comment on charity.

“Lastly, the eighth and the most meritorious of all is to anticipate charity by preventing poverty, namely, to assist the reduced brother ... by putting him in the way of business, so that he may earn an honest livelihood and not be forced to the dreadful alternative of holding out his hand for charity ...” he said.

As to when we should help the needy, there’s another Chinese saying: jiuji bujiu­qiong, or “one may give financial aid to others in an emergency but should not do so if they are perennially in need of money.”

In other words, charity defeats its purpose if you make someone forever dependent on your generosity.


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