Confucius on Gratitude

By Jellyn Gueco September 29, 2018

Confucius on Gratitude

Confucius on Gratitude

When saying thank you is not enough

The great philosopher Confucius is often referred to as Master Kong as this is the meaning of the Chinese name 孔夫子Kong Fu Zi.  What is fascinating about this is that the surname Kong literally means “an utterance of thankfulness when prayers have been answered”.

In exploring the concept of gratitude, it is interesting to look at how this is reflected in the teachings of Confucius.  Is it different from other ancient teachings?  Does it still affect followers of Confucianism up to this day?  How does it apply to modern life?

The Golden/Silver Rule

Zi Kong asked, “Is there one word to serve as a rule for practice throughout life?”
Confucius said, “It is reciprocity.  What you don’t want done to yourself, don’t do to others.”

The Analects - 15.23

This excerpt from the Analects is probably one of the most popular teachings of Confucius.  It is often referred to as the Silver Rule as it is quite similar to Christianity’s Golden Rule which is using the positive form:

“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”

Matthew 7:12

Confucius on Gratitude

While these two quotes differ in their positive and negative structure, the main idea is about “Reciprocity” or “Bao”.  Reciprocity is defined as the mutual exchange of actions between two parties that benefits each other.

In Confucian practice, the virtue of reciprocity and mutual responsibility are important for man to interact and understand one another in order to achieve social harmony.  It teaches that before you act on something, you must first consider if this is something you would also want to be done to you by your fellowman.  This becomes a guiding thought whenever you are deciding on an action.

How does this relate to gratitude?

When someone acts positively towards you, how should you respond?  Using the Confucianism reciprocity concept, saying a mere thank you is not enough. Gratitude is not just ideological or speech driven, rather, reciprocity  should be practiced.

This means that if someone does you a favor, it is not enough to just say thank you as an “empty ritual”, rather, it is expected that you pay back that favor equally through a form of another positive action. 

So when you do something nice for another person, there exists an expectation that others will do the same.

Confucius on Gratitude

Bao in everyday life

A great anecdote from Beijing-based Australian expat Sean Robertson talks about how reciprocity is reflected in Chinese daily life.

In his article, Sean recounted how he noticed that the Chinese people he interacted with seemed to act awkward when being thanked, and at the same time, how they are not that handy with expressing words of thanks as well.

But as he tried to understand the culture, he realized that gratitude actually has a deeper meaning for the Chinese.  The act of saying “Thank you” as a trivial habit is not practiced much, because for them it is understood that true gratitude means returning the action as a mutual obligation.

Bao in business

Bao is also very much present in business practices in China.  It is closely related to Guanxi which is best described as the relationships individuals cultivate with other individuals.

In doing business, reciprocity lies in the core of Guanxi.  This means that if you are a businessman and a business partner did you a favor, you must find a way to return that favor.  Otherwise, not being able to reciprocate can make you lose your face or reputation in the business community.

Confucius on Gratitude

Repaying kindness with kindness

Someone said, “What do you say about the principle of repaying injury with kindness?”
The Master said, “How then will you repay kindness? Repay kindness with kindness and injury with justice.”
The Analects - 14.36

This is another section in the Analects that talks about reciprocity.  It also highlights how one should repay a positive action with an equal positive action.  While it does not say that a giver should expect something in return, it reminds the receiver that he has a moral obligation to return the favor when it is received.

The second part though speaks about how reciprocity does not always apply in all situations.  When faced with violence, Confucius does not endorse violence or revenge in return, but he is not also a believer of repaying it in kindness.

When dealt with injury, Confucius said to repay it with justice.  This is unlike what Christianity teaches which is to turn the other cheek:

 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth. But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well.

And also unlike what Buddhism endorses:

“Let us live happily, not hating those who hate us.  Let us therefore overcome anger by kindness, evil by good, falsehood by truth.”

In Confucianism, kindness or positive action shall only be repaid if it is what was received.

Confucius on Gratitude

Applying Confucianism teachings on gratitude

The concept of reciprocity may not always be openly received by everyone in modern times.  For example, Western habits consider the words “Thank you” as an act of politeness when a positive action is done and for most people, the cycle stops there.

While this concept exists in other cultures, religious texts and ancient teachings other than Confucianism, the obligation to pay back a favor beyond the words “thank you” is not always innate to every person. 

There is also the risk that it can encourage an unhealthy habit of always expecting something back for a goodness done.  And as they say, expectation often leads to disappointment which may breed hatred.  However, it does not mean that you should just disregard this teaching altogether.

The key learning here is not about expecting goodness back when you do something good, but how you should repay kindness when you receive one.  It may be confusing but there is a difference.

When you are the giver of kindness, do not expect something in return.  Do it with all your heart.  When you are on the receiving end, try to repay it with a kind action too.

How you interpret this form of kindness is totally dependent on you but what’s important is that you are making a conscious effort to recognize the gesture and return it back.  Do not take it as an obligation, but do it wholeheartedly.  Besides, in the world we’re living in right now, we definitely need more acts of kindness around us.

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Confucius on Gratitude


Jellyn Gueco

Jel is a creative ninja who produces multimedia content for a living. After 15 years of working for international TV networks, ad agencies, and film companies, she now defines career happiness as being able to write wherever it strikes her fancy - on the beach, in a local café or just at home while drinking a glass of Merlot and munching on freshly-baked chocolate chip cookies.


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