In the 1998 TV series Princess of Pearl, heroine Xia Ziwei says that “forgiveness is the greatest virtue.” The sappy princess befriends her enemies and weep tears of sympathy in every episode of the series’ three-year run, and earned herself the title of “Holy Mother,” a derisive term for unrealistically compassionate people who are sanctimonious about doing good.
But Ziwei’s over-eagernes to forget let bygones be bygones doesn’t mean that forgiveness is scorned in Chinese culture. It’s generally agreed that “One should forgive others wherever it is possible. (得饶人处且饶人),” as a folk saying goes. Throughout Chinese history, many chengyu have emerged that convey this spirit of forgiveness, though many also stress that mercy shouldn’t be given lightly, nor abused once it is offered:
不计前嫌 Disregard past conflicts
Memories of past grudges and wrongdoings fuel the hatreds of today, but it’s necessary sometimes to let bygones be bygones. This chengyu describes such magnanimity.
You should be grateful that he doesn’t hold a grudge and is willing to do you a favor.
Tā néng bújì qiánxián, yuànyì bāngzhù nǐ, nǐ yīnggāi xīnhuái gǎnjī.
以德报怨 Return good for evil
Some people can even be more generous: Not only do they not retaliate, they will even repay the evil of their enemies with kindness. This chengyu, found in The Analects of Confucius (written in 475 — 221 BCE) is used to praise people for their extraordinary kindness.
It’s hard to imagine that today there are still people like you who return good for evil!
Nányǐ xiǎngxiàng xiànzài háiyǒu xiàng nǐ zhèyàng yǐ dé bào yuàn de rén!
以直报怨 Meet ill will with fair play
Confucius was not actually in favor of the above concept of 以德报怨. In The Analects, when the idea was put to the sage Confucius replied, “[If you return good for evil,] what do you return for good? (以德报怨，何以报德).” His answer was to “Return injustice with justice, and repay good until good. (以直报怨, 以德报德).” The first part, 以直报怨 (yǐ zhí bàoyuàn) became a chengyu meaning one must deal fairly with those who treat them ill.
高抬贵手 Raise your noble hand
Of course, forgiveness is never cheap. Usually, in order to be forgiven, those who did wrong need to confess, apologize, and make corrections and compensations. This chengyu is often used to ask for mercy:
If he has offended you in some way, I hope you will raise your noble hand and let him go.
Rúguǒ tā shénme dìfang dézui le nín, qǐng nín gāo tái guì shǒu, fàngguò tā ba.
情有可原 Excusable and forgivable
As a saying from the historic record Zuozhuan, an ancient text which covers the period 722 to 468 BCE, goes: “Common people are not sages; who never makes a mistake? (人非圣贤，孰能无过).” Mistakes should be forgiven, and this chengyu can help ask for pardon.
He shouldn’t have said that to you, but he was so drunk and in such a bad mood, it’s excusable.
Tā bùgāi zhème shuō, dànshì tā hē zuì le, xīnqíng bùhǎo, yě shì qíng yǒu kě yuán ma.
以观后效 Lighten a punishment and observe the effects
Sometimes, forgiveness is conditional. For example, if one makes a mistake at work, the supervisor may forgo punishment, but pay close attention to future performance.
You are relieved from this project but not fired. Your future performance will be observed.
Zhè cì nǐ xiān lígǎng liúzhí, yǐ guān hòu xiào.
姑息养奸 To tolerate evil is to abet it
Leniency and tolerance shouldn’t be limitless. In The Book of Rites, Zeng Sheng, a famous thinker in the Spring and Autumn period (770 — 476 BCE) and disciple of Confucius, points out that “a noble man cares about others under moral standards; while a base person loves others with unprincipled accommodation.” That sentiment spawned this chengyu, which argues that tolerating evil actually condones and fosters it.
It’s criminal to tolerate evil.
Gūxī yǎngjiān wúyìyú fànzuì.
Cover image from VCG