According to the Chinese, when you save someone's life...
June 7, 2010 5:37 PM   Subscribe

According to Chinese tradition/proverbs... what happens when you save somebody's life? Is the person you saved indebted to you, for the rest of their days? Or are you, through the act of saving their life, now responsible for their life?

This is a little embarrassing to ask, since I'm actually Chinese. But I've asked my parents, and they weren't a lot of help on the matter (they didn't recall any specific saying or tradition).

I'm trying to figure out if this is even a Chinese proverb, something Confucius said, or if I'm just making it all up. I heard somewhere as a kid, if you save someone's life... they then owed you a life-debt. And technically, they should do whatever they could to help you, if you ever are in need/trouble.

Later on, I heard that it wasn't a debt. But that through saving someone's life, you then were responsible for that person... from that moment forward. You were obligated to look after them, and provide comfort and aid if they were ever in need again.

I'm looking for any kind of citation or reference to a quotation, book, etc. But honestly, I'm open to whatever info or feedback others have. FYI this is part of an essay I'm writing, and knowing which way the saying/proverb leans will drastically change the arc of the narrative.
posted by avoision to Religion & Philosophy (9 answers total)
Both traditions get abscribed to multiple cultures. In fact it's a cliche in adventure fiction where the storyline visits a 'primative' culture and saves a native, who then tags along ala Jarjar Binks. If it's a debt shtick, the native excuses their fawning by telling the hero that their life is owned by them now, while in responsability cultures, the common scene runs that the hero sees a native made helpless, but is warned not to intervene, because they'll have to look after the victim forever after.

So it's possible what you're getting is other people writing about China.
posted by Phalene at 6:02 PM on June 7, 2010

You're thinking of Wookies, not Chinese.

In all seriousness though, I think this is something kids and sci-fi/fantasy authors think about. I've never seen it seriously attributed to a particular real culture, and this wikipedia article about life debts doesn't mention any cultures that actually hold this. I never heard of this as a particularly Chinese idea, and I lived in China for several years (I wouldn't consider myself an expert though, so that's not definitive evidence, just a lack of confirmation).
posted by bluejayk at 6:05 PM on June 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

More from TV Tropes.
posted by neroli at 6:11 PM on June 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

I've encountered this tradition of taking permanent responsibility for the person you saved in fiction set in modern Japan (but with ninjas! and strange ninja magic!) and in the 19th century British Royal Navy (occasional pirates, no ninjas or magic) as well as in Random Stuff With Dragons. So far as I associate it with any country/culture it's Japan ... but that could be due to having read a book that substituted 'Japan' for 'Random Land With Possible Dragons'.
posted by Lebannen at 6:27 PM on June 7, 2010

This isn't a proverb, this is a MacGuffin that dates back to early adventure writing, and cliffhanger radio and film. Back then all you had to do to make something exotic was to put a non-European foreigner in your story since at that time America was lily white [sic] and no one knew anyone from Asia [sic]. That allowed the author to attribute any made up stuff to China (or Japan or Tibet, or India, or wherever the ethnic sidekick came from) and no one would double check.
posted by Ookseer at 9:29 PM on June 7, 2010

You know what Caine says? 'Whenever someone saves another's life, he's responsible for him forever.

From the television show Kung Fu with David Carradine.

This was in 1975, so it is truly an ancient philosophy. (Just kidding--I'm not sure whether or not they actually got this from some old Chinese proverb or just made it up because it sounds good).
posted by eye of newt at 10:25 PM on June 7, 2010

As a side note, there's the proverb "救人一命勝造七級浮屠"; saving a life is better than building a seven-storery pagoda. Pagodas are typically built for religious or ritual purposes; it's like donating money to build a church, in western context.
posted by applesurf at 1:29 AM on June 8, 2010

it's like donating money to build a church, in western context.

It's more like buying expensive indulgences in a western context.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 4:57 AM on June 8, 2010

I vaguely remember that, from a children's book with black and red line drawing. The males had queues. A well was involved. It was pretty racist, but not by the standards of the 60's.

Darned if I can remember the title, though.
posted by QIbHom at 1:05 PM on June 8, 2010

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