To Walk a Thousand li and Present a Feather as a Gift: Giving from the Heart
In Chinese culture, “nobody dislikes too many gifts”. Gift-giving is one of the best channels to maintain good relationships. This principle applies to personal as well as business relationships.
Gift-giving between family members and friends is necessary as a symbol of affection. Inappropriate gifts would be considered to be insulting, which is counter-productive. Giving unlucky items are hostile, such as “giving a clock” (means to handle the funeral affairs of the senior).
Giving something that’s too expensive or extravagant is not appropriate because the receiver will feel a big debt of gratitude. Gifts could also be non-material. A Chinese proverb says, “To walk a thousand li and present a swan feather; the gift is light but the friendship is solid”. It means the value of a gift lies in the giver’s good will and mind, rather than the value of the gift itself. This is especially true with love tokens.
The Story: To walk a thousand li and present a swan feather
The story was widely cited and recorded along the history by various scholars. There are many versions about where the swan and the messenger were from. The following version is recorded in the Road History by the Great Artist and Writer Xu Wei of Ming Dynasty.
During the Zhenguan Era of Tang dynasty, Uighur in the Xiyu was a vassal state of Tang Dynasty. It was customary for local officials to show their friendship and respect to the emperor of Tang by giving him wonderful presents. Once, Uighur sent a man named Mian Bogao to bring lots of rare jewelries and treasures to the emperor. Among these presents, the most precious were two swans.
On his way to the distant capital, Mian worried a lot about the two swans. He personally did the feeding and watering, dared not to neglect a moment.
One day, he came upon a lake. He had this brilliant idea to put the swans into the water for a swim. This way, they could rid themselves of the dirt and grime that have clung to them on their long trip. Besides, he was sure the emperor would appreciate two white swans more than the dirty ones he now had.
But as soon as Mian set the birds down on the water, the ungrateful swans flew away and was soon lost from his sight. Only a few feathers remained on the shore. Mian was so distressed and wondered what he would now present to the emperor and how he could report to the Uighur King. After thinking, Mian decided to continue the mission to the east. He took out a clean white silk cloth and carefully wrapped the swan feather, and wrote a poet on the cloth:
Present swans to Tang Dynasty,
Mountains are high and roads are far.
Lost the treasure at Mianyang Lake,
The friendship of Uighur could never give up.
Your highness, the emperor of Tang,
please punish guilty Mian Bogao.
Gift is light, but the respect is genuine,
to walk a thousand li to present a swan feather.
When he arrived at the palace, he saw that the emperor was surrounded by messengers who were presenting him with gift after marvelous gift. When his turn came, Mian offered the cloth wrap with a single swan’s feather and his poem to the emperor.
The Emperor read the poem, and heard Mian’s story. He not only did not blame him, but also was impressed by Mian’s honesty and loyalty to fulfill his mission. So the Emperor rewarded him heavily.
From then on, this story spread and is passed on as a proverb that means: although a gift might be inexpensive or light, it means a deep thought that truly matters.