Return Vice With Virtue

Alex Chen
11 min readDec 25, 2023
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Have you ever been mistreated by someone and wanted revenge? Perhaps “revenge” is a heavy word, but have you been dissatisfied with others’ behavior and wanted them to get a feel of their own treatment? Or when someone caused you trouble, you want to cause them trouble in return?

Below are a few stories I’ve heard where the main character was faced with extremely unfair treatment, but the way they handled the situation was very admirable.

Story 1: Yanshan Dou

Yanshan Dou (窦燕山) was a famous hero of the Five Dynasties period (907–960) in China’s history. His family was wealthy and had many servants. (For context, it was common for wealthy people to employ servants back then). One servant stole a large amount of money from them. This servant then ran away and left his 12-year old daughter there. He also left a note saying “I sell my daughter to you to return my debt.”

When Yanshan saw this situation, he didn’t get angry at this servant or seek revenge. He didn’t send people to catch the servant, nor did he abuse the young girl. Instead, he felt sorrow for this young girl. He immediately burned the slip of paper and took the girl in as his own daughter.

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He told his wife, “Let’s raise this girl properly. Once she grows up, we can find a good family for her to marry into.” (For context, it was normal for parents to arrange marriage for children back then). After this girl grew up, Yanshan found a virtuous husband for her and paid for her marriage expenses.

When the servant father found out about this, he felt deeply moved and ashamed. He came back to Yanshan’s house and cried while apologizing for his past wrongdoing. Yanshan didn’t scold him, but instead urged him to turn over a new leaf. The servant’s entire family was endlessly grateful towards Yanshan, so they put his picture on a table, and every morning, they made food offerings to the picture as a way to express their gratitude.

Story 2: Sen Ma’s Father

During the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) of China’s history, there was a person named Sen Ma (马森) who was the Minister of Education. His birth is related to returning vice with virtue.

In ancient China, people cared heavily about having a son to pass on the family lineage. It was one of the most important things in a person’s lifetime. If a person did not manage to have a son, it was a very shameful thing. Sen’s parents struggled to have a son, and they finally managed to have one at age 40. We can imagine how elated they must have been. Not just the parents, but the whole family was greatly relieved and joyous.

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The family was decently wealthy, so they had some servants. One day, Sen’s father was out with a servant girl. The servant girl was carrying the baby, but she accidentally dropped the baby from a high place. The baby fell head first onto the ground and died.

We can only imagine how Sen’s father must have felt. He’s already 40, and he finally got a son, and this son is the whole family’s treasure and future hope, and this servant girl carelessly killed his son. Any normal person would feel rage, sorrow, and shock.

But Sen’s father was a compassionate person. Despite the pain of losing the family’s treasured baby, he told the servant girl to run away. After all, if the family found out, they would probably kill this girl. But his son is already dead. Killing this girl is just adding more unnecessary suffering and killing. He probably also empathized with the girl and knew she felt extremely scared and guilty. Thus, he gave her a chance to escape.

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He then carried the dead baby home and told his wife, “I was not careful and accidentally dropped our baby, and now he’s dead.” As expected, his wife was extremely upset. She even tackled him with her whole body. Soon, she noticed the servant girl wasn’t there, and suspected that perhaps it was the servant girl’s fault, but the father wouldn’t admit it.

The servant girl ran home and told her parents what had happened. The family was extremely grateful to Sen’s father for sparing their daughter’s life. They prayed every day hoping the Heavens would give the Ma family another son. One year later, they indeed had another son, and this son had a birthmark on his forehead where the previous son got injured. They named this son Sen. Sen grew up to be an extremely virtuous and successful person.

Story 3: Dean Lung

In the 19th century, there was a person named Dean Lung (丁龙), who was a Chinese immigrant to America. He ended up being hired as a servant to a wealthy person named Horace Carpentier, who was a lawyer and the first mayor of Oakland, California.

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Horace had a very bad temper. One time, when he got drunk, he beat his servants and fired all of them. His servants were very resentful towards their mean master, so they all left. The next morning, when Horace woke up, he was surprised to see Dean still there. Moreover, Dean had already prepared breakfast for him. Horace felt ashamed for treating such a good person so badly. He then asked Dean why he didn’t leave with the other servants.

Dean replied, “Although it’s true that you have a terrible temper, I still believe that you are a good person. Moreover, Confucius taught that we need to be faithful and dutiful to our leaders, so I am still here to fulfill my duty to you.”

Carpentier said, “You must have been very well-educated before coming to America.”

Dean replied, “Actually, I’m illiterate.”

Carpentier said, “Seriously? Then your parents and grandparents must have been well-educated.”

Dean replied, “Actually, they’re illiterate too. I just learn from the role modeling of my elders. Our Chinese culture is very virtuous.”

Carpentier was quite moved by Dean’s goodness, and he vowed to correct his temper problem. Dean continued working faithfully for Carpentier for many years. When Dean grew old, he told his master that he wanted to retire and return home to China. Carpentier was very grateful to Dean for contributing decades of his life serving him so faithfully, thus he asked Dean, “Is there anything I can do for you to express my gratitude?”

Dean declined his master’s offer, but Carpentier insisted, “I really mean it. Anything at all.”

Dean then took out his life savings from decades of working as a servant and gave it to his master. He said, “This is all the money I could save over the years. Could you help me donate it to a good American university and ask them to establish a Chinese studies department to research China’s culture?”

Carpentier was again very touched. His servant didn’t ask for a big pension payment, but instead entrusted him with his life savings to do a good deed. He also believed that Chinese culture must be worth studying if someone like Dean is the result of it. Thus, he accepted Dean’s request.

Dean’s savings were only $12000, which wasn’t nearly enough to fulfill his wish. Carpentier then donated an additional $226000 to establish the first Department of Chinese Studies at Columbia University.

Commentary

It seems humans have a natural tendency to want to “return the favor”, no matter if it is help or hurt. It’s great that we naturally want to return others’ gratitude and help. When we hold feelings of gratitude in our heart, we gain happiness and motivation.

On the other hand, it’s quite harmful and unwise to want to return others’ wrongdoings. In my own experience, I know in my logical mind that it’s harmful to want revenge, but my emotional mind still has that urge. It’s precisely because this is a natural tendency that we need to be extra vigilant towards this problem. Then we can prevent rash behavior and tragic outcomes. If we can always think of others’ gratitude and let go of resentment, then our good character would be able to move and inspire others, just like Dean Lung.

We should reflect deeply on why it’s harmful to want revenge. The great Stoic philosopher Seneca said,

“There is no more stupefying thing than anger, nothing more bent on its own strength. If successful, none more arrogant, if foiled, none more insane — since it’s not driven back by weariness even in defeat, when fortune removes its adversary it turns its teeth on itself.”

Holding feelings of anger or resentment is like holding onto burning fire. We get hurt first. Indeed, those who get angry easily are more likely to have heart problems and age faster. Anger also burns innocent people around us. For example, when Sen’s mother let her emotions take over, she tackled her husband! Similarly, when we are in a bad mood, we treat our loved ones badly too. Then they feel mistreated, and more conflict arises.

Moreover, if we get revenge on the other person, the other person (and their family and friends) will want revenge again. For example, if Sen’s family killed the servant girl, then the servant’s family might hate Sen’s family and try to cause them trouble. It’s a negative cycle that can only lead to a tragic ending.

So what should we do instead? The Stoic emperor Marcus Aurelius said,

“The best way to avenge yourself is to not be like that.”

The Daoist sage Laozi said something very similar:

“Return vice with virtue.”

In other words, be the greater person. Take the high way. Only people of low virtues would treat others badly. If we treat others badly because they treated us badly first, then we are stooping to their level. Imagine if a little kid starts a ruckus. If we start arguing or fighting with the child, then our maturity level is the same as that child!

A truly mature adult wouldn’t fight with the child, but would instead exert a calm, caring, and strong energy that can calm the child down. Afterwards, that child would admire the adult and want to be like him or her.

Similarly, if we despise someone for their vice, or on a lighter scale, if we dislike the treatment that someone gave us, we shouldn’t give them a taste of their own medicine. If we do, then we’ve just dropped to their level. If we can return their vice with virtue, then we’ve elevated ourselves, and they will have a good role model to emulate.

This last point is very important. People all have innate goodness. For example, if we see a baby fall off a tree, we’d all naturally try to catch and save that baby. But due to life’s hardships and suffering, we might lose touch with our innate goodness. Seeing good role models can help us to bring out our innate goodness again. That’s exactly what happened to Yanshan’s servant and to Dean Lung’s master.

From these stories, we can also see that big mistreatments can lead to big changes in the “villain” once the villain feels moved by a good role model. The villain then turns over a new leaf and becomes a hero, as was the case with Carpentier. This is a great example of how returning vice with virtue leads to win-win.

My Experience

I remember in the past, my neighbor’s father would smoke on the driveway. Afterwards, he’d just drop the cigarette butt on the ground. Since our driveways are linked, the wind would blow those cigarette butts to our driveway. My mother was very annoyed at this, so she asked the neighbor to please put the cigarette butts in a garbage bin. However, nothing changed.

One day, my mother was complaining again. I decided to go out with a broom and garbage bin and start sweeping all the cigarette butts. After I finished our driveway, I decided to sweep their driveway too. When my neighbor saw this, she ran out of her house and said, “Oh I’m so sorry for the trouble. I’ll remind my father again.”

I then said, “No worries. You can take this garbage bin and let him use it.” She said, “It’s OK, I have a garbage bin. I’ll remind him to use it.”

The problem was fixed. If we kept complaining, the neighbors might oppose us and continue to litter just because they don’t like us. But because we treated them with respect and kindness, they felt bad and changed.

Another time during the COVID years, my school principal said that the upcoming semester would be all online courses. Thus, I made some plans accordingly. A few weeks into the semester, my principal said that we all need to return to the school to teach even though no students are there. I was quite upset that they went back on their word. I even contemplated just saying “No”.

At the time, I asked my mentor for advice, and he told me, “You can’t do bad just because others do bad. The most important thing is that you do the right thing regardless of what others do. Remember that karma is always fair.”

In other words, I should be a dutiful employee even if my leader didn’t keep a promise. Thus, I went through the hassle of going to school just to teach online classes even though I could save a lot of time and trouble if I just taught at home.

I guess my principal must have gained more respect and gratitude towards me because at the beginning, other teachers didn’t show up, but I did. In the semester following, I made a special request that was a bit of a hassle for the school, but the principal agreed. I believe part of the reason is because I was willing to endure trouble for the school in the past.

Conclusion

It’s great that humans want to return gratitude, but from a long-term perspective, it’s not very optimal to want to return hurt. Moreover, if we return vice with vice, then we’ve stooped to the level of the person we disapprove of. That’s quite a shame. If we can be the bigger person and return vice with virtue, as we’ve seen in the above three stories, then we can turn an unfavorable situation into a win-win situation. When was a time you were mistreated? How might you return vice with virtue next time?

Originally published at https://www.weeklywisdomblog.com on December 24, 2023.

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Alex Chen

Passionate about self-cultivation, happiness, and sharing wisdom.