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Delving into the Universal Law of Reciprocity: “Courtesy Demands Reciprocity”

The law of reciprocity is a rule set thousands of years ago. In fact, this universal principle is visible in cultures around the world. As stated in Hammurabi’s code, “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth.” The west, too, has a version of this rule. They live by the principle of “respect begets respect.” The universality of this code is astounding. It is still applicable despite the cultural and moral differences of people.

In China, we, too, have a version of the law of reciprocity. It is generally known as 礼尚往来 (lǐ shàng wǎng lái) or “courtesy demands reciprocity.” However, in our version, it is inclusive. It applies to all aspects of life.

Origin of this Idiom

The origin of this expression will take us back to the archaic days. The first document of this phrase is in Confucius’ Book of Rites. The book elaborated the contexts where the idiom is applicable. However, as times change, so does this idiom’s meaning. In ancient times, there were a plethora of standards and rules when following the law of reciprocity. In modern times, 礼尚往来 (lǐ shàng wǎng lái) only has two general meanings. One is applicable in a practical setting, and the other is within the bound of the abstract.


The literal meaning is quite simple. When someone gives you a coin, the social etiquette is to show your gratitude through reciprocity.

In China, social conventions hold immense importance. In all human experience, people must follow unspoken social etiquettes. Consequently, Chinese people value the law of reciprocity. They believe that when someone gives you a gift, you must give something in return. It is a non-optional social etiquette that people must follow. Reciprocity signifies mutual respect. It is also evidence of a solid social relationship. It is also a way to solidify and deepen interpersonal bonds.


礼尚往来 (lǐ shàng wǎng lái) does not only apply in social relationships. It is also applicable to the trivial things in life. Chinese people believe that what you give to society will eventually bounce back. A person that treats another person with respect will receive respect. A person who is kind to others will receive kindness. Everything is a causal relationship that requires a gift and a return.

Remember that the primal essence of 礼尚往来 (lǐ shàng wǎng lái) is receiving and giving. Therefore, it is limited only to abstract things mentioned earlier. One can repay a form of kindness through material things or even a nicer way of social interaction. For example, if someone treats you with kindness and appreciation, you can repay them by giving a gift or doing a favor for them.

On the other hand, 礼尚往来 (lǐ shàng wǎng lái) allows a negative return. When someone treats someone negatively, they can return the favor by being discourteous.

礼尚往来 (lǐ shàng wǎng lái) is a principle that Chinese people inculcates. It’s a code to follow and apply in life.

It is also high time for Chinese people to follow this principle. After all, the current venue for the Winter Olympics is in Beijing, China. Chinese people observe 礼尚往来 (lǐ shàng wǎng lái) through treating all the athletes and competitors with the same level of respect, sincerity, and compassion.

To master this topic, let us delve into the knowledge points.

Knowledge points

礼尚往来 (lǐ shàng wǎng lái): courtesy demands reciprocity; deal with sb. as he deals with you; pay sb. back in his own coin.

礼 (): the third tone, social custom, manners, courtesy

尚 (shàng): the fourth tone, still, yet, even, fairly, rather

往 (wǎng): the third tone, go, depart, past, formerly

来 (lái): the second tone, come, coming; return, returning


Lǐ shàng wǎng lái shì zhōng guó rén de jiāo wǎng chuán tǒng

礼 尚   往  来 是   中   国 人 的 交  往    传   统。

The criterion of “courtesy demanding reciprocity” is a Chinese tradition.

Lǐ shàng wǎng lái yǒu lì yú shè huì hé xié

礼 尚   往  来 有 利于 社 会 和 谐。

The criterion of “courtesy demanding reciprocity” is conducive to social harmony.

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