Qiān lǐ sòng émáo, lǐ qīng qíng yì zhòng
Translation: Goose feathers may be light for a gift; but sent from afar, they convey profound feelings.
Meaning: This proverb is actually a xiehouyu, a two-part allegorical saying. The first part is a metaphor and the second part expresses the intended meaning of the metaphor. The meaning of this xiehouyu is self explanatory: a gift may be small, but the affection or care that it conveys is more important.
The first instance of some of the text in the proverb appeared in a poem authored by Ouyang Xiu, a great writer and poet of the Song dynasty (960–1279). The story behind it, however, was told in Lushi (History of the Road) by Xu Wei, a famous painter, writer, and playright of the Ming dynasty (1368–1644).
According to Xu’s story, in the reign of Emperor Taizong of Tang (599–649 CE), the Uyghur Khaganate, then a vasal state of the Tang Empire, sent an envoy named Mianbo Gao to the emperor with a tribute. The gifts included a precious white goose housed in a gold cage. One day, when the envoy and his entourage came to the Mianyang River, he found the poor goose yearning for water. Mianbo Gao decided to take a break to water the goose by the river. After it quenched its thirst, however, the bird flapped its wings, jumped into the air, and soon soared off into the distance. Mianbo tried frantically to catch it while it was taking off, but he snatched only a few feathers of it. He was at a loss; for he could neither return nor go further, finding it hard to explain the mishap both to his khan and the Tang emperor. Finally, he had an idea. He wrote a poem on a white silk sash and wrapped the feathers in it. The poem read:
A goose as a tribute I had carried afar over mountains,
At Mianyang I lost the bird but not our Uyghurs’ heart,
I entreat Your Majesty, please pardon me, Mianbo Gao,
Light the feathers may be, but they carry our affections heavy.
After days of travelling, Mianbo Gao finally arrived in the capital. With uneasiness, he presented the feathers and the poem to Emeperor Taizong. Instead of punishing the Uyghur envoy, the emperor awarded him generously for his honesty and loyalty.
This proverb is used as a humble understatement when giving someone a gift in a culture where the value of a gift carries as much weight as, if not more than, its symbolic significance.
|里||lǐ||unit of distance (1 li = 0.311 mi)|
|送||sòng||to give (V)|
|毛||máo||feather, hair (N)|
|礼||lǐ||gift, present (N)|
|千里||qiān lǐ||a thousand li, a long distance (N)|
|鹅毛||émáo||goose feather (N)|
|送礼||sònglǐ||to give a gift (VO)|
|礼物||lǐwù||gift, present (N)|
A friend of mine brought me a small gift from her trip abroad. I was touched because the gift, even though it wasn’t very expensive, showed that no matter how far she traveled, she was still thinking of me.