We have a word, “宋襄の仁” meaning “futile benevolence.” The word comes from a historic episode from ancient China.

In Spring and Autumn era (BC 8C) in China, when Song Country fought Chu Country, Muyi, Prince of Song besought his father, King Xiang to attack the enemy before the enemy completes deployment of their army, King Xiang rejected his son’s advice because it’s unfair to attack people when they are in trouble.

King Xian lost the war and Song was conquered by Chu. Hence the word, “宋襄の仁 – Sojo-no-jin - King Song Xiang's benevolence” passes as the futile benevolence or stupid generosity in our country, and possibly in China.

Are there any English phrases or idioms that are derived from similar episodes in which excessive or inconsiderate benevolence / generosity turns out to be a great disaster?

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    “futile benevolence” would be illogical in the first place. Benevolence does not expect returns, nor is it the responsibility of benevolence to see the receiver does benefit from it. Talking just the logic part of it. Harley, the "Man of Feeling" is a weak creature, dominated by a futile benevolence, who goes up to London and falls into the hands of people who exploit his ...
    – Kris
    Commented Jan 22, 2014 at 6:05
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    It should be noted that 宋襄の仁 is literally Song Xiang's Benevolence/humanity"... Japanese dictionaries render this phrase to mean "無益の情け" which I would translate to mean "unprofitable mercy" or "non-beneficial mercy" ...
    – virmaior
    Commented Jan 22, 2014 at 7:53
  • Kris/Vimajor. I simply applied "benevolence" as a translation of 仁 which I picked up from Readers English Japanese Dictionary published by Kenkyusha. It may not suit to the case. 'Mercy' or 'Generosity' could be more appropreate, but I'm not sure. Commented Jan 22, 2014 at 9:13
  • Eat or be eaten. Commented Jan 22, 2014 at 11:52
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    Coincidentally I was just reading about an English example where the Anglo-Saxon Byrhtnoth sportingly allowed a Viking raiding party to cross a well-defended narrow bridge to land before engaging with them. He was killed and his forces crushed Battle of Maldon However I do not think there's a specific idiom for what you describe.
    – user24964
    Commented Jan 22, 2014 at 13:51

8 Answers 8


Based on the meaning and the description of the event, I don't think "futile benevolence" is a very good rendering into English of 宋襄の仁 (of the concept).

I think the corresponding concept is "heaping coals on the heads of your enemies" or being a true "Good Samaritan" since the action of Song Xiang was to help his enemies

Or if you're looking for a non-Scriptural equivalent, I might say blind chivalry

  • Contrary to burning coals on the enemy’s head, King Xian failed to ‘overcome the enemy with good.’ He was defeated by Chu by trying to play fair. I’d like to buy “Blind chivalry.” Commented Jan 23, 2014 at 7:34

There is the proverb "no good deed goes unpunished."


There is also the expression 'casting pearls before swine'.


From the episode you are describing from Chinese history a better English equivalent may be "misplaced chivalry".


There is also biting the hand that feeds you

to treat someone badly who has helped you in some way

This is more a description of the recipient of the benevolence than the purveyor.


One idiomatic expression in English that typically involves turning an ostensible virtue into a vice (or a source of harm) through excessive or injudicious exercise of it is "to a fault."

The most common specific phrase used in connection with "to a fault" is "generous to a fault," which means being so generous that the generous person ends up harming the beneficiary or others or himself/herself, or not setting a good example of how to behave properly.

But there is no reason you couldn't say that someone is "benevolent to a fault" or "kind-hearted to a fault" or "chivalrous to a fault" or "gallant to a fault" or "sportsmanlike to a fault" or even "principled to a fault."

Here is the entry for "to a fault" in Christine Ammer, The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, second edition (2013):

to a fault Excessively, extremely, as in He was generous to a fault. This phrase, always qualifying an adjective, has been soused since the mid-1700s. Indeed, Oliver Goldsmith had this precise usage in The Life of Richard Nash (1762).


I have heard the expression "hand-to-mouth approach" used in reference to Western efforts to feed Third World poor, with the implied criticism that the approach is ultimately unproductive (I hasten to add that I don't mean to imply agreement with this, only to report on the usage).


In the Bible

1 Samuel 24 - David Sparing Saul's Life.

King Saul had cultivated a jealousy against his general David. Soon that jealousy becomes enmity, from which David had to flee because Saul was after his life. So David became a rebel warlord, with Saul's constant harassment on his life. One day Saul took a rest in a cave, where David and his men chanced upon him sleeping.

David's men hankered after him to have Saul killed. David refused. David even regretted in anguish having cut off a piece of Saul's garment (I guess to prove to Saul that David meant Saul no harm) while he was asleep.

When Saul awoke, David persuaded Saul to repent of his pursuit of David's life. Where Saul expressed remorse with David bowing before Saul his father-in-law and former boss, setting him free. But Saul did not stop pursuing David's life.

Within communities where there is a strong reliance on the Bible for ethical guidance, an honest politician could convince him/herself to spare Saul's life. An honest politician who refuses to smear his/her opponent with negative campaigning even when possessing a piece of information that would end the opponent's political career. While the opponent uses all means available to destroy the honest politician's reputation.

They (the honest politician) would say "As David spared Saul's life ....".

They could also probably say, "As in 1 Samuel 24, I will be rewarded."

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