‘Loss as blessing’ embodies dialectical wisdom

By SHEN SICHU / 05-16-2024 / Chinese Social Sciences Today

A plaque inscribed by painter Zheng Banqiao (1693-1766) of the Qing Dynasty, with the phrase “Suffering a loss is a blessing” Photo: TUCHONG 

The concept of “Blessing Culture” is a unique cultural symbol of the Chinese nation. Throughout history, people have pursued well-being, contributing to the continuous development and spread of this cultural ethos. In seeking blessings, many enlightening maxims associated with good fortune have emerged, providing guidance on how to attain blessings. Among these, “Suffering losses is a blessing,” attributed to Zheng Banqiao, a Qing Dynasty painter and writer, is widely known. This saying, which suggests that fortune and misfortune are interdependent, embodies a wealth of dialectical wisdom. 


At first glance, “Suffering losses is a blessing” appears paradoxical, as loss and blessing are opposites. Academically, it is a clear paradox. Suffering a loss implies making choices that harm one’s own interests. From the biological instinct to “seek benefits and avoid harm” to the current mainstream economic and decision-making theories advocating for maximizing benefits, it is implausible that individuals would make decisions that intentionally cause themselves harm.  

Interestingly, “Suffering losses is a blessing” may not be mere folklore; many people today still believe in and endorse this phrase, even elevating it to a guiding principle. For example, a 2014 study published in Acta Psychologica Sinica by Tang Hui and others found that individuals indeed make choices that appear detrimental, such as taking blame for a colleague when leaders seek accountability or returning a borrowed car with a full tank of gas. Their research also discovered that those who benefited from these choices were more likely to consider the sufferer for future promotions or partnerships, indicating that the potential advantages of suffering outweigh the small losses incurred. 

Moreover, a 2017 study by Zhao Cuixia and others in the Journal of Behavioral Decision Making collected anecdotes of loss from politicians, economists, and cultural and social figures across different times and cultures. They creatively developed a scale based on these anecdotes to measure the likelihood of an individual’s willingness to suffer loss. The results indicated that individuals more inclined to making self-sacrificial choices were more likely to receive immediate (subjective blessing) and long-term (subjective and objective blessing) rewards. Specifically, individuals who tended to make self-sacrificial choices had higher socioeconomic status indices and subjective happiness levels. Thus, although these choices go against our instinct to seek benefits and avoid harm, they can lead to social recognition, improved economic status, and increased happiness, manifesting in both subjective and objective blessings.

Explanatory mechanism 

Currently, the mechanism explaining why people are willing to make choices that result in loss remains unclear. To some, choosing to suffer a loss, an act that is detrimental to oneself but beneficial to others in the present moment, easily brings to mind pro-social behaviors similar in concept. Pro-social behaviors can be considered actions and tendencies such as helping, cooperating, sharing, and comforting in social interactions, all of which benefit others and contribute to social harmony. Cooperation, humility, and sharing fall under the category of pro-social behaviors, but the mechanisms behind these are still not well understood.

There are several representative theoretical explanations for pro-social behavior. First, social learning leads to pro-social behavior. Social learning theory, proposed by renowned American psychologist Albert Bandura, suggests that individuals learn behaviors, attitudes, and social norms by observing and imitating others. Phrases like “only a good example can serve as the best sermon,” “one is usually influenced by one’s surroundings,” and “he who gets in contact with vermilion will become red” reflect this theory to some extent. 

Second, reciprocity facilitates pro-social behavior. Social exchange theory posits that all human social activities are essentially the result of an exchange process. Human behaviors are unconsciously governed by those exchanges that bring them rewards and compensation, and individuals establish reciprocal relationships within these social exchanges. 

Third, vulnerability leads to pro-social behavior. From the perspective of evolutionary psychology, individuals are weak and helpless in the face of natural threats. Cooperation and mutual assistance among individuals greatly increase the likelihood of survival. Research by Rao Lilin and others published in the Evolution and Human Behavior explored pro-social behavior among residents in disaster areas and non-disaster areas following sudden disasters, such as the Wenchuan earthquake. They found that as the severity of the disaster increased in their places of residence, the level of residents’ pro-social behaviors also increased. However, the theory of pro-social behavior does not seem to fully explain the notion that “suffering losses is a blessing,” thus necessitating the exploration of new explanatory perspectives.

New interpretation

A detailed analysis of the choice to endure a loss reveals that although individuals who make such choices may face apparent losses at the moment of decision-making, including financial, temporal, and energy-related losses, earlier studies have found that those who choose to suffer losses, over time, will obtain both subjective and objective blessings in the future, such as higher levels of happiness and socio-economic status. Furthermore, the longer the retrospective time and the older the age, the stronger the relationship between the choice to suffer losses and the receipt of these blessings. Thus, the choice to suffer a loss is not merely a loss at one point in time but involves a trade-off between outcomes at two points in time: “now” and “future.” In the field of behavioral decision-making, this is often characterized by intertemporal decision-making.

Specifically, from the perspective of intertemporal decision-making, viewing “suffering losses is a blessing” reveals it is essentially a decision of “lose now, gain later,” a mixed result of loss and gain spread over time. Suffering a loss is not merely a single-time-point choice of loss but can be seen as a decision made across two time points: choosing “to suffer losses now for greater gain in the future” or choosing to “avoid suffering now but forgo future gains.” Benefits at future time points actually stem from the decision-maker actively selecting options based on a “given set of characteristics or dimensions (suffer now vs. not suffer now).” This additional dimension grants value to the “delayed” gains (such as future social approval, reputation, happiness, etc.). From this perspective, it is easy to understand why some people intentionally choose to suffer. They are essentially choosing “small losses now, large gains later,” a decision which aligns more closely with survival strategies. 

Theoretically, intertemporal decision-making does not seem to relate to pro-social behavior. Literature on intertemporal decisions often originates from journals in neuroscience and economics, whereas pro-social behavior studies typically adopt longitudinal and developmental perspectives. The potential link between them may lie in the fact that when making choices to accept losses, the individual incurs the loss, while others benefit. 

Therefore, introducing a pro-social interpretation into the intertemporal decision-making perspective on the concept that “suffering losses is a blessing” implies it can be understood as “altruism now, potential self-benefit later.” Decision-makers are actually weighing benefits at two points in time. If the value of their current altruism is perceived to be greater, or if the potential or outcome value of future self-benefit is deemed larger, they will be more likely to choose loss in the present. If an individual does not subscribe to the belief that “suffering losses is a blessing” and is unable to envision or generate their own future benefits, focusing solely on their current losses, they are unlikely to willingly engage in loss-inducing behavior.

“Suffering losses is a blessing” is a principle esteemed in traditional Chinese culture, advising people not to focus on short-term gains or losses but to consider long-term outcomes. Particularly for individuals new to society, such as young people, “suffering losses is a blessing” can serve as a lifelong principle for conducting themselves, advising not to overly focus on immediate gains or losses in the workplace, but rather to look towards long-term career planning.


In terms of cultural inheritance, the decision-making approach of “suffering losses is a blessing” can inspire policymakers to strive for a balance between economic growth and environmental protection. General Secretary of the CPC Central Committee Xi Jinping emphasized in his speech at the Central Economic Work Conference that “it is necessary to further accelerate building an ecological civilization and green and low-carbon development.” Green, low-carbon development entails a shift away from the traditional model of high production, high consumption, and high emission. The current “pains” associated with such changes are in pursuit of the “Two Centenary Goals” and the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation. Understanding the relationship and mechanisms behind “suffering losses is a blessing” helps advance our comprehension of the meaning of “blessing,” and how to pursue and attain it. This, in turn, facilitates the transmission of blessing culture and promotes the dissemination and exchange of beneficial projects in international exchanges within the Belt and Road Initiative framework.

Shen Sichu is an associate professor from the School of Psychology at Fujian Normal University.