Chinese Proverb? Maimonides? Lao-Tzu? Anne Isabella Thackeray Ritchie? Italian Adage? Native American Saying? Mao Zedong?
Dear Quote Investigator: The following piece of proverbial wisdom is remarkably astute:
Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.
The origin of this thought is highly contested. I have seen claims that that the adage is Chinese, Native American, Italian, Indian, or Biblical. Sometimes it is linked to Lao-Tzu, Maimonides, or Mao Zedong. Would you please explore this topic?
Quote Investigator: The general principle of alleviating poverty by facilitating self-sufficiency has a long history. The 12th-century philosopher Maimonides wrote about eight degrees in the duty of charity. In 1826 an explication of the eighth degree was published in a journal called “The Religious Intelligencer”. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1
Lastly, the eighth and the most meritorious of all, is to anticipate charity by preventing poverty, namely, to assist the reduced brother, either by a considerable gift or loan of money, or by teaching him a trade, or by putting him in the way of business, so that he may earn an honest livelihood and not be forced to the dreadful alternative of holding up his hand for charity. . .
The passage above provided a conceptual match, but it did not mention the vivid task of fishing as an illustrative and archetypal endeavor. In 1885 a statement that did refer to fishing and partially matched the modern adage appeared in the novel “Mrs. Dymond” by the popular novelist Anne Isabella Thackeray Ritchie. As the daughter of the prominent writer William Makepeace Thackeray she was continuing the family tradition of a life of letters. The second half of Ritchie’s statement did not directly refer to consuming fish: 2
‘He certainly doesn’t practise his precepts, but I suppose the Patron meant that if you give a man a fish he is hungry again in an hour. If you teach him to catch a fish you do him a good turn. But these very elementary principles are apt to clash with the leisure of the cultivated classes.’
The above passage from Ritchie achieved wide dissemination because the novel was serialized in the leading periodicals “Macmillan’s Magazine” of London 3 and “Littell’s Living Age” of Boston, Massachusetts in 1885. 4 This important citation in “Mrs. Dymond” was mentioned by top researcher Ralph Keyes in the reference work “The Quote Verifier”. 5
The adage continued to evolve for decades. In 1911 an instance used the following phrase in the second half: “he will be richer all his life”. Finally, in 1961 an instance employed the phrase “that will feed him for a lifetime” which was similar to modern versions.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In 1911 a collection of essays called “The Common Growth” by M. Loane was published, and an “oft quoted saying” was included. This version did not use words such as “feed”, “eat”, or “hungry” to refer to the consumption of fish, but it did state that the status of the fisherman would be improved for “all his life”: 6
It is an oft-quoted saying, and one full of social wisdom: “Give a man a fish, and he will be hungry again to-morrow; teach him to catch a fish, and he will be richer all his life.”
Nevertheless, this does not settle all possible questions as to the right method of helping our neighbours. Suppose, to continue the figure of speech, that the man had never tasted fish, and seriously doubted whether it was a palatable or wholesome form of nourishment; would it be practicable to induce him to make the exertion necessary to acquire the art of fishing, unless you previously caught and killed and cooked a fish for him, presented it to him, and overcame his reluctance to eat it?
In 1945 an instance similar to the text above was printed in a Wisconsin newspaper. The writer was a public health nurse, and she labelled the expression “an old Indian proverb”: 7
In every public health program the aim is not only to perform a given service but to teach the individual positive attitudes toward health which will benefit him throughout life. The purpose is well stated in an old Indian proverb.
“If you give a man a fish, he will be hungry tomorrow. If you teach a man to fish, he will be richer forever.”
In November 1961 the testimony of a missionary named Fred Nelson who had worked in Taiwan and mainland China was presented in a Rockford, Illinois newspaper. When discussing foreign aid, Nelson employed a modern version of the saying and called it a “Chinese proverb”: 8
Foreign aid—“You give a poor man a fish and you feed him for a day. You teach him to fish and you give him an occupation that will feed him for a lifetime.” (Chinese proverb.)
In October 1962 the “Winnipeg Free Press” of Winnipeg, Manitoba noted that the saying was spoken during a meeting of the Winnipeg Council of Women by Miss Anna Speers who was discussing her work on the Canadian Freedom from Hunger Committee. Speers suggested a Chinese origin for the expression: 9
As a fitting motto for the Committee’s work, Miss Speers quoted a Chinese proverb: “If you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day—if you teach him to fish, you feed him for many days.”
In May 1963 the adage appeared in “The Sunday Gleaner” of Kingston, Jamaica as an epigraph to an article titled “Tackling World Hunger”, and the suggested provenance was Italian: 10
GIVE A MAN a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach him how to fish and you feed him for his life time. — Italian proverb.
In May 1963 a newspaper in Van Buren, Missouri printed the saying, and indicated that it had been spoken during a convention held in Melbourne, Australia: 11
A quotation from one convention speaker was, “Give a man a fish and you feed him one meal. Teach him to fish and he can feed himself for many meals.”
In November 1963 a speaker at a meeting in Waco, Texas of the National Council of Jewish Women employed the saying and labeled it a “Chinese proverb”: 12
“Since I am speaking in international terms I remind you of a Chinese proverb, ‘give him a fish and he can eat but teach him to fish and he can eat many days.'”
In 1970 the book “VISTA: Challenge to Poverty” by Susan Whittlesey was published. VISTA referred to a national service organization whose name was acronymic: Volunteers In Service To America. The author suggested that the saying was “an old Navajo proverb”: 13
“One of the hardest things about being a VISTA,” explains Mary, “is that we’re never allowed to do anything for people directly, not even fill out forms. This isn’t always easy, but it’s the only way.”
There is an old Navajo proverb which VISTAS must often remind themselves of:
Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.
In 1976 a book about public policy titled “Africa: From Mystery to Maze” was released, and a version of the saying was linked to Lao-Tzu and Mao Zedong: 14
To paraphrase Lao-tse and Chairman Mao, can the American people understand that it is better to teach a man to fish than to give him a fish? Hero’s finding that the American public strongly supports technical assistance to transfer American know-how suggests that they can.
In 1986 an article about bodywork in “Yoga Journal” ascribed the saying to Lao-Tzu: 15
Lao Tsu said that if you give a hungry man a fish, you feed him for a day, but if you teach him how to fish, you feed him for a lifetime.
In conclusion, this article presents a snapshot of the incomplete knowledge available. Based on current evidence Anne Isabella Thackeray Ritchie deserves credit for formulating a striking adage that used fishing as a paradigmatic task enabling self-sufficiency. The saying evolved over time and became more memorable by mentioning the ability to eat for a lifetime. The claim that the adage was an old proverb from China, Italy, India or somewhere else has only weak support at this time.
Image Notes: Picture of Anne Isabella Thackeray Ritchie by Julia Margaret Cameron from The Art Institute of Chicago circa 1870 via Wikimedia Commons. Image of a fisherman in a boat from mydaydream at Pixabay.
(Great thanks to Michael Becket whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Additional thanks to the researchers Ralph Keyes and his book “The Quote Verifier”, Fred R. Shapiro and his book “The Yale Book of Quotations”, Barry Popik and his website “The Big Apple”. Also thanks to the ADS discussants George Thompson and Victor Steinbok.)
- 1826 March 25, The Religious Intelligencer, Volume 10, Number 43, Ladder of Benevolence, Quote Page 681, Column 1, Published by Nathan Whiting, New Haven, Connecticut. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1885, Mrs. Dymond by Miss Thackeray (Mrs. Richmond Ritchie) aka Anne Isabella Ritchie, Quote Page 342, Published by Smith, Elder, & Co., London. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1885 August, Macmillan’s Magazine, Mrs. Dymond, (Serialized version of the novel), Start Page 241, Quote Page 246, Volume 52, Macmillan and Co, London and New York. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1885 September 5, Littell’s Living Age, Mrs. Dymond by Mrs Ritchie (Serialized with acknowledgement to Macmillan’s Magazine), Start Page 602, Quote Page 606, Published by Littell & Co., Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 2006, The Quote Verifier by Ralph Keyes, Quote Page 65, St Martin’s Griffin, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1911, The Common Growth by M. Loane, Quote Page 139, Longmans, Green & Co, New York. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1945 December 24, Wisconsin Rapids Daily Tribune, Promoting Positive Health Stressed by County Public Health Program, Says Nurse by Miss Leone Norton, R.N.(Wood County Nurse), Section 2, Quote Page 5, Column 4, Wisconsin Rapids, Wisconsin. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 1961 November 11, Rockford Register-Republic, Missionary from Formosa Warns of Communist Threat, Special Report by Jack Nelson, Quote Page 4, Column 4, Rockford, Illinois. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1962 October 23, Winnipeg Free Press, New Threat: Hunger, Page 18, Column 6, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 1963 May 5, The Sunday Gleaner (The Gleaner), World Spotlight: Tackling World Hunger by John Baker White, Quote Page 8, Column 1, Kingston, Jamaica. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 1963 May 23, The Current Local, ‘Hawkins Day’ Here Well Attended by Extension Club Women, Quote Page 1, Column 2 and 3, Van Buren, Missouri. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1963 November 8, The Waco News-Tribune, NCJW Officer Gives Talk For Council, Quote Page B3, Column 1, Waco, Texas. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1970 Copyright, VISTA: Challenge to Poverty by Susan Whittlesey, Quote Page 39, Published by Coward-McCann, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1976 Copyright, Africa: From Mystery to Maze, Edited by Helen Kitchen, Series: Critical Choices for Americans, Volume XI, Section: The Search for an Aid Policy, Quote Page 391, Published by Lexington Books of D.C. Heath and Company, Lexington, Massachusetts. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1986 January-February, Yoga Journal, Number 66, Bodywork: Choosing an Approach to Suit Your Needs by Joseph Heller and William A. Henkin, Start Page 28, Quote Page 56, Published by Active Interest Media, Inc., Boulder, Colorado. (Google Books Preview) ↩