Mǎi Dú Huán Zhū:Buy A Casket But Return The Pearls

Mǎi Dú Huán Zhū:Buy A Casket But Return The Pearls

"Mǎi Dú Huán Zhū" is an idiom originating from the Warring States period and first found in Han Fei's "Han Feizi: Exhortation to Learning" (《韩非子·外储说左上》). In English, it can be translated as "to buy a casket but return the pearl."



In the distant era of the Warring States period, there occurred a thought-provoking event between the states of Chu and Zheng. A jeweler from Chu embarked on a journey to the state of Zheng with his precious jewels, hoping to find buyers there. However, this merchant was not content with merely selling his jewels; he wanted to attract attention in a unique way, making his jewels the center of everyone's gaze.


To achieve this goal, the merchant sought out a skilled carpenter and had him carve an exquisitely beautiful small box from fine wood. This box was not only splendid in appearance but also ingeniously designed, with every detail revealing the artisan's dedication and wisdom. Placing the jewels inside the box, the merchant believed that such packaging would attract customers who pursued taste and uniqueness.


Upon his arrival in Zheng, when he displayed the jewels and the box together at the marketplace, it indeed caused a sensation. People gathered around, marveling at the sight. Among them, one man from Zheng was particularly drawn to the box. He carefully examined every detail of the box, feeling the warmth of the wood and admiring the intricate carvings, as if witnessing a masterpiece where art and nature intertwined perfectly.


Finally, this man from Zheng decided to purchase the box. He paid the amount requested by the merchant and happily took the box back home. However, when he opened the box and found a sparkling jewel inside, he was astonished. He examined the jewel closely and discovered its extraordinary beauty and immense value. Yet, instead of feeling joy, he fell into contemplation.


He realized that he had been captivated by the beauty of the box alone, neglecting the value of the jewel within. In his mind, the box had already become a perfect work of art, and the presence of the jewel seemed to disrupt that perfection. Thus, he decided to return the jewel to the merchant, keeping only the beloved box for himself.


This story later became widely circulated, becoming a profound allegory— "Bùidúhuánzhū" (买椟还珠) in Chinese, which translates to "buying the box and returning the pearl." It vividly illustrates a common mistake people often make: placing too much emphasis on appearances and packaging while neglecting the essence and value of things. In this allegory, the man from Zheng was deceived by the beauty of the box, to the extent that he overlooked the precious jewel. When he discovered the jewel's presence, he didn't feel joy but rather felt it disrupted the perfection of the box. This misjudgment made people question his discernment and judgment.


However, this story isn't merely a critique of the man from Zheng. It serves as a warning and reminder to each one of us. In real life, we often encounter similar situations. For instance, when purchasing goods, we are often swayed by fancy packaging and enticing advertisements, overlooking the product's performance and quality. Sometimes, we even forsake what truly suits us in pursuit of brands and appearances. This behavior not only wastes our time and money but also deprives us of genuine opportunities for beauty and happiness.


So, how do we avoid making the mistake of buying the box and returning the pearl? Firstly, we need to maintain a clear mind and independent thinking. When facing things, we should focus on understanding their essence and value, rather than being swayed by appearances alone. Secondly, we need to cultivate our aesthetic sense and taste. Only when we truly appreciate beautiful and unique things can we make wise choices and decisions. Lastly, we need to maintain equanimity. When confronted with temptations and superficiality, we should remain calm and rational, not allowing ourselves to be swayed by surface phenomena.


In addition to its implications for individual behavior, the allegory of buying the box and returning the pearl has far-reaching effects on societal phenomena and cultural inheritance. In the realm of culture, this allegory is used to metaphorically describe behaviors that prioritize form over content. For example, in artistic creation, some artists excessively pursue formal and technical innovations while neglecting the ideas and emotions expressed in their works. This behavior not only deprives artworks of soul and depth but also prevents the audience from truly experiencing the power and charm of art. Therefore, while pursuing formal innovation, we should pay more attention to the ideological content and emotional expression of artworks.


Furthermore, the allegory of buying the box and returning the pearl has a positive impact on societal values. It reminds people to cherish truly valuable things and not to be misled by superficial glamour. In modern society, with the abundance and diversification of material life, people often fall into the quagmire of pursuing material pleasures and vanity. However, true happiness and satisfaction do not lie in possessing material wealth but in inner peace and contentment. Only when we learn to cherish truly valuable people and things around us can we find genuine happiness and joy.


In conclusion, the allegory of buying the box and returning the pearl, with its profound implications and unique charm, has become a brilliant pearl in the treasure trove of Chinese culture. It not only reveals the common mistakes people make when facing things but also profoundly influences our behaviors and societal phenomena. Let us remember the lessons of this allegory, cherish truly valuable things, resist the allure of superficiality, and together pursue a better and more fulfilling future.

pearl jewelry



Back to blog

Leave a comment

Please note, comments need to be approved before they are published.

Featured collection