THE story of Peng Yu and Xu Shoulan is not part of China's rich collection of ancient folk tales, but most Chinese are familiar with it nonetheless.
By Peh Shing Huei, China Bureau Chief
In 2006, Mr Peng, a 26-year-old technician from Nanjing, went to the aid of Madam Xu, 65, who had fallen and broken her hip during a scrum to board a public bus. He took her to hospital and even gave her 200 yuan (S$40).
She returned the favour by accusing him of causing her fall and suing him.
Mr Peng insisted that he helped the elderly woman out of kindness, but the Nanjing court decided otherwise. It ruled in favour of Madam Xu, arguing that Mr Peng would not have helped her if he had not caused the fall in the first place.
He was ordered to pay part of her medical bill, which was eventually settled at 10,000 yuan.
The incident has since grown in notoriety nationwide, and the so-called 'Nanjing Peng Yu case' is often used to explain why many Chinese are reluctant to help strangers.
In the past week, this has seen renewed attention following the ghastly hit-and-run case in Foshan, Guangdong province, involving a two-year-old child. The little girl was struck first by a van on a market street.
As she lay bleeding, 18 passers-by ignored her. She was run over a second time by another vehicle before a rag collector finally pulled her out of harm's way.
Even as an outraged nation threw up its hands in horror, many Chinese were quick to point out that the bizarre outcome of the 2006 case had much to do with the callous attitude of the bystanders.
'The old lady of Nanjing had shoved aside all Chinese people with conscience,' wrote commentator Li Nuoyan on Phoenix News' website. 'It was an ending which no one had expected and a conclusion which terminated the conscience of countless people.'
News reports and netizens have also cited numerous examples of similar incidents since 2006 to show how the Nanjing ruling has had a chilling effect on potential Good Samaritans.
One happened late last year, when a 78-year-old man was found face-down on the ground in a residential compound in Shenzhen. No one offered to help and he died eventually. A security guard who could have saved him said he was afraid to do anything for fear of being blamed.
Another, in August last year, saw an 81-year-old woman accuse a bus driver of having knocked her down and caused her injuries - after he tried to help her after a fall. Fortunately for the driver, his vehicle was equipped with a video camera and he was exonerated by its recorded images.
Indeed, a recent online poll found that 84 per cent of Chinese respondents would not offer to help someone who had fallen on the street for fear of extortion, according to the Global Times.
This unwillingness to help becomes even more stark when set against the widely reported case last week of an American tourist who dived into the famous West Lake in Hangzhou and saved a Chinese woman from drowning.
Many praised the foreigner, but quite a few remarked that the rescuer was very likely ignorant of the risk of being sued which her act of heroism carried. As one netizen put it: 'According to Chinese laws and regulations, if she hadn't pushed the girl into the water, why would she save her?'
But to pin all the blame on the Peng Yu case is reductionist and unfair. Some observers take a longer view, attributing the apparent lack of compassion for others to factors that have moulded Chinese society over the past decades.
They point to the spiritual void left by Mao Zedong's communist triumph, the aversion to standing out and drawing attention to oneself following the trauma of the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and 1970s, as well as the emphasis on material gain in the past three decades. The headlong rush for economic growth came at a price: an erosion of a sense of community and weakened moral bearings.
This is not to say that Chinese society is devoid of kind-hearted souls, or that there is something intrinsically selfish about the Chinese people. Mr Peng and Madam Chen Xianmei, the woman who rescued Wang Yue, the Foshan toddler, are examples to the contrary.
China is also not the only place that has seen egregious examples of bystander indifference. In 1964, the infamous Kitty Genovese murder case left New Yorkers soul-searching as to what was wrong with a society that allowed a young woman to be stabbed to death outside her Queens apartment while 38 witnesses did nothing.
More recently, in 2008, Jamaican woman Esmin Green died after she collapsed and went into convulsions while waiting for treatment in a Brooklyn hospital. Camera footage showed her lying on the floor for an hour, all the while ignored by other patients, security guards and hospital staff.
China may not be unique, but there is certainly scope for action in the wake of the Foshan case. The authorities, for instance, should come up with laws to protect from liability people who go out of their way to help strangers in distress.
Existing models are to be found in the Good Samaritan Protection Act in California and some European countries. The details differ but the essence is the same: to overcome reluctance to help a stranger that stems from fear of being sued.
Local media reported last month that Shenzhen is drafting similar legislation. It could not come sooner. In fact, other cities and the central government should consider doing the same.
It would be wise, too, to revisit the Peng Yu verdict. As a commentary in the China Daily pointed out last month: 'The Peng Yu case is so influential that it needs to be seriously reviewed... the case is no longer an ordinary one. It has greatly affected our social ethics. The supreme authorities must give due importance to it.
'If our judicial apparatus cannot protect justice, our society will be irredeemably damaged.'