Chapter 1 The Chinese Concept of Friendship: Confucian Ethics and the Literati Narratives of Pre-Modern China

In: Conceptualizing Friendship in Time and Place
Ping Wang
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From a historical perspective, this article attempts to explore the importance of friendship in traditional Chinese culture and its implications. It starts with the etymological study of the term ‘friend,’ and the value attached to it, followed by an examination of the concept of friendship in a broader socio-historical context—in particular the Confucian role ethics and the Chinese literati tradition; finally it briefly reflects on the impact of this concept on Chinese society today.

In traditional Chinese ethics, an individual is never defined by him-/herself, but by his/her various roles in relation to others around him/her. An etymological investigation explains why the relationship between friends was included in the ‘five cardinal human relationships.’ These roles and relations not only constitute one’s initial conditions, but also operate within the grand matrix of heaven-earth-human. Examples of friendship and its various types in classical philosophical and literary texts are analyzed to illustrate the significance of friendship as part of the narratives and moral particularities of Chinese people as well as its long-lasting impact.

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