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

In: Conceptualizing Friendship in Time and Place
Author: Ping Wang
Full Access

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.


“A truly virtuous man would come to the aid of the most distant stranger as quickly as to his own friend,” said Montesquieu; “If men were perfectly virtuous, they wouldn’t have friends.”1 This noble sentiment of universal concern articulated by the Enlightenment philosopher is not absent from traditional Chinese ethics: Mozi (ca. 490–403 bce), one of the most important ancient Chinese philosophers, for example, advocated universal love. The dominant Chinese philosophy on relationship, however, is firmly rooted in Confucian ethics of smaller solidarities, starting from relationships between family members and, by extension, friends.

According to Confucian ethics, people learn to love humanity not in general, but through the particular expressions of role ethics. It is precisely through “cultivating those thick, intrinsic relations that constitute one’s initial conditions and that locate the trajectory of one’s life force within family, community and cosmos”2 that persons become consummate in their conduct (ren: 仁).

This key-concept in Confucian ethics stems from the central concern for human relationships and required roles. Etymologically, the character 仁 consists of two components: a people radical on the left (人), and a number two (二)on the right. Together, the character refers to the relationship between two people. Ren is love between people, hence two persons together.

article image

The concept is translated into English in various ways: as ‘benevolence,’ ‘loving relationships,’ or as ‘acting humanely.’ ‘Ren’ connotes an ideal ethical orientation from which one sees the ethical life as a never-ending task. To cultivate ren means to achieve propriety in what one says and does in any given situation. This could mean affection and reverence for elders, earnestness or doing one’s best for others, as well as tolerance, trust, diligence and generosity.3 This fundamental idea was elaborated in all of the four Confucian canonical texts known as the “Four Books” (Sishu).4

In China, the importance of friendship is markedly demonstrated by its inclusion in the Confucian ethics of ‘five cardinal human relationships’ (wulun): love between fathers and sons, righteousness between rulers and their subjects, seniority between the older and younger brothers, difference between husbands and wives, and trust between friends.5 Chen Jiru (1558–1639), a Ming Dynasty writer, highlighted the importance of friendship in the following remarks in his preface to Matteo Ricci’s (1552–1610) book On Friendship (Youlun):

Friendship is like spring water moving amongst the flowers or wind and thunder moving within the primal breath. Unless there are friendships, the other four [of the five cardinal] relationships cannot be fixed.6

Indeed, in traditional Chinese culture, having close friends is deemed absolutely vital to a person’s sense of self and the world. While China has witnessed great changes over time, and traditional ideas have been challenged—most noticeably over the past few decades—Confucian values still find their influence in many aspects of Chinese culture today nonetheless. Limited by its scope, this chapter will focus on pre-modern China.

What, then, makes the Chinese concept of friendship distinctive? How does it fit in the equation of Confucian family relations? What role does literati friendship play in Chinese friendship discourse? Who can be considered a good friend? Such questions and more will be discussed from a socio-historical perspective whereby friends and friendship are relationally constituted and through emotive notions, rather than being merely cognitive or abstract conceptions.

In addressing the issue of friendship in traditional Chinese culture and its implications, we shall start with an etymological examination of the term ‘friend,’ and the value attached to it and its associations. This will be followed by an examination of the concept of friendship in a broader context of Confucian ideology, before embarking on an investigation of Chinese literati narrative on friendship. In so doing, we try to set out the major dimension of friendship as a complex web of overlapping familial and social roles that form part of the moral particularities of the Chinese people. At the outset, however, a few points should be clarified.

(1) Traditional Chinese Family Structure

In China today, nuclear families are steadily increasing in number, although it is still common for aged parents to live with one of their adult male children and his family, and for the grandparents to look after the grandchild. The family model in ancient China, however, was different. These were typically extended families, like a tree with spread-out branches clinging to a large trunk. Then, it was very common to have three, or even four generations living under one roof. Under this model, a married man, his spouse, and their children would all live with his aged parents and his siblings, making relationships between members of the large family extremely complex and intricate. That is why hierarchical order and moral cultivation were essential, so that the various interlocking, and often tangled, relationships should all be woven into one desired pattern.

The Confucian sangang (three cardinal relationships) and wuchang (five constant virtues) became the defining features of this family structure. While the latter stipulates the proper conduct of each individual in relation to others—ren (‘benevolence,’ ‘love,’ or ‘humaneness’), yi (‘righteousness’), li (‘propriety’ or ‘proper behavior’), xin (‘fidelity’), and zhi (‘wisdom’)—the former emphasizes the patriarchal order, the king being the principal to his subjects, the father principal to his son, and husband principal to his wife. Women were at the bottom of the family structure; the most difficult and formidable role was that of the daughter-in-law, for she was also under the control of her mother-in-law.

In the old China, when a girl married, she was expected to leave her own home, move in with her husband’s family, and dutifully perform her proper roles: being loyal to her husband, obedient to her in-laws, respectful to her brothers-in-law, and nice to her sisters-in-law. Looking after everyone in her husband’s household was nothing short of daunting as such, even apart from the most intricate and difficult relationships with her mother-in-law and sisters-in-law. Women’s low status at home and in the society explains why, at least partially, most of the discourses on friendship in ancient China are about men, with women rarely—if ever—mentioned.

(2) Women in Relation to Friendship

The domestic domain of women can be also illustrated by the Chinese character for ‘peace’ (an, 安), which is formed by a woman with a wide roof over her head. The idea being that when women are kept inside the house, there is peace in the household. The idea behind this comes accross more clearly in the archaic seal style character:7

article image

This gendered spatial boundary between the outer and inner was already established as early as the third or second millennium bce in the Book of Changes (Yijing):8 the heaven and sun are associated with male strength, which is superior and responsible for the outside world, whereas the earth and moon are linked to female weakness which is inferior and serves within the household.9 Since women were confined to the feminine space of the home, they hardly had any opportunity to have outside contacts to establish friendships, which, after all, was traditionally a public sphere—a man’s privilege.

Of course, there were exceptions. In the course of China’s long history, there were times when women, generally from gentry families, or more liberal environments were lucky enough to have access to some education and thus able to read and write. There were even women’s literary/poetry associations and other social clubs, where women could exchange poetry or play music and chess. This opened an avenue for women to establish friendship with other women. Close female friendships are often referred to as guimi (boudoir sweet ones)—friends who can confide in one another. However, this was rare. That is why scholar officials, usually men, will be the main concern of this chapter.

(3) Relationships between Men

Relationships between men were very important in ancient China. As Martin Huang points out:

…in a patriarchal society such as that of traditional China, masculinity was most likely a homosocial enactment: what mattered most to a man was the security and judgments of other men.10

This gave rise to intimate relationships between men, often also with a sensual, sexual, and erotic dimension, as have been observed by many scholars such as Huang,11 who applied Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s homosocial-homosexual model in his analysis of male bonding in traditional China (in particular during the second half of the Qing Dynasty (1644–1912 ce) when there was a rise of a cult of friendship among educated males).12 Male-male sexual rapport however, though an interesting topic, is beyond the scope of the present chapter. Instead, we shall concentrate on two major types of friendship between men: the instrumental (networking for career advancement) and the personal (based on shared values, interests, and tastes). Limited by space, this chapter will primarily address issues surrounding the second type of friendship among the literati. This leads us to the next point.

(4) Literati in Relation to Friendship—With a Focus on the Song Dynasty (960–1279 ce)

I have used the term ‘literati’ to refer to the scholar officials of imperial China from the Sui Dynasty (581–618 ce) to the end of the Qing Dynasty in 1912. Those were the scholars who became government officials after earning academic degrees by passing rigorous civil service examinations. Most of them were from the gentry class. Because of their various ranks in the magistracy, they formed the bureaucratic apparatus, and exercised great influence on the political and cultural life of the society. By the Song Dynasty—with the reinforcement of the civil service examination, as well as economic development and overall prosperity—the literati as a class became firmly established as dominant arbiters of ideology and culture. The fact that these scholars were often far from home and hence in need of friends makes them particularly relevant to the topic of this chapter. Their lives as government officials were full of uncertainty, and constant political rivalry in court also often led to banishment and exile. Travelling shaped the lives of many literati. This was woven into the complex fabric of all kinds of social (including family) structures, leaving far-reaching traces in all corners of Song society. It also shed light on the relationship between men and women at the time. This will be elaborated in the section entitled “Friendship and Literati Tradition” below.

Historical and Etymological Overview

Friendship, kinship, and place were three pillars of community in ancient China. There was a strong family tie and sense of loyalty to the family and community. Of these three elements, kinship is the fundamental one, and filial piety and fraternal respect are the roots of ren.13

The noble person devotes himself to the root; only when the root is established, could dao14 grow. Xiaodi—this is the root of ren, is it not?”15

With Xiaodi—being filial towards parents, and respectful of elders16—as the foundation, ren quite literally starts from home; as the Cheng brothers commented: there is no love greater than that between one’s kin.17

An etymological examination of the word ‘friend’ (pengyou) will show that this word and its associations are related to family or a closely-knit group, and this unit or group is bound together either by birth/blood, or by learning and interest. In Chinese, ‘friend’ (朋友) is a two-character word, consisting of 朋 (peng) and 友 (you). An etymological examination of these two characters will shed light on the significance of friendship as one of the five cardinal human relationships. The seal style character of peng has the strength of illustrating this symbolically:

article image

“朋” has three original explanations: (1) According to the explanation found in Shuowen jiezi (Explaining Graphs and Analyzing Characters),18 this character originally meant a flock of birds flying together. From this, the meaning of binding together to form a group or clique has evolved.19 We find an example of this in Shan hai jing (The Classic of Mountains and Seas):20 “There are birds that dwell in groups and fly in flocks (朋飞).”

(2) In oracle or bronze, the character 朋 was often written as 倗 (peng), in the sense of help or assistance. According to Duan’s commentary on the Shuowen jiezi,21 倗means assistance, follower, or retainer to a master, suggesting a hierarchical relationship. This point will be further elaborated in the section below, entitled “Friendship and Traditional Chinese Philosophy.”

(3) Peng refers to people coming through the ‘same door’ of a school, or having the same masters, and, hence sharing the same status, just as Zheng Xuan (127–200) commented people ‘coming through the same door of a school are called peng, and people sharing the same inspirations are called you.’22 This second part of the statement brings us to the second character in the word ‘pengyou’ (朋友):

article image

This character also has three basic explanations: (1) The character ‘友’ can be seen as the left and right hands of a person: according to Duan Yucai’s commentary to Shuowen jiezi, the character reflects two hands joined together, supporting each other; one cannot do without the other.23

(2) The character stands for two brothers, two bodies that come from the same womb and share the same blood and qi.24 The latter is often translated as (vital) ‘energy’ or ‘life force,’ and is the central underlying principle in Chinese medicine and martial arts. This concept had a tremendous influence on Chinese philosophy and literature, and is crucial in relation to artistic creativity. The qi flows and circulates around and through the body, forming a cohesive and functioning unit. It is crucial to understand its rhythm and flow, which consummate in the balance between yin qi and yang qi so as to maintain good health and longevity. The bodies that share the same qi, such as brothers, naturally join together:

article image

Being nice to brothers is called you. In other words, friends are like brothers, and fraternity is the root of ren, as mentioned before.

(3) Friends as learning companions:

article image

If the character peng (朋) focuses more on the meaning of binding/gathering together, the meaning of you (友) is more closely associated with friendship based on similar aspirations and interests. The word ‘friend’ (pengyou) appears to have existed in Chinese since the Book of Changes, one of the oldest classical texts. A statement in Dui gua goes: “a Junzi25 (a noble man) discusses and learns with friends.”26 Kong Yingda’s (574–648) commentary on it echos Zheng Xuan’s interpretation “those who came from the same door/school were called peng, and those who shared the same aspirations were called you. Pengyou dwell/gather together, and discuss and learn about dao and yi.”27 Indeed friendship often flourishes in the context of amiable conversations of like-minded people.

From these three original definitions of pengyou, numerous compound words denoting close relationships were formed such as tongbao, ‘of the same womb,’ referring to brothers or countrymen, and shouzu, ‘hands and feet,’ standing for one’s brother. The carnal body—the body as flesh and bone—is extremely important in Chinese culture, as it is where the family reference begins, as is stated in the very first chapter of the Xiaojing (Classic of Filial Piety):28

Your physical person with its hair and skin is received from your parents. Vigilance in not allowing anything to do injury to your person is where family reverence begins.29

Moreover, the body is:

…an inheritance we receive from our families, and as a current in a genealogical stream that reaches back to our most remote ancestors, brings with it a sense of continuity and belonging, and the religious significance that such feelings bring with them.30

In this sense, “the body is the site of a conveyance of the cultural corpus of knowledge.”31

The importance of the body in the Confucian tradition is reflected in the language. To describe a close or intimate relationship, we say shouzu zhi qing (literally the feelings/affection of hands and feet); qing tong gurou (feeling/affection of bones and flesh); or qing ru xiongdi (brotherly affection). Many Chinese idioms—typically four-character expressions—that express strong, sincere, and loyal friendship contain a word or a radical denoting key parts of the body, in particular, internal organs such as yue/rou (月), indicating ‘meat’ or ‘flesh,’ or xin (心), meaning ‘heart’:

article image


The idioms shown in Table 1.1, which all have 心, 月, or both in them) are used to describe sincere, intimate, loyal and faithful friendships despite their respective nuances as indicated by the literal rendering of the words in each idiom. Friendship that is worth dying for is illustrated in Table 1.2.

Just as hands and feet are vital to a body, friends are as dear to one another as brothers from the same parents. Yan Zhitui (531–591) left an important book entitled Yanshi jiaxun (Teachings of the Yan Family), in which he provides guidance and advice to his children and other young people. Confucian values and ethics run through the book. The chapter, “Xiongdi” (Brothers), exalts the loving relationship between brothers, saying “brothers are people of different forms connected with the same qi. Even though some might be rebellious, they cannot help still loving each other.”32 He continues:

When parents pass away, brothers look after each other like a shadow following a body, an echo following a sound: love the bodies given by parents, treasure each other’s blood and qi inherited from parents. Who else but brothers could have such tender affection for one another?33

Yan goes on to cite an exemplary case of three brothers who loved each other more than their own life, and each pleaded to die for their brother. All of them were subsequently killed together.34 The moral obligation is to forego self-interest or even to sacrifice oneself for the sake of others who are dear to you.

Brotherly affection is the permanence of sentiments and attachments of the heart: family and kinship integrated in the past, but also turning somebody unrelated into a quasi-family member by calling him/her brother and sister, etc. As mentioned above, pengyou also refers to people who study together, so a classmate—depending on gender and age—can be referred to as an older or younger ‘study’ brother or sister (xue xiong/jie/di/mei). Similarly, disciples of the same master (shi) are called older or younger brother or sister of the same master/teacher (shi xiong/jie/di/mei).

Kinship in China—particularly in ancient times—was not only created by blood, but also by promise and oath. This point is further discussed in section entitled “Friendship and Literati Tradition,” below.

Friendship and Traditional Chinese Philosophy

The Master said: “Isn’t it a pleasure to learn with constant application? Aren’t you delighted to have a friend coming from afar’; aren’t you a real junzi (a gentleman), who is well-cultivated and who does not become irritated when others misunderstand you?”35

This theme of friends appears right in the opening statement of the Analects, highlighting the importance of friendship. Not only that: the context also provides a footnote to what a friendship entails, which is that friendship is part of Confucian ethics. To be a consummate (ren) person, one needs to be well-educated, have friends, and know how to interact with others. In the previous section, we approached the meaning of ‘friend’ and ‘friendship’ from a historical and etymological perspective. In this section, we will focus on the analysis of the relationship between friendship and Confucian role ethics.

In Confucian ethics, individuals are never defined by the self alone, but by the individual’s various roles in relation to others around them, with whom the self is conceived as being in a fundamental relationship of solidarity—starting from his kin, and extending to non-kin friendship.

Confucius says:

If a superior man is reverential without fail, and is respectful in dealing with others and follows the rules of propriety, then all men within the four seas are his brothers.36

A man of humanity loves others. A man of propriety respects others. He who loves others is always loved by others, and he who respects others is always respected by others.37

This emphasis on the relationships between people entails the importance of family, bound by blood, and, by extension, of friends. So in one sense, the notion of friendship in Chinese culture is similar to the classical Greek term philia in its meaning of ‘state of nearness and dearness,’ or simply being ‘dear ones’ by virtue of blood ties, both literally and symbolically.38 In Chinese culture, friendship takes one step further, though it not only refers to the awareness of the dear relationship, but also means cultivating this relationship in daily conduct based on Confucian ren ethics. “Never do to others what you would not like them to do to you.”39 “Respect your old family members, and extend that to other older people, look after your own children, and extend that care to others’ children, then all under the heaven can be under the control of your palm.”40 From his stance of universal love, Mozi also sees the importance of familial relationships: “the elder brother must be friendly and the younger brother must be respectful.”41

As we have seen above, to be ren, one needs to achieve propriety in one’s role and relations. But how? Since one is in solidarity with a collectivity with which one identifies one’s self, one needs to abide by what is considered morally right by the people around him. Confucian role ethics emphasizes the proper conduct of a gentleman: taking position without transgression.

In the Analects, for example, he identifies three types of friends:

There are three sorts of friends that are helpful, and three sorts that are harmful. Friendship with the upright, with the trust-worthy, and the learned is helpful, while that with the obsequious, the double-faced, and those who use cunning words is harmful.42

One of the three things Confucius advised his students to check everyday is to see whether they are sincere towards their friends.43 Xunzi (ca. 310–220 bce) also said, “He who correctly criticizes me is my teacher; he who correctly praises me is my friend; he who flatters me is my foe.”44
According to Confucius, to do things properly requires first of all getting the right names for things. As he puts it: “When names are not appropriate, then words are not in accord; when words are not in accord, things will not be accomplished.”45 Getting names right preconditions the right order of things, and proper position of and relation between people, without which there will be confusion and chaos. Some of the ideas of the School of Names46 are consistent with Confucian role ethics. See for instance what Yin Wenzi, one of the dialecticians of the School, writes:

When there is complete order without deficiencies, the great and small, the many and few, are each appropriately placed according to their distinctions. Farmers, merchants, artisans and officers do not change their occupations. Veteran farmers, established merchants, skilled artisans and experienced officials all retain their roles. What, then, is left for the ruler to do?47

Similar ideas are also found in Daoist (also known as Taoist) philosophy, which along with Confucianism are the two great indigenous Chinese philosophical traditions. In place of the Confucian concern for things worldly and human, Daoist philosophy holds out a vision of other, transcendental worlds of the spirit. It values living in harmony, following the Dao (or Tao), the cosmic force that is the source of life/being, the governor of all life, human and natural. Its ethics include emphasis on nature, spontaneity, moderation as well as wu wei (non-action). Despite differences in world-view, Daoist and Confucian philosophies somehow reach—albeit through different routes—the same goal: all things under the heaven fall into their appropriate places. The following statements in Zhuangzi (fourth century bce) can serve as an illustration:

When speech is seen through the point of Dao, the name of the sovereign of the world becomes correct. When functions and ranks are seen through Dao, the distinction between the ruler and his ministers becomes clear. When ability is seen through Dao, the offices of empires become regulated. When all things in general are seen through Dao, the response of things to each other becomes complete.48

One key to the correct appreciation of one’s place in the world is Guo Xiang’s (252–312 ce) concept of fen, meaning ‘role.’ In his commentary on the text of Zhuangzi49 Guo Xiang employs the idea of qi, ‘vital energy/essence’ to explain the manner in which the Dao imbues the world with life-giving force.50 The proper functioning of the world and the personal happiness of the people in it is maintained by the correct appreciation of one’s place. In the same way that the body has hands, feet, and head that each have their own roles according to their different endowments, so the world functions best when people act according to their proper fen (the role one must maintain within the system).
This idea finds a ready echo in Mencius (372–289 bce):

There are people who work with their brain; there are also those who work with their hands. Those who work with their brain manage others, while those who work with their hands are managed by others. Those who are managed by others provide for others, and those who manage others are provided by others. This is the universal principle.51

What is clear is that in Confucian ethics the family is regarded as the basic social unit; just as each member of a family has a role in a family, each member of a society has a role in that society. One does not exist in isolation—things only work when people perform their respective roles properly in relation to others. This implies that one not only needs to do one’s best, but that one should be equally able to reflect and place oneself in the position of the other. This, then, is the morality of pre-modern China: collectively accepted values that advocate collaborative growth in relations.

Family feelings thus play a significant role in moral order. What is interesting is that behind the question of morality lurks the image of a conflicted Confucian, who is often torn between feelings of affectionate attachment and a social concern with what is considered lawfully right. While Confucius always teaches his disciples to do the right thing, his statements can at times leave others utterly puzzled. This dilemma between moral and jural domains has vexed many literati. In Confucian ethics, justice is not based on impartiality, but on specific relations that locate people in a family. Impartiality is only one way to conceptualize moral conduct. Relational and contextual judgment of appropriateness can play a more important role under certain circumstances. Sometimes affectionate attachment even overrides morality.

The following two stories form a striking contrast. Lü’s Spring and Autumn Annals (Lüshi chunqiu) by Lü Buwei, compiled ca. 239 bce, records a significant story in the chapter “Qusi” (Abandoning selfishness):

Fu Tun was a Mohist leader in the State of Qin. When his son murdered someone, the ruler ordered him to be spared capital punishment because he was Fu Tun’s only son, and Fu Tun was too old to beget another child. Fu answered that the law should be carried out as it would prevent others injuring and killing.52

Here, as the title of this chapter suggests, Fu upholds impartiality and places public morality and law above his personal strong love and attachment. What did Confucius say in a similar situation?

In the Analects the Governor of She in conversation with Confucius said: “In our village there is a ‘True Goody-goody.’ When his father took a sheep on the sly, he reported him to the authorities.” Confucius replied, “Those who are true in my village conduct themselves differently. A father will cover for his son, and a son will cover for his father. And being ‘true’ lies in doing so.”53

Here Confucius has dropped his public persona and put on his private one, allowing affectionate attachment or personal feelings/bonds to take the upper hand, because this is considered the appropriate solution given the particular circumstance—a relationship between father and son.
A relationship of ‘ren,’ therefore, is deeply rooted in family solidarity. “It is a fundamental ethical orientation involving human attitudes, emotions and values that reflect the meaning and significance of modes of conduct and relationships.”54 Indeed, kith and kin as the defining feature is already reflected in the Book of Odes (Shijing), the oldest existing collection of Chinese poetry dating back to the eleventh to seventh centuries bce. Three songs are cited in Daxue:

The Odes says: “The peach tree—how fresh and young, how green and luxuriant its leaves. The young girl goes off to get married and brings goodness to her household.” If one can bring goodness to the members of one’s household, one can teach the people of the state.

The Odes says: “Let the relations between older and younger brothers be as they should be,” and subsequently there can be teaching of the people of the state.

The Odes says: “His demeanor is without blemish; he sets the right example for states on all sides.” Let him be an adequate model as a father, a son, an older and younger brother. Subsequently people will model themselves on him.55

Good friends are like brothers, sharing the same blood and qi. In addition, however, they share the same interest as they usually received the same teaching, as shown by the second definition of ‘friend’: “to be educated by the same master.” Cultivating friendship is part of self-cultivation; it is always associated with learning in company, and shared literary/artistic interests, as explicitly stated in the Liji: “Learning alone without friends, one remains ignorant and ill-informed.”56 Confucius says: “Junzi (gentlemen) make friends through studying classical cannons, and facilitate ren by making friends.”57

Friends can deeply influence one another, just as correlating one’s conduct with those who are close is the right approach to becoming ren.58 Confucius sees the environment and the companion as highly important influences. This is why the story goes that Mengzi’s mother moved house three times in order to find a better neighborhood for her children’s upbringing. Confucius also advised his disciples to make worthy friends, someone like a teacher whom one wants to emulate and learn from. “Don’t make friends with anyone who is not as good as you.”59 “Walking in the company of two, one is bound to find a teacher among them. Find what is good and follow it, find the weakness, check against it and make changes accordingly.”60

Daoists speak about friends too. In Chapter 6 of Zhuangzi,61 four men—Zisi, Ziyu, Zili, and Zilai—agreed that “we only make friends with him who can take wu (nothingness) as his head, take sheng (life) as his backbone, and si (death) as his rump, and who can understand that birth and death, existence and disappearance are infused in one body.” Later in the same chapter, Zisang Hu, Meng Zifan and Ziqin Zhang decide they could make friends with those who befriend each other without searching for utility: those who help each other without leaving any trace, and who can roam amongst clouds, forgetting about life and death till infinity.62

In this understanding of friendship, Confucian ethics are not that different from Daoist beliefs, although they are from different realms. While Daoists interpret life from a metaphysical point of view. Confucius says: “Heaven has condemned me to the conventional realm.” Confucius admits that such limitations characterize his own understanding and evaluation, and he also strives for dao, the way. Similarly, li as cultivated by a ren person,63 is actually also reflected in Daoist philosophy, as shown by the many quotations from Confucius in Zhuangzi:

Confucius said: “As fish thrive in water, so men thrive in Dao. That which thrives in water gets nourishment from the pond; that which thrives in Dao does nothing and stays tranquil. Therefore it is said ‘As fish forget everything in rivers and lakes, so men forget everything in Dao.’”64

In Chapter 20 of Zhuangzi, again one finds a story on Confucius asking for advice from Zisang Hu. Through the mouth of Zisang Hu, Zhuangzi advocates the friendship of junzi—which is plain, pure and long lasting, like water, and free from the profit-seeking xiaoren.65

This junzi-type of friendship tunes in well with Confucian ethics, embodied in the story below. During the Tang dynasty (618–907 ce) someone by the name of Xue from a humble background became a General, and when he was conferred this title by the emperor, many visitors came to see him. They offered him many precious gifts, which he all rejected, but happily accepted two jars of plain water from a poor old man who used to help him during his difficult times.

The popular expression “the friendship between junzi is as plain as water,” which is still used today, derives from this story. It is considered a virtue not to forget the old friends one made when one was still poor and humble.66

In Confucian ethics the importance of regulating one’s household is well-explicated in The Great Learning, Daxue (one of the Four Books compiled by Zhu Xi, 1130–1200 ce),67 one of the most influential Confucian canonical texts:

What is meant by the saying, “to bring good order to a state one has to first regulate the household” is this: Nobody can teach others, if he cannot teach his own household. Therefore, the noble man does not leave his household and yet accomplishes his teaching in the state. Filial piety is the way to serve the prince. Fraternal respect is the way to serve elders. Parental compassion is the way to act towards the multitude…There has never been a man who did not embody the principle of reciprocity (shu) in himself and yet could expect others to follow him. Therefore, bringing good order to a state lies in regulating the household.68

Friendship and Literati Tradition

Social groups and clubs formed by literati, usually men sharing the same interest and taste, flourished in ancient China. Within these groups, there was an approximate equivalence in economic and social terms. Literati friendship was cultivated by a group of Confucian scholars to whom self-worth was important. Literary writing or painting became the medium through which this type of friendship was cultivated.

Confucian interpretation of friendship is based on virtue and duty—and, by and large, friendship between the scholar officials is that “of men who are good, and alike in excellence” (to borrow Aristotle’s words):69 they usually enjoy each other’s character and share the same values and aspirations. Even while searching for solace in nature and in good company, Chinese literati are still constantly reminded of Confucian ren ethics, as illustrated by Han Yu’s (768–824) travel piece “The Pavilion of Joyous Feasts” (Yanxiting ji).70 Nature is presented as the sublime stage of the Noble Man’s purposeful activity. Each of the elements symbolizes an aspect of perfected character brought into harmonious balance with totality. He names the building “the Pavilion of Joyous Feasts,” alluding to a line in the Book of Songs (Shijing): “Marquis of Lu, joyous feasts,” praising the Marquis as an exemplary Confucian official; the pond “the Pond of the Noble Man”; other names include: “the Spring of Heaven’s Beneficence,” “the Hill of Patient Virtue,” “the Valley of Humble Acceptance,” and “Regulated Falls,” all resonant with Confucian ideals.71 For those literati, an ideal way to achieve propriety in their roles and relationships is through self-cultivation—aestheticizing the human experience. This could be a lifelong pursuit—as Confucius himself says: “I was determined to learn from the age of fifteen.”72 Such learning is primarily about practicing ren, yi, li and zhi (wisdom), including cultivating one’s refined interests in poetry, music and art.

Friendship between those scholar officials, however, can (in Aristotelian terms) sometimes be based on ‘utility’ as well, since nominations and recommendations are part of the civil examination process. Connections are very important for career advancement. Scholar officials, even when well-versed and talented, often find their talents unappreciated, themselves in a capricious and even perilous situation, so they need friendship for protection. A strong relationship could be cemented by mutual agreement—without a material equivalence—only a moral one. Protection, favor and influence are given in return for service, fidelity and prestige, a typical form of patronage. The literati relied on the friendship and advice they found in their associations and clubs, in order to navigate successfully through their bureaucratic careers. To them, real friendship goes beyond tangible assistance or help to embrace intellectual and emotional understanding, support and guidance.

The fact that those scholar officials sympathize with each other’s frustrations and disappointments, and appreciate each other’s talents and interests, makes their friendship one ‘of pleasure’—they enjoy each other’s company, indulgence in art and literature, drinking, composing poems, painting, playing music, and chess. And thus literati tradition contributed to the strong and enduring relationship called pengyou. Turning the pages of Chinese history, one sees a whole repertoire of descriptions and images of brotherhood archetypes and friendship that tap into thousands of years of Chinese literary tradition.

In one of the four great novels of pre-modern China, Romance of the Three Kingdoms (traditionally attributed to Luo Guanzhong of the fourth century), Liu Bei describes friends as indispensable as one’s limbs (while one’s wife can be replaced like clothing). The first chapter of this novel vividly portrays the dramatic scene of the ritual in the Peach Garden of sworn brotherhood by Liu Bei, Guan Yu and Zhang Fei—“The three brothers of the Peach Garden” was to remain a household name for centuries to come. They vowed: “We dare not hope to be together always, but hereby vow to die the same day. Let shining Heaven above and the fruitful land below bear witness to our resolve. May heaven and man scourge whoever fails this vow.”77

Significantly, each of the three brothers epitomizes Confucian values: Liu Bei represents primarily ren (loving, caring), Guan Yu represents yi (loyalty and righteousness), while Zhang Fei represents yong (bravery). Some other characters also reflect Confucian virtue, such as Lu Su representing li (propriety), and Zhuge Liang representing zhi (wisdom).

Friends that really understand each other and appreciate each other’s value represent the most protean concept of friendship in the Chinese cultural imagery. Hence the high recurrence of the following terms in Chinese literary writing: zhiji 知己 (someone who understands you—a bosom friend), zhixin 知心 (someone who knows your heart), zhiyin 知音 (someone who understands the tune—a perceptive friend).

In Chinese culture blood-brotherhood and bond-brotherhood (or pseudo-kin relationships) overlap: sworn brothers are treasured as blood brothers. People greatly treasure their friends and are ready to die for them. “A gentleman dies for the one who appreciates him” is the theme that runs through the Biographies of Assassins in the Records of the Grand Historian by Sima Qian (145 or 135–86 bce).73 In the Biography of Guan and Yan, the friendship between Guan Zhong and Bao Shuya has perpetuated in Chinese history as an ideal example of zhiji. Guan says: “Those who gave birth to me are my parents, the one who really understands me is Bao.”74The Annuals of the Spring and Autumn records a story of Yu Boya—a zither player, and his best listener, or zhiyin, Zhong Ziqi.75 As legend goes, when Zhong passed away, Yu was in deep grief and broke his zither, as he believed nobody else would be able to understand his music. Recognizing another’s true value and aspirations, or having sympathetic resonances, has become the chief metaphor for friendship.

When Yan Hui, one of Confucius’ favourite protégés, died, Confucius was grief-stricken, as recorded in Analects: “When Yan Yuan died, Confucius wept bitterly, his followers said ‘You were so overcome with grief.’ Confucius replied, “I’m overcome with grief? If I don’t feel grief for him, for whom then?”76

In Chinese literature, writing on friendship is abundant. Below are just a few lines taken from works that span thousands of years, yet still share the same discourse—zhi ji, zhi xin, and zhi yin.

In making friends, the important issue is to know each other. In knowing each other, it is important to know the heart. (zhi xin 知心)

From Mengzi78 by Mencius (372–289 bce)

No sorrow is greater than parting never to meet again,

No happiness is greater than having a new bosom friend (xin zhi 新知)

From the Nine Songs79 by Qu Yuan (340–278 bce)

When you have bosom friends within the seas, (zhi ji 知己)

The remotest corner of the earth seems so close.

From Farewell to Vice-Prefect Du80 by Wang Bo (ca. 649–ca. 676 ce)

That you’re not assigned an official role is only temporary,

Don’t say that there’re few who knows and appreciate you. (知音)

From Farewell to Ji Muqian who is returning home after failing the Civil service examination by Wang Wei (699–759)

Ten thousand liang of gold is easy to obtain,

Bosom friends, even a single one is hard to find. (zhi xin 知心)

From The Dream of the Red Chamber by Cao Xueqin (ca. 1715–ca. 1763).81

During the Song Dynasty, scholar officials, whose careers were interspersed with periods of service and withdrawal or exile, often found themselves strangers in places far away from family and home. They needed friends to share their feelings of homesickness, nostalgia, frustration, disappointment, sorrow or pain. Whether on forced or on self-imposed exiles, they either travelled or gathered together, while also responding to each other’s writing or painting: hence the proliferation of writing and painting. The scholar officials thus played an instrumental role in consolidating the ren friendship while shaping the paradigm of Chinese literary narrative.

Their writings open up a window through which we see their ideals and aspirations, as well as lost hopes and shattered dreams we see, however, above all, their dilemmas and their quests for solutions—that were by no means homogeneous. Some, despite repeated setbacks, remained steadfast to the Confucian ideals of social service and obligation, always hoping to return to office. Others, totally disillusioned, found refuge in Daoist and Buddhist ideas, as well as solace in nature. Some remained proud and aloof, viewing the world with nonchalance or even disdain. Still others chose to enjoy the leisurely and comfortable ambiance, indulging themselves in the aesthetic pursuit of poetry and art as part of the literati’s self-cultivation. Nevertheless, they had one thing in common: all needed friends to share their experiences and their feelings.

Wang Wei (699–759), one of the greatest nature poets, managed to alternate between his service in court and a secluded life within his own estate in Lantian by the Wang Stream, where he wrote many poems on landscape and travel. In “A Letter from the Mountains to the Cultured Talent Pei Di” (Shanzhong yu xiucai Pei Di shu), for instance, after vividly depicting the beautiful surroundings with a lyric sensibility, he ends the letter with an invitation to Pei Di to travel with him in springtime: “Can you travel with me? Aren’t you someone who is endowed with a pure and remarkable character? Could I ever invite you to enjoy such leisurely pursuits?”82

Liu Zongyuan’s Eight Pieces from Yong Prefecture (Yongzhou ba ji, 809–812) is regarded as one of the earliest masterpieces of lyric travel accounts in Chinese history. The eight travel pieces were written during the nine years when Liu (773–819) was demoted to Yong Prefecture (present-day Lingling in Hunan Province). Though he was only a vice-prefect, the position gave him a good opportunity to travel through the area. In “My First Excursion to West Mountain” (Shi de xishan yanyou ji), one of the eight travel pieces, he writes:

I have been in a state of constant fear ever since my exile to this prefecture. Whenever I had time, I would roam about without aim. I would ramble through the mountains with friends with similar fates. We would walk deep into the forests and trace the meandering streams to their source. No place was too far for us.83

Liu went on to say that when they reached a place, they would drink till drunk, fall asleep, and then start dreaming. Drinking is one of the favourite pastimes for literati scholars; wine gave them inspiration and offered them an outlet for their emotions. More importantly, when drunk, they could free themselves from official duties and other worldly worries, as Wang Wei writes about his friend Pei Di in his “Retirement at Wangchuan” (Wangchuan xianju zeng Pei xiucai Di):

The sun is setting down at the quay,

A wisp of smoke from village arises

You’re just like crazy Jieyu, drunk,

Chanting wildly before the five willow trees.84

Here, Wang Wei uses two allusions: Jieyu of the State of Chu (ca. 1030–223 bce) feigned craziness to avoid service in the government; “Five Willows” was a name of an imaginary hermit that the poet Tao Yuanming (365–427) created in one of his pieces. It is so named because Tao Yuanming planted five willows by his dwelling.

The interactions and collaborations between poets, artists and other scholars thus facilitated the aesthetically integrated creation of Chinese literature and art. The painting below is a vivid portrait of a happy gathering organized by Song Dynasty scholar Wang Shen (1037–ca. 1093) at his place of some sixteen eminent poets and artists, including: Su Shi (1037–1101), Su Zhe (1039–1112), Huang Tingjian (1045–1105), Mi Fu (1051–1107), Qin Guan (1049–ca. 1100), Chao Buzhi (1053–1110), Zhang Lei (1054–1114), and even a Buddhist and a Daoist priest. They are all engaged in interactive literary and artistic activities: painting, writing poems or lyrics, composing and singing songs, playing zither…all impromptu, responsive and spontaneous, yet revealing profound erudition and refined taste. Wang Shen invited a well-known artist Li Gonglin (1049–1106) to paint the occasion. The painting was called “The gathering of aesthetic inclinations at the Western Garden” (Xiyuan ya ji tu). Although Li’s original painting was lost long ago, some of the copies made by many other artists throughout history survived, such as the one below attributed to Song artist Ma Yuan (1190–1279).

Figure 1.1
Figure 1.1

Attributed to Ma Yuan (active before 1190-after 1225). Composing Poetry on a Spring Outing (detail), Southern Song Dynasty (1127–1279).85

Courtesy The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, USA

Like-minded scholars were thus bonded together. “If two men are one in heart, mountains and oceans cannot keep them apart. If two men do not share common ideals, there will be a great distance between them though they stand side by side. That is why some people travel across mountains and waters to meet and others never make contact even when staying together.”86 In the Book of Changes, one can also find similar ideas: “When two people are in one heart, their strength can sever gold.”87

Still, there is yet another dimension to literati friendship—their relationship with women. Throughout the history of ancient Chinese literature, there are tales about happy romances and congenial couples, as well as images of beautiful, talented, and docile women, with whom frustrated scholars rest at an inn after long and hard journeys, which provided them with a shelter from wild wind and waves, and a home to indulge in warmth and love… Indeed some of these women become scholars’ favourite companions and confidants. Zhaoyun, Su Shi’s beloved concubine, constitutes an example of this situation. Despite the harsh conditions of Hainan Island, Zhaoyun accompanied Su Shi all the way to his exile, giving him comfort and support. Su Shi adored her, exalting her as a goddess.

Unfortunately, there are far more tragedies than happy stories. The constant travel of scholar officials also resulted in more separations, more estranged relationships, more extramarital affairs and more abandoned women. Each of these cases gives Chinese literati—especially the women in their circles—endless sorrow and pain. Qin Guan, for instance, uses the image of forever-growing grasses to express his long lasting sadness after parting with his lover in his lyric Baliuzi (To the Tune ‘Eight and Six’):

Leaning against the railings of the high pavilion,

The parting sorrow is just like fragrant grasses,

When the lush and green are destroyed, they’ll keep growing.88

The tragic love story between poet Lu You (1125–1210 ce) and his wife Tang Wan, also a poet, is recorded on the walls of the Shen Family Garden in Shaoxing, Zhejiang Province. Lu You and his cousin Tang Wan loved each other so much that they decided to marry. However, Lu’s mother did not like her daughter-in-law and forced them to divorce, after which each of them subsequently remarried. Years later when Lu You was visiting the Shen Garden, he had a chance encounter with Tang Wan, who was also touring the place with her new husband. The sight struck a tender chord in Lu You’s heart, and he wrote a lyric on the wall, expressing his deep regret and profound sadness. In response Tang Wan also wrote a lyric next to it, using the same tune title: Chai tou feng (To the Tune ‘Phoenix hairpin’), echoing the heart-wrenching emotions. Not long after that, Tang Wan died of grief, which left a deep scar in Lu You’s heart. He would often go back to the Garden in the next 40 years, and composed many other lyrics in memory of Tang Wan.
While Lu and Tang were deprived of the right to pursue their own happiness, some female poets could not escape the tragic plight of Chinese women—abandoned by the men they loved. In the following lyric (Yulouchun: To the Tune ‘Jade tower spring’), Yan Shu (991–1055) assumes a female persona, as was a convention of Song lyrics:

Green willow, fragrant grasses, and travellers’ pavilion,

The young man abandons me, and leaves with a light feeling.

The end of the sky and cape of land have their limits,

Only my pining for love is boundless.89

If the voice in the lyric above is general and stereotyped, we can hear a very personal and distinctive voice of a woman thwarted in love in lyrics by Li Qingzhao (1084–1151?), arguably the most important Chinese poetess of all time. Take her Fenghuangtai shang yichui xiao (To the Tune ‘Playing flute recalled on Phoenix Terrace’), for instance. The poet’s helplessness and pain are intensified by the two allusions in the second stanza: “Wuling person,” and “Qin tower”—both referring to man’s relationships with other women:

Be done, be done!

He is going,

Even a thousand renditions of Yangguan,

Could not stop him.

I think of the Wuling person far away,

And the mist encasing the Qin tower.

Only the flowing water in front of my chamber,

Remembers my earnest gazing all day long.

Where my earnest gazing stops,

Now adds,

A new chapter of sorrow.90

The enforced separation due to war, natural calamity and political office was a frequent trial borne by Chinese families and friends, and hence the pathos of leave-taking between husband and wife, between courtesans and patrons, has been constantly evoked. However, a close study shows that very few of Li Qingzhao’s lyrics are in fact about parting sorrows alone; most of her lyrics—even those written during her earlier life—are also emotionally much more complex and painful. The plaintive mood that permeates many of the lyrics written before her husband’s (Zhao Mingcheng, a scholar official) death contrasts with her supposedly happy life then, suggesting a relationship that was not as perfect as generally portrayed. The speculation of conjugal infidelity on the part of her husband, a National University student, was not entirely groundless, if we take into consideration the historical and social background of their time, as Dorothy Ko observes:

The successful candidates in the Tang dynasty, the Presented Scholars, brought their entourage to celebrations in the pleasure quarters in the capital city. The National University students of the Song dynasty, too, were not unfamiliar with ways of the trade… The consolidation of the examination as the sole channel to a bureaucratic career and hence formal political power in the Southern Song engendered a symbiotic relationship between the literati and courtesan culture. The candidate’s political dominance elevated the social standing of the courtesan, an integral part of the candidate’s rites of passage to elite manhood and his eventual prize to claim.91

Another thing that scholar officials have in common: they all have to go through trials and tribulations in order to pass the civil service examination followed by official posts far away from home, and then periods of banishment and exile. All this made friendship all the more important to them. Insomuch as travel caused pain, women left behind endured no less—perhaps even more—than literati whose journeys left a trail of inflictions on those forlorn and forsaken hearts.


Zengzi says:

I examine myself three times daily: Have I done something unfaithful to others? Have I done something insincere to my friends? Have I reviewed what I have been taught?92

The importance of friends and friendship in Confucian ethics is evident from the inclusion of this quotation in the first chapter of the Analects.

In this chapter, I have argued that friendship plays a vital role in Confucian ethics. Friendship is part of the narrative and morality particular of Chinese people, which was influenced as well as enriched by the literati tradition. Friendship was always appreciated in terms of the models based on Confucian family relations. By adopting a multi-dimensional approach—etymological, historical, philosophical, as well as literary—this study sheds some new light on the issue of friendship and its cultural applications and paradigms in China’s long history. Chinese people tend to approach their own circumstances as bearers of a particular social identity—starting from family relations. A ren friend should be first of all a ren person; and a ren person should be ideally a junzi, who is both a moral character with a strong sense of responsibility and a cultivated scholar with a fine taste of literature and art.

Indeed, ren friendship and reciprocity entail a whole range of contexts of human existence, from family to civic and then to cosmic settings. In Chinese culture, friendship partakes of the nature of kinship, a relationship founded upon sentiment as well as obligations or duties. There is no abstract or solitary self; only a duty-bearing, social self. According to Confucian ethics, universal friendship will only be achieved if there is a loving relationship between family members as a starting point. When there is ren relationship in a family, the family will be well regulated; when all families are well regulated, the state will be in good order, and consequently everything under heaven will be in good order as well, just as Mencius puts it: “Love for one’s parents is ren; respecting one’s elders is yi; what is left to be done is simply the extension of these to the whole Empire.”93 And when the empire is in good order, all under the heaven will be in good harmony as well.

Family and friendship bonds do change under radically new conditions. Even in China, as Fischer observes: “relationships changed significantly when a market economy rose to replace Maoist command economy.”94 Are there any values of the past that are still relevant today? Where do we find them, and why have they survived through time? How can we translate Eastern values into our Western lifestyles, or vice-versa? Can we adapt our understanding of friendship into the new era? Such questions are still worth pondering.

Chinese Sources

  • An Xiaolan 安小蘭 Xunzi 荀子 [Xunzi]. Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 2007.

  • Cao Pi 曹丕。 “Lun Wen” 論文 [A discourse on literature]. In Sibu beiyao 四部備要. Shanghai: Zhonghua shuju 192735.

  • Cao Xueqin 曹學芹. Honglou meng 紅樓夢 [The dream of the red chamber]. Beijing: Renmin wenxue chubanshe, 1972.

  • Chen Jiru. “Youlun xiaoxu” [Preface to on Friendship]. In Li Madou Zhong wen zhu yi ji 利瑪竇中文注譯集 [Collected works of Li Madou Matteo Ricci in Chinese], ed. Zhu Weizhen 朱維錚 et al.. Shanghai: Fudan University Press, 2001.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Duan Yucai 段玉裁 Shuowen jiezi zhu 說文解字注 [Commentary on Explaining Graphs and Analyzing Characters]. Shanghai: Shanghai guji chubanshe, 1981.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Fang Tao方韬. Shanhai jing 山海經注释 [Translation and Annotation of the Classic of Mountains and Seas].Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 2009.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Ge Hong 葛洪. Baopuzi 抱朴子 [Baopuzi] in Sibu beiyao 四部備要. Shanghai: Zhongguo shuju, 192736.

  • Guo Qingfan 郭慶藩 Zhuangzi jishi. 莊子集釋 [Collected commentaries on Zhuangzi]. Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 2006.

  • Guoxue zhengli she 國學整理社 Lüshi chunqiu 呂氏春秋 [Spring and Autumn of Master Lü] in Zhuzi jicheng 諸子集成 [A collection of works of Scholars]. vol. 6. Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 2006.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Huang Shouqi 黃寿奇, Zhang Shanwen 張善文 Zhouyi yizhu.《周易譯注》 [Translation and Commentary on Zhouyi]. Shanghai: Shanghai guji chubanshe, 2004.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Jin Xingyao, 金性堯Tang shi sanbaishou xinzhu 《唐詩三百首新注》(New commentary on ‘Three Hundred Poems of the Tang’) Shanghai: Shanghai guji chubanshe, 1980.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Kong Yingda 孔穎達 Zhouyi zhengyi 周易正義 [The correct meaning of Zhouyi] in Sibu jingyao 四部精要 [The quintessential parts of the four bibliographic categories] Shanghai: Shanghai guji chubanshe, 1993.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Li Shenglong, ed. 李生龍 Xinyi Mozi Duben. 新譯墨子讀本 [A New translation of Mozi] Taibei: Sanmin shuju, 1996.

  • Liu Yiqing 劉義慶. Zhang Wanqi and Liu Shangci eds. 張萬起 劉尚慈 “Xian yuan” 賢媛 [Worthy Beauties]. In Shi shuo xin yu 世說新語 [New Account of Tales of the World]. Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1998.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Qian Xizuo 钱熙祚 Yin Wenzi 尹文子 [Yin Wenzi in Sibu beiyao]. Shanghai: Zhonghua shuju, 192736.

  • Ruan Yuan ed. 阮元. Shisan jing zhushu 十三經注疏 [Annotated thirteen classics]. Shanghai guji chubanshe, 1990.

  • Shujing 書經 [Book of Documents / Book of History] 5 (Zhoushu) 21:1. Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 2005.

  • Sibu beiyao 四部備要. Shanghai: Zhonghua shuju 192735.

  • Sima Qian 司馬遷 Shiji 史記 [Records of the Grand Historian] 86 [Cike liezhuan], vol. 8. Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1978.

  • Tang Guizhang ed. 唐圭章, Quan Song ci 全宋詞 [A Complete Collection of Ci-Poetry in Song Dynasty]. Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1965.

  • Wang Wei 王维. Song Qi Wuqian luodi huanxiang 送綦毋潜落第还乡 [Farewell to Qi Wuqian who’s going back home having failed the Civil Service Exam] in Quan Tang shi 全唐詩 [A Complete collection of Shi-Poetry in Tang Dynasty]. Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1979.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Wang Zhonglin 王忠林. Xinyi Xunzi Duben [A New translation of Xunzi]. Taibei: Sanmin shuju, 1998.

  • Wu Wenzhi ed. 吳文治 Liu Zongyuan ji 柳宗元集 [Collected Works of Liu Zongyuan]. Beijing, Zhongua shuju: 1979.

  • Xu Fuguan 徐復觀. “Zhongguo wenxue zhong de qi de wenti” 中國文學中氣的問題 [The issue of Qi in Chinese Literature]. In Zhongguo wenxue lunji 中國文學論集 [Collected essays on Chinese literature]. Taizhong: Zhongyang shuju, 1966, 297349.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Xuanzong 玄宗 & Xing Bing 邢苪 Xiaojing zhusu 孝經注疏 [Commentaries and notes on the Classic of Filial Piety] in Ruan Yuan, Shisanjing zhushu, Beijing: Zhonghua shuju 1980.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Yan Zhitui 颜之推. Yanshi Jiaxun 颜氏家训 [Teachings of the Yan Family]. 7 vol., edited by Cheng Xiaoming. Guiyang: Guizhou remin chubanshe, 1983.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Yang Bojun 杨伯峻 Lunyu yizhu 論語譯注 [Translation and Annotation of the Analects].Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1980.

  • Yang Bojun 杨伯峻 Mengzi yizhu 孟子譯注 [Translation and Annotation of the Mencius].Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1960.

  • Yang Lihua 楊立華. Guo Xiang Zhuangzi zhu yanjiu 郭象《莊子注》研究 (A Study of Guo Xiang’s Commentary on Zhuangzi) Beijing: Beijing University Press, 2010.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Zheng Xuan 鄭玄, Zhouli zhu 周禮注 [Commentary on the Zhouli]. In Zhouli zhushu, 周禮注疏[Commentaries and notes on Zhouli] edited by Peng Lin 彭林. Shanghai: Shanghai guji chubanshe, 2010.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Zhu Xi 朱熹. Chuci jizhu 楚辞集注 [Collected comments on the Songs of the South]. Shanghai: Shanghai guji chubanshe, 1979.

  • Zhu Xi 朱熹 Sishu zhangju jizhu 四書章句集註 [The Four Books in Chapters and Sentences with Collected Commentaries], 2 vols. Shanghai: Shanghai guji chubanshe, 2006.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation


  • Ames Roger T. Confucian Role Ethics: A Vocabulary. Hong Kong: The Chinese University Press, 2011.

  • Ames Roger T., ed. Wandering at Ease in the Zhuangzi. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1998.

  • Aristotle. The Complete Works of Aristotle. The Revised Oxford Translation. Edited by Jonathan Barnes. 2 vols. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press 1984.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Birrell Anne, trans. The Classic of Mountains and Seas. London: Penguin, 2000.

  • Chong Kim-Chong. Early Confucian Ethics. Chicago / Peru, IL: Carus Publishing Company, 2007.

  • Else Gerald F. Aristotle’s Poetics: The Argument. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1957.

  • Fischer Claude S. Still Connected: Family and Friends in America since 1970. New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2011.

  • Hawkes David. trans. Ch’u Tz’u: The Songs of the South. New York: Oxford University Press, 1962.

  • Heinaman Robert E., ed. Plato and Aristotle’s Ethics. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2003.

  • Huang Martin W. ed. Male Friendship in Ming China. Leiden: Brill, 2007.

  • Huang Martin W.Male Friendship in Ming China: An Introduction.” Nan Nü 9 (2007): 233.

  • Johnston Ian. The Mozi: A Complete Translation. New York: Columbia University Press. 2010, 2–33.

  • Johnston Ian, and Ping Wang. Daxue & Zhongyong. Bilingual Edition. Hong Kong: The Chinese University Press, 2012.

  • Jones John. On Aristotle and Greek Tragedy. London: Chatto & Windus, 1962.

  • Ko Dorothy. “The Written Word and the Bound Foot: A History of the Courtesan’s Aura.” In Writing Women in Late Imperial China, edited by Ellen Widmer and Kang-i Sun Chang. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997, 74100.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Nylan Michael, and Michael Loewe, ed. China’s Early Empires: A Re-appraisal. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

  • Pollard David. “Ch’i (Qi) in Chinese Literary Theory.” In Chinese Approaches to Chinese Literature: From Confucius to Liang Ch’i-ch’ao, edited by Adele Austin Rickett. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1978, 4366.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Ricci Matteo. On Friendship: One Hundred Maxims for a Chinese Prince. Translated by Timothy Billings. New York: Columbia University Press, 2009.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Roberts Moss. Translation of Luo Guanzhong, Three Kingdoms, a Historical Novel (abridged ed.). Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Sandel Michael J. Democracy’s Discontent: America in Search of a Public Philosophy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998.

  • Schollmeier Paul. Other Selves: Aristotle on Personal and Political Friendship. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994.

  • Sedgwick Eve Kosofsky. Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire. New York: Columbia University Press, 1985.

  • Silver Allan. “Friendship in Commercial Society: Eighteenth-Century Social Theory and Modern Sociology.” American Journal of Sociology 95 (1990): 14741504.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Sivin Nathan. Traditional Medicine in Contemporary China. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Center for Chinese Studies, 1987.

  • Strassberg Richard E. A Chinese Bestiary: Strange Creatures from the Guideways through Mountains and Seas. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Strassberg Richard E. Inscribed Landscapes: Travel Writing from Imperial China. Berkeley / Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1994.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Wynne-Jones Tim. The Book of Changes. New York: Orchard Books, 1995. Chinese version published as Yijing, Xici in: Huang Shouqi, Zhang Shanwen, Zhouyi yizhu. Shanghai: Shanghai guji chubanshe, 2004.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Ziporyn Brook. The Penumbra Unbound: The Neo-Taoist Philosophy of Guo Xiang. New York: The State University of New York Press, 2003.


Sandel, Democracy’s Discontent, 342.


Ames, Confucian Role Ethics, 107.


See Lunyu 17:6. Ren is closely related to yi and li, two other most important notions in Confucian ethics. Yi, often translated as righteousness, is the underpinning of the Confucian moral system. It refers to the rightness of an action, which is morally fitting in the circumstances. Like ren and yi, li is a key ethical term in Confucian philosophy. It is often translated as ‘propriety.’ Stemming from ‘rites’ or ‘ritual,’ li refers to the outward adornment of all yi, comprising decorous ceremonies performed in specific settings as well as everyday circumspect behaviors and manners. All these have to be appropriate, through showing respect and courtesy. All these will be further elaborated in the section entitled, “Friendship and Traditional Chinese Philosophy” below.


Zhu Xi (1130–1200) took two texts, the Daxue (The great learning) and the Zhongyong (Doctrine of the mean) from the Liji (Book of rites), and added them to the Lunyu (Analects) and the Mengzi (Mencius) to constitute the Four Books—a compendium of Confucian texts; see Zhu Xi, Sishu zhangju jizhu (The Four Books in Chapters and Sentences). For more details about the Four Books, see Johnston and Wang, Daxue & Zhongyong.


See Mengzi (Mencius) 3A:4.


See Chen Jiru, “Youlun xiaoxu” (“Preface to On Friendship”), 157.


Chinese characters have a history dating back thousands of years. The earliest are oracle bone characters: characters, or rather, symbols carved on bones and shells, some written in mirror reversals. They were written vertically, a column of text moving usually from right to left (which became the traditional writing direction). When the First Emperor unified China in 221 bce, he had his minister standardize Chinese characters by simplifying the great-seal script then in use, and turning it into the orthodox small-seal script, used 221 bce–200 ce, while suppressing variant forms used in other states.


The Book of Changes (Yijing) is one of the oldest Chinese classical texts; its origins trace back to the third and second millennium bce. The book contains a divination system, later interpreted as a system of cosmology and philosophy that subsequently became intrinsic to Chinese culture. For an English version, see Wynne-Jones, The Book of Changes.


See Zhouyi yizhu, Xici A:1.


See his “Male Friendship in Ming China: An Introduction.”


Huang, Male Friendship in Ming China.


Sedgwick, Between Men.


Lunyu 1:2.


Dao, often translated as “way” or “path,” is a term shared by Confucianism, Buddhism and in particular, Daoism—albeit with their respective connotations. Different from the more metaphysical use of the term in Daoist philosophy, Confucian dao is more humanistic in approach; it refers to the general principle of human conduct that is often associated with virtue (de) and loving relationship (ren). See the third section of this chapter, “Friendship and Traditional Chinese Philosophy,” for more about Daoist philosophy.


Lunyu 1:2.


Shujing 5 (Zhoushu) 21:1.


The Cheng brothers—Cheng Yi (1033–1107) and Cheng Hao (1032–1085)—are neo-Confucian philosophers of the Northern Song (960–1126 ce), whose ideas were mostly adopted by Zhu Xi. See Lunyu 1:2 in Zhu Xi, Sishu zhangju ji zhu (The Four Books in Chapters and Sentence with Collected Commentaries).


The first Chinese dictionary arranged by radicles of characters. The book was compiled between 100 and 121 ce by Han Dynasty philologist Xu Shen (ca. 58–ca. 147 ce). It consists of over 9,000 character entries under 540 radicles. The original copy of the book, however, was lost, but fragments of it survived and were used by later scholars before Duan Yucai of the Qing Dynasty compiled his Shuowen jiezi zhu (Commentary on Explaining Graphs and Analyzing Characters).


Xu’s explanation of the origins of the characters was based primarily upon a study of the earlier seal script, yet this seal script differs considerably from the older bronzeware script and even older oracle bone script, both of which were unknown at Xu’s time. That is why some of his explanations were erroneous. This was challenged by some scholars, who suggested that in the case of ‘peng’ it could be an error made by Xu Shen in his Shuowen jiezi. He confused the ancient character ‘朋’ with ‘鳳,’ which looked and sounded similar. See Duan Yucai, Shuowen jiezi zhu 148B.


An anonymous work, written over a period of time (ca. 320 bce–200 ce). It is a book on landscape describing more than 500 mountains and 300 channels, indeed a geographical work in embryonic form, as well as a book of mythology. It contains fables and myths, but also natural features of mountains and seas. For more about this work, see Strassberg, Chinese Bestiary; and Birrell, Classic of Mountains and Seas.


Shuowen jiezi zhu 370A.


Zheng Xuan, Zhouli 2:70.


Shuowen jiezi zhu 116B.


For further explanation on qi and the human body, see Ames, Wandering at Ease in the Zhuangzi, especially Chap. 2; Nylan and Loewe, China’s Early Empires; Sivin, Traditional Medicine. Although different critics have held different views on the functions of qi, it has always remained central to the issue of artistic creativity. The earliest discussion can be found in Cao Pi, “Lunwen” (“A discourse on literature”), 2/2b, where qi is often conceived of as the expression of man’s nature or personality. Later critics, however, tend to associate qi with physiological vigor in the literary or artistic organism. It is the power or impetus that brings to the surface what is in the writer’s or artist’s mind. It is where we find a dynamic flow of life, an effect of empathy and the emotional import of literary works. For more discussions on the issue of qi, see Xu Fuguan, “Zhongguo wenxue zhong de qi de wenti” (“The Issue of Qi in Chinese Literature”). Some Western scholars also explore the notion of qi, and the changes it undergoes throughout its history; see, for example, Pollard, “Ch’i (Qi) in Chinese Literary Theory.”


Junzi is a philosophical term employed in many classical texts, including the Confucian Analects. This term is used to refer to ideal man—a ren person, a well-cultivated person. It is often translated as a ‘noble man,’ ‘superior man’ or ‘gentleman.’ The opposite is xiaoren (小人), often translated as ‘a lesser man,’ a ‘petty-minded’ man, or ‘small man.’


See the explanation of the image ("Xiang") of Dui gua, hexagram 58 of Yijing (The Book of Changes).


See Kong Yingda, Zhouyi zhengyi, 69.


Xiaojing zhushu 1. It is one of the 13 classics edited by Ruan Yuan (1764–1849) collectively called Shisan jing zhushu 十三經注疏 (Commentaries and Notes on the Thirteen Classics). The commentary was done by Emperor Xuanzong (685–762) of the Tang Dynasty, and the annotations by Xing Bing (932–1010) of the Song Dynasty.


Translation from Ames, Confucian Role Ethics, 107. For an illuminating discussion of friendship as a Confucian family-centered ethic, also see ibid., Chap. 3, in particular 114–21.


Ibid., 107.


Ibid., 111.


Yan Zhitui, Yanshi jiaxun 1:16.


Ibid., 1:17.


Ibid., 1:21.


Lunyu 1:1.


Lunyu 12:5.


Mengzi 4B:29.


Aristotle, Poetics 1452a31; Jones (On Aristotle and Greek Tragedy, 58) avoided translating philia as ‘love,’ following Gerard Else (Aristotle’s Poetics, 349), who in his commentary explains that, in this passage, philia “is not ‘friendship’ or ‘love’ or any other feeling, but the objective state of being φίλοι” (philoi) by virtue of blood ties.


Lunyu 15:23.


Mengzi 1A:7.12.


Mozi 16:12. See also Johnston, The Mozi.


Lunyu 16:4.


Lunyu 1:4.


Xunzi 2:1.


Lunyu 13:3.


The “School of names” or “logicians” (míngjiā) was a term applied retrospectively to a group of thinkers active in ancient China between the sixth and third centuries bce. This is a diverse group of dialecticians, including Gongsun Longzi, Yin Wenzi, and Hui Shi.


Yin Wenzi, Dadao shang in Zibu Zhou Qin zhuzi, Sibu beiyao 1A.


Zhuangzi 12:1.


As is generally true of the commentaries on philosophical texts in Chinese intellectual tradition, Guo Xiangs Commentary on the Zhuangzi is also a significant philosophical work in its own right, although the true authorship of the work is still open to controversy. There are a few different versions, the ones from Sibu congkan and Dao Zang being the two most commonly used.


Guo Xiang’s concept of fen is closely related to one’s role/place in the world, which is determined by one’s natural allotment of qi. For more explanation of these concepts, and Guo Xiang’s interpretation of Zhuangzi more generally, see Ziporyn, The Penumbra Unbound, and Yang, Guo Xiang Zhuangzi zhu yanjiu.


Mengzi 3A:4.


(Guoxue zhengli she) Lüshi chunqiu 1:5.


Lunyu 13:18. The translation is borrowed from Roger Ames (Ames 2011). See note 29.


See Chong, Early Confucian Ethics, 126–27.


See Johnston and Wang, Daxue & Zhongyong, 159–61.


Liji 18:8.


Lunyu 12:28.


Lunyu 6:30.


Lunyu 1:8.


Lunyu 7:22.


Zhuangzi is widely considered the most definitive text of Daoist philosophy. Zhuangzi is traditionally credited as the author of at least part of the work.


Zhuangzi 6:5.


For these concepts, see 26–28 with note 3 above.


Zhuangzi 6:5.


Zhuangzi 20:5.


Houhanshu (History of the Later Han) 26, vol. 4, 904.


See note 4 above.


See Johnston and Wang, Daxue & Zhongyong, 159.


Aristotle, Nicomachean EthicsVIII.4, 1156b7–8; trans. Ross-Urmson in Barnes, The Complete Works of Aristotle, II.1827. Aristotle examines three different kinds of friendship—that based on the good (or virtuous friendship), based on pleasure, and based on utility; Nicomachean EthicsVIII.3, 1156a7-1157b5.


Quan Tang wen 557:2495.


See Strassberg, A Chinese Bestiary, 122–24.


Lunyu 2:4.


Luo Guanzhong, trans. Roberts, Three Kingdoms, 9–10.


Sima Qian, Shiji 86 (Cike liezhuan), vol. 8, 2519.


Shiji 62, vol. 7, 2131.


Lüshi chunqiu 14:2.3, also in the biography of Yu Rang in Shiji 86.


Lunyu 11:10.


Mengzi 5B.


Zhu Xi, Chuci jizhu 40.


Tang shi sanbaishou xinzhu 158.


Cao Xueqin, Honglou meng 57, 728.


This letter is included in Wang Youcheng ji (Works of Wang Wei). The English translation is borrowed from Strassberg, A Chinese Bestiary, 114.


Liu Zongyuan ji, vol. 3, 762.


Quan Tang shi 126, vol. 4, 1266.


Handscroll; ink and color on silk, 11 5/8 x 119 inches (29.5 x 302.3 cm). The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri. Purchase: William Rockhill Nelson Trust, 63–19. I am grateful to The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri for their permission to use the image in my article.


Baopuzi: waipian, juan 36 in Zibu Zajia, Sibu beiyao.


Yijing, Xici A:8.


Quan Song ci, vol. 1, 456. This lyric (and a couple more below) is taken from the edition by Tang Guizhang.


Quan Song ci, vol. 1, 108–9.


Quan Song ci, Vol. 2, 928. “Yangguan” refers to a farewell song popular at that time. A well-known poem by Wang Wei, one of the greatest Tang poets, entitled ‘Weicheng qu’ was set to music. The last two lines of the poem read: “Urge you to drink yet another cup of wine, there will be no old friends West of Yangguan” (Quan Tang shi 128, vol. 4, 1306–7).


Ko, “The Written Word and the Bound Foot,” 82.


Lunyu 1:4.


Mengzi 7A:15.


Fischer, Still Connected, 10.