One of the first lines in the Analects of Confucius posits the rhetorical question: “Is it not delightful to have friends coming from distant quarters?” Attributed to the great Chinese thinker Confucius (551-479BC), the text equates the joy one gets from seeing friends who are visiting from afar with the lofty feats of applying what one has learned and being a man of virtue. Recently, good friends from Malaysia visited Hong Kong. Although we don’t see one another very often, being gclose meant that there was no tentativeness in our conversations and the occasional silences were never awkward.
While friendship is the last of the five key human relationships in Confucian ethics – after parents and children, lords and servants, husbands and wives, and siblings – it is celebrated in many stories from China’s past.
One of the most famous pairs of friends in Chinese history were Guan Zhong (died 645BC) and Bao Shuya (died 644BC), who lived in the state of Qi, located in present-day Shandong. The duo went into business together but Guan took home most of the profits even though it was Bao who had forked out the bulk of the capital. Bao’s servants grumbled to Bao about Guan’s avarice, but Bao defended his friend, saying that Guan was poor and had an elderly mother to support.
Later on, the pair joined the army but Guan was always among the first to retreat in the battlefield. Again, Bao defended Guan when the latter was derided for being a coward, saying he had to stay alive to take care of his mother.
Eventually, both men went into the service in the royal house of Qi. They had different masters, however: Guan served Prince Jiu while Bao served Prince Xiaobai. Following the violent deaths of two successive reigning dukes, Qi descended into chaos. To help Jiu become the duke, Guan decided to assassinate his master’s rival Xiaobai. Guan shot an arrow at Xiaobai, but it hit the latter’s belt and he survived.
When Xiaobai later became the duke of Qi, he wanted to appoint his Bao as his chancellor, but Bao declined the offer and recommended his friend Guan instead. “But Guan Zhong tried to kill me!” Xiaobai cried. Bao explained that Guan was more capable than him in all aspects and had made the assassination attempt out of loyalty to his own master. The duke heeded Bao’s advice and appointed Guan, his would-be assassin, as his right-hand man and chancellor.
Thinking back to the previous occasions when Bao had repeatedly come to his defence, Guan said: “While it was my parents who had brought me into this world, the person who knows me best is Bao Shuya.”
And he did not let his friend nor his new master down. As chancellor, Guan launched a series of reforms to make Qi stronger and it soon became the most powerful state in China. Xiaobai, known in history as Duke Huan of Qi, became a prominent hegemon, the most powerful feudal lord in China, outranked only by the nominal king of the Zhou dynasty.
Guan and Bao’s friendship became so celebrated that “the amity of Guan and Bao” became an idiom to describe the relationship between best friends.