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The Confucian system encompasses five human relationships. These relationships include father and son, ruler and minister, husband and wife, older and younger brother and friendship. There are varied perspectives among scholars on the interpretation of friendship as presented under the Confucian system.
In his article “The Fifth Relationship; Dangerous Friendships in the Confucian Context”, Norman Kutcher explores the friendship as outlined under the Confucian system. According to him, friendship under the Confucian system was supposed to be voluntary and was also not hierarchical.
He further explores interpretation of friendship among writers. In trying to understand some of the arguments advanced by Norman Kutcher , I explored different views on arguments as advanced by Norman Kutcher.
Firstly, Xiufen Lu’s article “Rethinking Confucian Friendship” explores different interpretations of friendship as a Confucian human relationship.. The main argument in the article is whether under Confucian system, friendship was equitable to family relations.
Secondly, the article “Male Friendship and Jiangxue (Philosophical debates) in Sixteenth-Century China” by Martin W. Huang introduces another perspective. More neo-Confucian writers from the above era embraced friendship more. Some of the writers even argued that friendship would rank higher than any of the five human relationships.
The third article that I looked into is “Music and Male Bonding in Ming China by Joseph S.C Lam. The writer introduces the aspect use of music as tool used by Neo-Confucian writers.
The writers were keen on promoting friendship as outlined in the Confucian relationships using music where men interacted during such social events. Men were in a position to express such things as desires, roles and identities.
Friendship under the Confucian System
The above writers have different interpretations of friendship of the under the Confucian system. In his article, Xiufen Lu seeks to distinguish between family ad friendship relations. Family relations are characterized by several things including, hierarchy and sharply defined duties and obligations (Lu, 2010, 235).
The writer indicates that there is a distinction between family relationships and friendship. This is a departure from Kutcher’s argument where he claims the Confucian writers gave decreased emphasis on friendship as a relationship.
Under the Confucian system, friendship was not characterized by hierarchy but mutual obligations and respect among friends. In the article, Lu criticizes Kutcher’s position on the friendship as he claims that he did not take into account the nature of familial relationships while advancing his argument.
Neo-Confucian writers such as Zhi Xi composed songs which were used to promote the aspect of friendship under the Confucian system (Lam, 2007, pp. 75). Neo-Confucian writer introduced schools where music and poetry was taught.
Through, the above interactions, males were in a position to establish relationships outside the other human relationships as outlined under the Confucian system. These relationships include husband-wife and father-son relationships.
The writer also gives an example of the legend of Boya and Ziqi as irreplaceable partners. The relationship was outside social-political hierarchy but received increased emphasis than the other human relationships (Lam, 2007, p. 71)
Another argument in relation of friendship was advanced by Neo-Confucian writers in the 16th century (Huang, 2007 p. 147). Some writers gave friendship precedence over the other human relationships identified under the Confucian system.
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He indicates that different writers in the 16th century found the other human relationships deficient in one way or another. He gives an example of He Xinyin (1517-79) who claimed that interaction between two men was the most fulfilling interaction in the world.
Another writer, Zhu Tingdan argued that friendship gave rise to the four other human relationships. The rise jiangxue or philosophical debates gave formed the basis from which the above argument was formulated (Huang, 2007 p. 147).
Confucian and Neo Confucian Interpretation of Friendship
Friendships involve trust (Lu, 2010, 238). Lu presents an alternative interpretation of friendship as presented by Confucius. He argues that the concept of trust involves making effort thus making an individual trustworthy. Similarly, it involves trusting the right people.
Lu differs from Kutcher since the latter sees the above thing as introduction of hierarchy in friendship. Kutcher suggests that Confucian writers analogized friendship relationship to other hierarchical relationships. Lu, on the other hand, does not see the above as introduction of hierarchy but as a mark of integrity.
Similarly, friendship is necessary for cultivation of moral virtues in people (Lu 2010, p. 240). He argues that individuals are in a position to get moral virtues from other relationships including familial relationships (Lu, 2010, p. 242). Presence of virtues in individuals is, therefore, attributed to family and other relationships.
However, Neo- Confucian writers such as Wang Yangming had a different interpretation of the Confucian classic Daxue (Great Learning) (Huang, 2007, 161). The writer gave friendship precedence over familial relationships. According to the writer, a great man could be regarded as one who regards the world as one family and country.
Therefore, a selfish person is one who refused to regard the whole world as his family (Huang, 2010, 162). He treated people from his family differently from those who did not belong to his family. Wang Ji and He Xinyin were instrumental in promoting friendship at expense of the other human relationships.
Even though, these Neo-Confucian writers did not challenge the fundamental Confucian belief, they were instrumental in shifting focus to friendship.
Furthermore, Neo-Confucian writers put increased emphasis on friendship that is male bonding. This was done by introducing such tools as music which exemplified relationship between two men. Music introduced by Neo-Confucian writers’ stimulated discussions among men in the Ming dynasty (Lam, 2007, pp.80).
This is because different people have varied interpretations of the core message contained music. Confucians were accused of trying to promote the utilitarian functions of male bonding. This was against the emotional elements attached to the development of bonding (Lam, 2007, pp. 84). Therefore, through music, friendship was based on commonalities amongst men such as intellectual debates.
Hierarchy and Friendship
Trust indicates personal honor (Lu, 2010, p.239). Therefore, an individual with honor should associate with people of honor. In this case, Lu gives precedence to friendship over other human relationships as outlined in Confucianism. He gives an example of Chi Cha and Prince Hsu.
Chi Cha hang his sword on the prince’s grave after the prince died. The prince saw the sword but was too modest to ask for it. Chi Cha made a silent promise that he would give his sword to the prince. Therefore, friendship is this case was given precedence over other relationships including the ruler and minister relationship where the ruler had authority.
Neo- Confucian writers such He Xinyin put increased emphasis on friendship and were not keen on following Confucian principles including segregation of people by virtues. For example, he introduced the Juhe Tang, a clan school (Huang, 2010, 164).
Although none of the Neo-Confucian writers openly opposed Confucius’ ideals, they were keen on promoting friendship at the expense of the other human relationships. Similarly, He Xinyin was keen on promoting communications among all men which was one of the tools used towards promotion of friendship.
Hierarchical relationships established between members of different social classes characterized by a reward system were not successful. This includes relationship between higher and lower partners where higher partners helped junior partners advance (Lam, 2007, pp. 85).
On the other hand, junior partners gave senior partners rewards and gifts. However, the writer notes the such relationships did not were not permanent. He gives an example of the stories of Yu Boya and Zhong Ziqi where such friendship was based on ideals and not a rewards system (Lam, 2007, pp.85).
The above articles have helped immensely understand the aspect of friendship under the Confucian and Neo-Confucian writers’ era. Kutcher indicates that Confucian writers gave decreased emphasis to friendship as one of the relationships under Confucian system.
However, Xiufen Lu introduces the aspect of difference between family relations and friendship. For example, family relationships are established by blood relations while friendship was voluntary. Joseph S.C Lam also expounds on the aspect of equality in friendship. Therefore, there is a big difference in interpretation between Confucian and Neo-Confucian writers.
Huang, M.W. (2007). Male Friendship and Jiangxue (Philosophical Debates) in Sixteenth-Century China. Nan Nü, 9, 146-178.
Lam, J.S.C (2007). Male Bonding in Ming China. Men, Women & Gender in Early & Imperial China, 9(1), 70-110.
Lu, X. (2010). Rethinking Confucian Friendship. Asian Philosophy, 20 (3), 225–245