The Chinese friend

We have already mentioned the connotation of the word friend, 朋友, in China and the importance of this “concept” in society. A friend can be a simple relationship that allows us to do each other favours and return the favour, in social life or in business. The proverb reminds us of the importance of this notion: ” Depend on parents at home, rely on friends outside, 在家靠父母,出门靠朋友.” (see here); with a friend, one can therefore have important common interests and “little arrangement between friends” (see here). One can also become friends from a simple meeting, when the other helps (see the meeting of the Cantonese in the train). To come back to the characters, let’s look at the origin of the characters. The word is composed of these two characters 朋 and 友.

朋, péng

An ancient meaning of péng, 朋, the first character, designated a unit of currency. In its original spelling, it represented “bei” attached together. A site specializing in Chinese currency explains that “in early pre-imperial China, around 1500-1000 B.C. and the Shang Dynasty, cowries called bei were used as currency. They are small shells. They were gathered in ligatures and were thus the first means of payment. The cowries are not only used in China. They were one of the first currencies used in the world. Nowadays, some African countries still use it as a divisional currency. Some cowries had holes in the back and were assembled in ligatures of about twenty pieces called peng. There are also other explanations, the character represents the tail of the phoenix.

China friend

友, yǒu

As for the second character, yǒu, 友, originally it represented two hands that were bound together to signify friend. It has the meaning of acting together.


NB: In order to memorize characters faster, it is useful to associate an image with the character, see the illustrations above. Some characters are pictograms very close to reality like the sun or the moon, or other ideograms have the “idea” of the signified. 

For articles on Chinese language, see here.

30 May 2020

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