Rambling Ideas on Friendship by Tsing Yuan – August 2020

Tsing Yuan and Billy’s Wife, Lucille, are Cousins

Dear Bill,
The following are some rambling ideas from the top of my head:
In terms of personal relationships, friends are to be distinguished from acquaintances, relatives, and lovers.  Acquaintances are relations that tend to be superficial, of brief duration,and characterized by long interruptions.  Relatives are relationships based on birth.  Lovers are relationships based on romance, sex, and idealized images.
In my view ‘true friendship’ is different from the three above categories in being the toughest relationship in the world.  I list several requirements to be “true friends”:

  1.  The friends have to be somewhat equal in wealth and social status; otherwise, one of the two may wish to exploit or take advantage of the other for gain (at least in the mind of the other);
  2.  To be true friends, the two (or three, or four) need to be intellectually equal as well as sharing common interests; otherwise, one of them will be bored and/or contemptuous of the other;
  3.  True friends should have frequent meetings and/or consultations; otherwise problems arise without the other(s) knowing and misunderstanding and suspicions develop;
  4.  To be friends, preferably age differences should be minimal, as physical stamina as well past experiences can and do block mutual understanding; 
  5.  From the above requirements, it follows that friends need to treat each other as equals, not as superior and inferior in a hierarchical order.

Friendship among countries share some common contours with friendship among people, but also exhibit differences: 

  1.  Countries under dictators like to be friends of other dictatorships as they share authoritarian values; similarly democracies like to be friends with democracies;    
  2.  Countries can be friends even if they don’t share common values if they share common enemies (democratic Britain and France were friends with autocratic Russia against Germany before WWI, U.S. and PRC against the Soviet Union, 1972-1991) – in other words, my enemy’s enemy is my friend.
  3. Countries can be friends if they need defensive or financial support, i.e. Japan, South Korea, Israel need the support of U.S.A., but here the “friendship” is actually more of a dependency as the relationship is not equal;
  4. Friends among countries are very rare in history.   More often than not, they are based on self-interest, never altruism.  In personal terms, “true friends” among people can be altruistic and in a test, can be self-sacrificing.    I think this is the key difference between ‘friends’ among people versus ‘friends’ among countries: the occurrence of self-sacrifice in true friendship!     

These are the ideas floating in my mind after reading your request.  I hope this is helpful!.


Tsing Yuan –  Born in Peiping (now Beijing) right after the Japanese attack of the city in 1937, and experienced all the trauma of being a child refugee in China’s interior from Japanese bombs  until V-J Day.  Came to the U.S. in 1949 with parents and lived in D.C., Palo Alto, and Cambridge.  Attended Harvard College, George Washington University, and the University  of Pennsylvania, where he received Ph.D. in History in 1969.  Taught History at Swarthmore College, 1966-72 and Wright State University, 1972-99, serving a term as Chair of the  History Department and took the status of Professor Emeritus in 1999.  Had publications on the Moslem Rebellion in Xinjiang, 1862-76, Economic changes in late Ming-early  Qing China in a book and in articles (book by Yale University Press, articles in the journal “Ming Studies,” Japanese role in Tsingtao during World War I, Chinese ceramics trade in  Southeast Asia, Chinese diaspora in Latin America, etc.  Life Member of the American Historical Association and the Association for Asian Studies since 1970’s.  Recipient of fellowships  from Harvard Fairbank Center, American Council of Learned Societies, American Philosophical Society, and National Endowment for the Humanities.   Taught and gave talks at    Ohio State, Oberlin, Beijing Normal University, Nankai University, and several other institutions in the PRC, the Academia Sinica and Central (Chung-yang) University in Taiwan,  the University of Hong Kong, Sophia University in Tokyo, National Seoul University, University of Singapore, Leiden University, and Oslo University.   Since retirement, I have taken extensive travels in Latin America, Africa, Southeast Asia, and Central Eurasia such as Mongolia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Turkey.