By Stephen Lee
February 20, 2022
Following are my thoughts after a casual conversation with my wife, asking her about her perspective on the Chinese words Yi Qi (义气). Her reaction was that Yi Qi is not commonly used by Chinese women in their conversations among close friends. So I asked her, “What is the closest equivalence of Yi Qi for Chinese females?” She replied that Chinese women refer to their close female friends as 闺蜜(Gui Mi) and regard keeping personal secrets as important.
Women, or more specifically, Chinese women, relate to their female friends differently than Chinese males. To Chinese women, there are two types of behavior between close friends. The first one is the relationship through emotional empathy. Emotional closeness may be enhanced by shopping together and sharing personal secrets, news or opinions about others. Having the same wavelength and being able to know what the friend means even before they speak are validations of close friendship. Women friends do not focus on analysis of right vs wrong over behavior among them. Expressing opinions of other people outside their close circle tends to increase their bonding. When a close friend feels hurt by someone outside the group, the first reaction is empathy and emotional support.
The second type of behavior is loyalty which is not as active or aggressive as between male friends. Female loyalty is insistent but not demanding extraordinary sacrifice. It can be stubborn but not outwardly demonstrated by physical acts. It looks down on betrayal but does not usually resort to violence for resolution. In other words, Chinese women have more than one way or standard in keeping or rejecting another woman as close friends.
Reflecting on what she said, my thoughts came back to the Chinese male traditional minds and my attempt to reconcile these thoughts into a coherent construct for myself. Rethinking about the meaning of Yi Qi, the meaning of Yi is clear. It is Righteousness. The second word Qi (气) is fuzzy. It can mean air or it may mean energy, as in Qi Gong (气功), the Chinese exercise which includes breathing for cultivating the internal movement of energy. Yi Qi is then a righteous energy, or a righteous motivation. It therefore reduces the degree of absoluteness of righteousness.
For more than two thousand years, Chinese women were culturally suppressed and confined into a different circle of existence and activities than Chinese men. The traditional Five Relationships prescribed a fairly rigid social hierarchy, defining functions and obligations. At the top level, between the Emperor and government officials, Loyalty to the Emperor is the virtue. At the Second level is Father and Son where Filial Piety is the virtue. At the Third level is Elder Brother to Younger Brother and deferral to the elder is the virtue. At the Fourth level is Husband and Wife where Obedience by the wife is the virtue. At the Fifth level is Friends and Yi Qi is the virtue. This positioning of women below brothers and just above friends is accepted without challenge.
However, a thought suddenly came to our minds. There is a Chinese saying, “Brothers are like arms and legs. Wives are like clothing.” Interestingly the origin of this saying traces to the same brotherhood of the three persons who exemplify Yi Qi, Liu Bei, Guan Yu and Zhang Fei. They swore in a blood ceremony and promoted themselves from friends to brothers. Later, Zhang Fei lost a battle which resulted in Liu’s wife being captured by the other side. Liu Bei was credited for this saying while forgiving Zhang Fei.
Imagine how Chinese women would feel about this saying! Male friends can be elevated to brothers, like flesh and blood but wives are mere replaceable clothes?
Is it perfectly understandable that Chinese women do not relate to the term Yi Qi and do not include it in their common vocabulary?