Choice Chengyu is a regular column, examining interesting, unique or newsworthy examples of chengyu—four-character idioms or proverbs, derived from historical and mythical events.
July 30 marked International Day of Friendship, introduced by the UN to encourage people harness the power of friendship to face crises, challenges and divisions. Chinese history is littered with great friendships that overcame all odds—and these stories have given birth to a number of chengyu:
君子之交 Friendship between gentlemen
“The friendship between gentlemen is pure as water; while the friendship between vile men is like sweet wine (君子之交淡如水，小人之交甘若醴),” so reads a line in the Daoist text Zhuangzi. The idea is that the friendships between people of good character isn’t built on flattery, hypocrisy, or showmanship, so this chengyu describes a true friendship that may not always show itself outwardly, but is definitely sincere.
情同手足 Be as intimate as siblings
手足 (hand and foot) is used in Chinese as a metaphor for siblings. For friends so close they’re practically family, use this chengyu.
志同道合 Cherish the same ideals and take the same course
Friendship starts for a reason. Sometimes it happens between people who share similar values, or are devoted to a common cause.
They are a pair of friends of like mind.
Tāmen shì yíduì zhìtóngdàohé de péngyǒu.
倾盖如故 Act like old friends at first meeting
We all know about love at first sight, but close friendships can also be forged in one meeting. This chengyu originated from Records of the Grand Historian. 倾盖, or “inclining the canopy,” is what people traveling in a covered carriage had to do when they wanted to talk to a fellow traveler on the road, and here it specifically refers to those who meet for the first time; later, it evolved into a metaphor for talking intimately and closely.
白头如新 A lifelong acquaintance feels like a first meeting
Stories of great friendship abound in literature, but there are some people whom you just never gel with, no matter how much time you spend together. This chengyu often gets misused to mean a friendship or romance that still feels fresh after in your old age (or 白头, “gray-haired”), but in reality, it means the opposite: people whom you never understand, despite a lifetime of knowing each other.
分道扬镳 Raising the reins and riding [our] separate ways
Friendship can be fragile. When friends become estranged, use this chengyu:
I can’t get in touch with him. Long ago we separated and went our own ways.
Wǒ liánxì bú shàng tā. Wǒmen zǎo jiù fēndàoyángbiāo le.
反目成仇 Break up and become enemies
This chengyu for a broken friendship is pretty self-explanatory:
It’s really surprising that friends like them could have become enemies.
Zhēn méi xiǎngdào tāmen nàme hǎo de péngyǒu jūrán fǎnmù chéngchóu le.
管宁割席 Guan Ning cuts the mat in half
This chengyu refers to the act of ending a friendship. During the Northern and Southern dynasties period (386 to 589), a man named Guan Ning was close friends with his classmate, Hua Xin. Every day, they would sit on the same mat while they studied. One day, Hua, distracted by the carriage of a passing noble outside the door, put down his book and went to take a look. Guan, disgusted at his friend’s materialism, took a knife and cut their mat in half, proclaiming “You are no longer my friend!”
Now, this expression means to break off a friendship, not always for reasons as petty as Guan Ning’s.
Cover image from VCG