There's a Word for Relationships Written in the Stars

Why you should care

Because it’s not what you know, but who you know.

Part of an occasional series on unusual words we wish we had in English.

You’re strangers but you keep taking the same subway. Or you’ve hardly crossed paths, but striking up a conversation has never been easier. You don’t believe in fate, but all the signs are there. It’s a sappy Hollywood trope — a pair of kindred souls, though far apart, intimately bound by fate. The Chinese have a poetic word for this fortuitous encounter.

yuánfèn 缘分 (yoo·an·fen): a relationship by fate or destiny

We keep running into each other — it must be yuanfen.

This short but sweet word elegantly describes the natural affinity felt between friends, lovers, colleagues or business partners. Yuan (缘) describes the “serendipity” by which people are brought together, considered even rarer in a sprawling land of 1.3 billion people, whereas fen (分) refers to the “binding force” that keeps the connection alive and thriving, says National Taiwan University psychology professor Hsu Hsin-Ping. The lifeblood that undergirds yuanfen explains why a patient might prefer one doctor over the other, or why you’ve stayed in touch with an old military buddy despite living on opposite sides of the world. These innate relationships — whether romantic, platonic or familial — are destined to happen and readily made to withstand all odds, including petty feuds, long distance or loss and heartache. An ancient Chinese idiom sums it up best: “If there is yuanfen between two people, they will meet, even if they are miles apart. If there is no yuanfen between them, they can stand face to face and will never meet.”

Along with Confucian and Daoist influences, the concept has roots in Buddhism — a religion imported from India that also relies on beliefs in karma and reincarnation — and deeply affects the culture and society of China today, says Isabel Heger, who researches Chinese studies at the Free University of Berlin: “You cannot rely on just destiny to bring you together. If there’s a chance, you have to grasp yuanfen and cherish it in order for the relationship to blossom.” Its mandate spreads farther than mere fate; fen also refers to the work necessary to fulfill this destiny, like lending a helping hand when the other is in need or making an effort to stay in touch over the years. In turn, people in China pay far more attention to building and maintaining relationships than people in the West, adds Hsu: “Any relationship must be based on yuanfen, which is also the reason why these relationships occur or come to an end.” So, while fate may bring people together, whether they stay together is up to the catalyst of yuanfen.

But don’t be tempted to use yuanfen as an excuse if you’re having relationship troubles. More than likely, the fault is all on you.

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