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Predestined relation (yuan): the passionate and the helpless of chinese communication.

Story 1: Three years ago, Professor Vladimir Manakin, a Ukrainian Fulbrighter, came to UIC. Given our similar interests in intercultural communication, I became his academic host. I still recall the first day I saw him, along with his wife, Professor Natasha Manakin, and their daughter Olena, right in front of my office even before I arrived. He sat in on my classes and shared many thoughts and ideas with "our" students. I also got to know about Ukraine, a country with which I had not had much previous acquaintanceship, yet one which turned out to be so close to my research in language and politics. I thought I'd try to apply for a Fulbright to Ukraine--it'd be fun for us to reverse our roles and start another chapter of learning and witnessing the richness of cultures.

I arrived at his office in Zaporizhzhya, Ukraine, on September 7, 2010. I could not believe this had happened, yet there I was, right in his department, in Ukraine, three years after our encounter in Chicago. This time, he was my academic host and I was the Fulbright scholar! There was that sense of familiarity--it seemed as if I didn't just know Vladimir and his wife, but many of his colleagues there. If this were not yuan, how else would I be able to explain such an encounter with these people? If not for the interconnected universe facilitating the flow of yuan in years past, how could I have arrived in Ukraine at this time?

As Chairperson of the journalism department, Professor Manakin gave a speech and also introduced me to the faculty and students. He said he had prayed that I would be able to come, and it must be a miracle that I actually came, for which he was very happy and grateful. Though Ukrainian may not have a word for yuan, I knew the feeling was the same--that human encounters are precious and miraculous in a way that goes beyond the power of words to describe. This feeling is so profound and intuitive that it has to be universal, transcending any cultural or linguistic boundaries.

Story 2: I was interviewed for a job at a university in Texas. I did my presentation on yuan, a concept that seemed to enthuse many faculty members there. The day before my departure, they treated me to a very good dinner where we continued to converse about yuan. One faculty member then raised a question: "If we give you an offer and you turn out not to join us, will you say that we have no yuan?"

I paused for a moment and then replied, "That we are able to enjoy a great meal here today is already yuan." Everyone nodded and smiled; for a few seconds, we all became silent.

If this is not yuan, how else would I be able to explain such an encounter? If not for the facilitation by the interconnected universe from years past, how could I have arrived in Texas at that time, sharing a meal and talking about yuan in the midst of a "meeting of hearts"? That is a moment of great preciousness--the feeling of yuan that is universal, transcending cultural or linguistic boundaries.

Countless such stories happened in our lives, everyday. Every moment of encounter is often a surreptitiously arranged meeting; the story is often beyond expectation and better than any novel could have made up. Interpersonal encounters "are moments in which two or more life-worlds intersect with one another ... made possible through the facilitation of an uncountable number of conditioning factors" (Chang, 2002, p. 19). Depending on how one views it, an encounter could be a blessing as well as a curse; yet regardless of what energy may have been generated, yuan will continue to contour future meetings, where love, hate, and all emotion will register and persist.

Though such a feeling may be universal and fundamental to human existence, it is the Chinese linguistic--ideographic--system that gives it full expression, as words and life walk hand-in-hand to define and refine their feelings. Beginning as a Buddhist concept denoting dependent origination or secondary causation in explaining the manifestation of events, yuan has claimed a place in the hearts of many Chinese, not only as a convenient justification for encountering one another, but also as an attitude toward life. It defines the meaning of interpersonal relating, and also informs behavior, morality, and attitudes toward one another, and therefore is a key point of entry to examine the practice of Chinese communication.

As important as this folk concept is to Chinese life, compared to other more popular folk concepts such as guanxi and mianzi, yuan remains less studied, except, for example, Chang (2002, 2010), Chang and Holt (1991), Chang, Holt, and Lin (2004), L. Chen (2002), Wen (1988), Yu and Chen (1996), and Yang (1982, 1989), among others. In this paper I first analyze yuan's philosophical and religious foundations, and then move to address how it has transformed into a folk concept through a set of elaborate linguistic expressions that have exerted profound influence on Chinese relationships. The last section discusses how a torn feeling between an extra layer of passion to cherish union and the sense of helplessness when an encounter dissipates helps redefine meanings for human interaction and shape philosophical attitudes toward life.

Yuan's Religious and Philosophical Foundation

Much like many folk concepts, yuan is something easily understood but difficult to precisely define. Compared to the Western cause-result (yinguo) causal link, Buddhism conceives of a three-element causal chain: the cause (yin), the yuan, and the result (guo). For a cause to produce an effect, conditioning factors must facilitate their occurrence. There will be no result from a cause, if there is no yuan to facilitate the emergence of a specific result. Alternatively described as conditioning factors or secondary cause, yuan is what makes primary cause effective in producing results.

According to this view, no cause relates directly to an effect. Rather, multiple causes and results are interconnected with and mutually influence each other. Since every cause is itself a conditioning factor--yuan--that facilitates other causes, one could go as far as to claim that there is no primary cause. The entirety of such conditioning factors, or secondary causation, is called yuan (Chang, 2002; Chang & Holt, 1991).

Without yuan no phenomena will be able to manifest, and there is no permanency (wuchang, no constancy) as things exist only in mutual dependency. Yuan denotes a world of dependent origination--that every element is inter-related with all others, hence nothing exists by itself (wuwo, no self). Material manifestations thus must proceed according to their own timing, as a common Chinese idiom has it: "It is not that there is no reciprocity, [it is] the time has not yet come" (bushi bubao, shihou weidao, [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]). Only when yuan matures will matters/events happen. The Buddhist notion of yuan chi [chi, beginning] refers to the formation of all existence when conditioning factors facilitate it (Fang, 1990). As Fang (1990) puts it,
   All myriad events under the universe are produced
   through the interplay of yin and yuan, hence there
   is no independent, eternal entity, therefore [we
   have] "wu wo"; all myriad events exist within the
   relation of cause and effect, conditioned by time
   and space, occurring and disappearing, always in a
   process of changing, hence "wu chang" (p. 154)

Yuan represents the impermanent, ever-shifting universe that evolves according to changing conditioning factors. It is not only what makes impermanency, it is also the impermanency itself. The nature of manifestation, regardless of how splendid or impressive it may be, is emptiness or nothingness. In this ever shifting, yuan-conditioned world, any phenomenon can only be transitory and must be captured while lasts. Buddhist conceptions of yuanqi xingkong (yuan initiates and its nature is emptiness) describe exactly such a situation (Fang, 1990).

Although yuan refers to a seemingly unexplainable notion, the operation of conditioning factors is not imposed by some supernatural, omnipotent being. Rather, it is generated through the individual's own actions--decisions about his or her karma--throughout countless lifetimes (Chang & Holt, 1991, p. 33). In an interdependent world, one's actions generate results that influence and interconnect with others. Such effects are not simply confined to the here-and-now; rather, the operation of reincarnation makes one life connected to others, and one's current physical manifestation to previous as well as subsequent physical incarnations. To coexist with others and participate in the rhythm of the ephemeral universe is to be aware of the effects of one's actions, while following the flow of yuan.

Regardless of how practical Chinese may seem, yuan reflects the deep emotion Chinese have toward their associates. The fruition of yuan in a given encounter, according to Buddhist theology, is prepared by deeds through the course of countless lifetimes. Yuan reflects the belief that relationships do not come easily but must be facilitated through myriad conditioning factors. Since it may take thousands of years for people to meet each other, any relationship is considered precious.

Buddhism calls people "sentient beings" (youqing zongsheng); it is qing (emotion) that ties people to endless cycles of reincarnation through the wheel of life and death. Qing effects yuan, yet yuan seldom satisfies emotion. Blind persistence (chi), as one of three poisons of life, is what produces emotional bondage--which registers love, hate, happiness, and regret--and the inability to satisfy one's desire is what brings suffering. This is why human beings are sentient beings; while enjoying reunions with people they care about, they must also face the inevitable separation, the lack of fulfillment of their desires to hold onto things permanently. Zhizhuo, or the tendency to hold unto something, becomes the source of suffering; the impermanent world will not simply abide by one's wishes, and one can only sigh in wunai (helplessness). It is only when one learns to she--to discard or let go what one cherishes most--and understand the nature of emptiness in all manifestations, that one will achieve true enlightenment.

The notion of yuan inspires Chinese, as any encounter can be considered miraculously planned beyond what one could have hoped for. Desires and attachments confine sentient beings to the mundane world and bring suffering; however, people remain connected to relational partners, even to the extent of crossing several lifetimes to continue such ties (Chang, 2002). Through interrelated life-paths governed by yuan, interpersonal encounters in Chinese life are marked with a special quality, leading people to appreciate opportunities to be together, however brief.

Nonetheless, this can also sadden a sensitive and romantic mind, as any manifestation will come to pass when yuan dissipates, and there will be excruciating pain when one becomes cognizant of his or her inability to hold onto things permanently. Regardless of whether one tried one's best to initiate change, any changes initiated will still subject to yuan's working, as such an action is embedded within a broader context where events transpire of their own accord. Yuan compels people to cherish encounters (hence, passion) on the one hand, while at the same time embracing a feeling of vulnerability in trying to reformulate the contours of events (hence, helplessness) on the other. The feeling of vulnerability, thus considered, does not deny one's efforts, but engenders an acute awareness of letting things take their own course, or simply following yuan.

Yuan as a Folk Concept

Yuan became an important part of Chinese culture after Buddhism was introduced to China during the Tang Dynasty. Buddhism's belief in chains of cause and effect were secularized, providing sources for the folk concept of yuan. By the Qing Dynasty, yuan had already become very popular, with many novels using the character yuan in their titles (Yang, 1982/1989, pp. 123-124). The popularity of using yuan to describe romantic relationships can still be observed in modern-day websites devoted to matchmaking in various Chinese societies, such as China's (shiji jiayuan jiaoyou wang; century good yuan web for making friends), or Hong Kong's (meet youyuan ren, meet friends who have yuan with you (1)), among others.

But such a philosophical/religious concept has to be integrated into Chinese practical-mindedness concerning everyday life. As the universe must be engaged by its inhabitants, yuan has been conveniently applied to interpersonal relating and has come to denote special qualities between people (2). For many Chinese, relations do not simply exist in the here and now, but must have been shaped throughout countless existences, in the ever-shifting yuan-conditioned universe.

Thanks to the flexibility of Chinese ideographs, yuan has transformed into a folk concept through a set of linguistic expressions elaborating different aspects of interpersonal encounters: sense of connectedness, youyuan [having yuan], wuyuan [having no yuan], or touyuan [match yuan]; extent of involvement, yuanshen [deep yuan] or yuanqian [shallow yuan]; quality of association, shanyuan [virtuous yuan] or eryuan [bad yuan]; attitude toward association, xiyuan [cherish yuan], suiyuan [follow yuan], and so on.

More specifically, when people meet each other, there is said to be you yuan (having yuan) or yuanfen (sharing yuan). When there is little or no chance to associate, it is called wu yuan. When a relationship ends, yuan is said to end (yuan jing) or disappear (yuan mie). The extent to which one associates with the other can be described as deep yuan (yuan shen) or shallow yuan (yuan qian). Quality of relationship is also part of the yuan landscape: a relationship may reflect sang yuan or liang yuan (good, virtuous yuan) or nie yuan, er yuan, or xiong yuan (bad or evil yuan). Good yuan brings fortunate interpersonal associations, whereas bad yuan infests one's life with evil. When there is no yuan (wu yuan), association, good or bad, will not occur and nothing will be accomplished.

Other than serving to describe connection between two people, yuan can also describe individual qualities; for example, one can add ren, or human, before yuan and thus describe people liked or welcomed by others as having either good renyuan (human yuan), while those who are widely disliked have bad renyuan (3). People who match well with each other are also described as possessing touyuan (match yuan) while these who are not are said to be bu toyuan (do not match yuan). In this vein, yuan seems to be a quality simultaneously carried by each relational partner, and also shared with certain relational partners.

Such a concept may be conceived as a root metaphor (Lakoff & Johnson, 1980; Ortner, 1973), which not only portrays different degrees of involvement with a relational partner, but also quality and morality of the relationship, as well as an attitude toward life (Chang & Holt, 1991, 2002). By singling out and labeling these experiences under the yuan conception, together they converge on and orchestrate a yuan-centered metaphor summarizing how associations are formed, as well as their quality and content. Such association may be temporary, as short as days, or may be more involved, as in a marriage; may refer to romantic relationships as well as blood connection; and so on (4). Yuan-related expressions such as these can be found in people's spoken verbal accounts and writing, as well as a variety of cultural practices and artifacts. Yang (1982/1989) calls this tendency to use yuan as a descriptor for all kinds of associations as "broad yuan-ism" (fan yuan zhuyi) (p. 123), a phenomenon common in Chinese and other Asian countries. Whether his conclusions similarly endure after almost thirty years remains to be seen.

The extent to which yuan-expressions enter into people's lives, however, may be variegated. Some yuan-expressions (such as you yuan) may become a discursive topic among relational partners, with yuan-talk further confirming its importance; others may be used as an account to frame or comment on a relationship, or as an afterthought once everything has passed by (such as wu yuan or tou yuan); still others may be used to express attitudes about life rather than about specific relational partners (such as xi yuan or sui yuan). Since some of the yuan-language has been explored in detail elsewhere (Chang & Holt, 1991, 2002), here I shall concentrate on notions of having and not having yuan, and examine how these concepts may be connected to a view of destined relationship.

You Yuan [Having Yuan] and Wu Yuan [Having No Yuan]

The you yuan expression has exerted profound influence on Chinese relationships, whether romantic, kinship, or merely casual acquaintance, as every encounter cannot but be conceived as a manifestation of yuan. Especially in unexpected unions between two apparently unrelated people, it is easy to invoke the notion of "how you yuan we are!," an expression that is usually followed with, "Yes, indeed, we have a lot of yuan!" Though it could also be an afterthought of reflection or contemplation, it is often directly conveyed, and agreed upon, by one's interactant. The sense of sharing yuan, then, is not just an expression or a cultural notion, but is actively performed by Chinese relational partners--by commenting upon their degrees of yuan and engaging in relevant discourse, relational partners reconfirm yuan as a key frame of reference to interpret the meanings of their encounters.

The feeling that one has "a lot of yuan" with someone, while it can in some sense be verified by number of encounters or length of association, is also a subjective feeling of being intensely connected due to unknowable facilitating conditions. This intensity can arouse a sense of wonder, mystery, and charm, as well as a feeling that the relationship is destined, whether before the relationship begins; at the time of meeting; after meeting; or even upon termination of the relationship. Especially in initial interaction, the sense of "having a lot of yuan" or "having no yuan" with another creates a discontinuous effect, either hastening or preventing the future development of such relationships (Yang, 1982/1989).

Yuan's impact is so profound and has become such an important part of the Chinese psyche that even without the words, the feeling remains. A Chinese calligraphy scroll I received from a good friend has the following words:

As a guest ten thousand miles away from home One meets a good friend

Even before drinking, the heart is already intoxicated

How precious it is to meet a good friend ten thousand miles away from home! There are no better words than yuan to describe such a wonderful, appreciative feeling. Imagine that the two have to go through various contours over time and space, finally to arrive at the same destination at that time. Even more amazing, such a gathering requires a meeting of the hearts, so soothing that the feeling can only be described as being "intoxicated" (zui, [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), the ubiquitous Chinese character which embeds inebriation with spiritual pleasure and indulgence. No yuan word was uttered and yet these descriptions exude the flavor of yuan.

Wu yuan, on the other hand, is unlikely to be invoked in front of one's relational partner, unless one intends to use it as an excuse to refuse to advance the relationship (Chang & Holt, 1991). Wu yuan literally means no yuan, that there is no opportunity for association. While any encounter may last a few seconds, minutes, days, years, or for a lifetime, as mentioned earlier, when these conditioning factors disintegrate, it is often described as yuanjin (the end of yuan) or yuanmie (the extinguishment of yuan). When situations such as these happen, it is often described as yuan jin qing wei liao--yuan has ended but the emotion continues. The lyrics of a popular Taiwanese song of a decade ago, "Sunshine Airport" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), puts it well: "For too short a yuan, it is more wretched than having no yuan." If there is simply no yuan and no encounter, there will be no desire and no expectations. Yet if yuan started and cannot be fulfilled to one's expectations, then all that is left is profound sadness.

Having no yuan, however, can be interpreted in more complicated ways. For one thing, wu yuan itself is also a configuration of yuan. That people can no longer associate themselves with each other means that there are conditions that facilitate separation. Whether it is meeting or separation, it is yuan that paves the way. While in its language use yuan tends to be associated with a positive connotation (Chang & Holt, 1991), and hence is often used to indicate chances of association, from the Buddhist philosophical perspective, yuan also includes chances of dissociation, as in wu yuan.

Moreover, at times wu yuan is not just about having no connection; wuyuan also denotes discontent with yuan. When depth of involvement is less than desired it can be equally, if not more, upsetting, so that wu yuan portrays a profound sadness, since one is unable to change the course of action to suit one's desires. Wu yuan, from this perspective, may be interpreted as not meeting one's desired yuan, or too shallow a yuan (yuan qian), after one has experienced yuan--in other words, wu yuan following youyuan.

The common expression, "having yuan with someone," not only cultivates in Chinese a sense of the special quality of the relationship, but deepens the emotional content. On the other hand, sighing, "We don't have yuan," conveys a keen, tragic sense of regret for unfulfilled life circumstances that hurt one's heart deeply. It is because of this extra layer of passion that many are bound to be caught by--and hence cannot escape--feelings of haplessness, sadness, and wunai, until one reaches enlightenment. Sui yuan--following the flow of yuan--is one of the most profound tenets of Chinese wisdom and one that many try to abide by. Regardless of how a given relationship may turn out, given the ephemeral quality of the universe--that is, wu chang, no constancy--one must see opportunity to associate as precious by cherishing yuan (xi yuan), or at least learning to follow yuan (Chang, 2002; Chang & Holt, 1991).

Indeed, if not for such emotional connectedness, the folk belief that there will be a next life where people will be reunited would be impossible. For some Chinese, that there might not be a "next life" is unthinkable. As some Chinese say, "If there is no yuan in this life, let's fulfill it in our next life." Without a next life, how could what is not fulfilled in this lifetime ever have a chance to come to fruition? Without a next life, how could regrets be redressed, and care continued? Indeed, belief in reincarnation is not just superstition, but an earnest hope in the possibility of continuing reunions, since only one lifetime is insufficient to share the relationship. Deep emotion does not allow the individual to let go of emotional ties (Chang, 2002); by not letting go of those who become part of our lives, yuan continues, and the life story of happiness and sorrow will continue to develop.

Actions in Light of Yuan

Language solidifies and congeals the feeling of yuan. Nevertheless, it does not dictate how these concepts should be understood or interpreted, and the relation between language and action is even more tenuous--at times they are parallel, and at other times they cross each other, or even overlap. How language enters into people's life is far more complex than the words themselves, and it is the individual's perspective that determines how yuan may play a part in his or her life. Aside from painful feelings, how exactly one can take action toward relational matters, given the influence of yuan, will have to be tested empirically.

As yuan symbolizes precious opportunities to meet people in one's life, some are likely to work harder to cherish such opportunities. For others, yuan may provide a convenient excuse--for self and for others--as fate is allowed to take its own course. Given that yuan dictates the course of relational development and cannot be ordered by human effort, it is possible that a person need not pursue actions vigilantly, but merely wait for his or her fate to be bestowed.

Perhaps more than anything else, yuan immediately invokes the idea of lovers who, through many unknown factors, have been brought together. "They have a lot of yuan," Chinese often say, "so it was meant to be." Alternatively, where there are two lovers who, despite their efforts, can never be together, Chinese will sometimes say, "They don't have yuan," perhaps as a way to relieve the pressure of having to face their inability to overcome an unknown and unknowable universe. This popular view of yuan is summarized in a common saying: "If you have yuan, even though you are thousands of miles apart, you will meet each other. If you don't have yuan, even if you live across the street, you will never know each other."

Here we find yuan and fate intimately connected. Indeed, scholars differ in how they choose to interpret yuan's meanings. Yuan is sometimes translated as "relational fate": "When the perception of destiny is expressed in interpersonal relationships, it becomes 'yuan.' Yuan is destined or pre-determined interpersonal relationships in the Chinese mind" (Yang, 1982/1989, p. 123), and further, "Yuan comes from the arrangements by the unknown (mingming zhi zhong); such an unknown universe represents the unknown fate, the all-powerful invisible hand" (p. 128). Wen (1988) further explains, "Chances in Chinese eyes are never accidental opportunities, but rather absolutely necessary processes. At least there are many people who believe this. Whether one has good or bad luck is a matter of fate and is destined in one's life" (p. 25).

Yuan, while seemingly subjective and yet quantifiable (as when Chinese say, "I feel we have a lot of yuan!"), can thus be seen as destined: those who have yuan are bound to meet, and those without it are bound to remain apart. When some Chinese sigh, "It's all the doing of yuan," it implies that fate, or at least something greater than the people involved, makes things happen or not. Within this framework, yuan transcends individual will in paving the way for people to meet. Whether it is good or bad relationship, yuan denotes a special power extending beyond human control (Wen, 1988). Regardless of whether, and the extent to which, one's efforts shape one's relational ties, yuan helps cultivate the sense of something being destined, implying one cannot escape those with whom one has yuan nor force a relationship to occur when there is no yuan.

The link between yuan and fate may allow yuan to function as a convenient excuse for relational problems, cultivating in Chinese a detached feeling toward relationship. Ironically, treating yuan as destined relational fate is contrary to Buddhist teachings that individuals are responsible for their actions. Although whatever yuan one encounters in one's lifetime is, according to Buddhism, the result of deeds throughout uncountable lifetimes, this may actually make it more difficult for Chinese to focus on their responsibilities. Instead, since yuan is used as a convenient metaphor for the entirety of conditioning factors, factors beyond immediate human comprehension, yuan and fate seem to have drawn closer in meaning to each other.

Reinterpreting Human Intersection: An Extra Layer of Passion that Cannot be Helped

Central to the sense-making involved in yuan is an extra layer of passion to cherish union and the sense of helplessness when an encounter dissipates. This torn feeling entails two aspects. On the one hand, one becomes cognizant of one's inability to hold things constant. Regardless of how one may desire a given configuration of things, one can never alter their contour and must allow yuan to take its course. On the other hand, whether desirable or undesirable, the configuration of one's relations is not dictated by an almighty divine entity, but is brought about by one's own deeds; hence, there is little about which one can complain.

Such a torn feeling, true to the Buddhist conception of sentience, helps redefine meanings for human interaction and also shapes Chinese philosophical attitudes toward life. Given the impact of this omnipotent folk concept, what should be considered suitable and likely interaction must stay in line with that extra layer of emotion and sense of helplessness. This more emotive, romantic side of Chinese--and their philosophical attitude--provides a powerful alternative in examining Chinese communication, with current research tending to concentrate its explanatory mechanisms in hierarchical relational rules (as in cultural collectivism, see Chang, 2002) and treating yuan as helping affirm relational hierarchy.

Some Observations

Yuan serves very important psychological functions for Chinese, confirming an important instrumental value in a society that emphasizes collectivism and group harmony, where more strict interpersonal ties are imposed. Yuan also has a negative impact on Chinese management of interpersonal life; with yuan, one may experience little psychological pressure and can become lazy, complacent, and dependent (Wen, 1988; Yang, 1982/1989).

When a relationship goes well, it is said that one has yuan with the other; by attributing this to yuan, one can also reduce others' jealousy toward oneself and the degree to which others will blame themselves. On the other hand, when a relationship suffers, it can be ascribed to "having no yuan." By attributing failure of such relationships to yuan, one is more likely to tolerate the ties involved, and neither the self nor others will be blamed for unfortunate outcomes. The social actor can subjectively determine whether there is or is no yuan and thus avoid trying to find causes for the state of the relationship or take any responsibility. There is neither expectation about, nor disappointment with, one's relationships, and therefore little effort to make a situation better. This attitude can in turn become a self-fulfilling prophecy that ensures one's relationships will fail (Wen, 1988; Yang, 1982/1989). "This," Wen (1988) observes, "is really not a rational attitude" (p. 36).

Yuan, which summarizes the totality of external factors, constitutes an attributional process that protects self and others and thereby maintains interpersonal harmony and stability. It creates a "win-win" situation in societies that respect orders of relationship and emphasize group harmony (Fei, 1948). This is perhaps one major reason why, as mentioned earlier, yuan is often translated as relational fate, or pre-destined relationship.

Moreover, by blaming an imperfect interpersonal life on yuan rather than the self, one can reduce nervousness, frustration, and pressure (Wen, 1988). Yuan helps sustain the Chinese cultural value of collectivism, as well as its tendency toward authoritarianism and conservatism, cultivating in Chinese the attitude of anfen zhiming (being comfortable with one's place and knowing one's destiny) (see Wen, 1972). If relational life is somewhat destined, social hierarchy and unequal power distribution is more likely to be accepted.

This perspective is echoed by a famous Taiwanese writer, Nan (1997), who comments: "'Yuan' is something destined. It makes people who do wrong feel comfortable inside, and also leads victims to take their suffering for granted. No one knows how much evil and bad things are covered under the word, 'yuan'" (p. 109). Moreover, Nan continues,
   In marital relationships, we use "good yuan" to
   celebrate our own fortune, use "evil yuan" to
   tolerate the unfortunate, use "chance of yuan"
   which has not yet come to justify the fact that one
   has not pursued one's life with good efforts. "Yuan"
   can be used to justify all good things and bad
   things. (pp. 110-111)

Yuan provides an easy excuse to avoid active efforts such as relational partners trying to "talk things out," since an individual may be viewed as merely an insignificant part of a vast and interconnected universe.

To summarize, yuan helps Chinese to be tolerant, reduce regrets and hatred, protect the face of self and others, avoid blaming others, be humble, reduce jealousy, and so on. It thus becomes a mechanism for defending oneself and one's social interactions, allowing Chinese a form of defensive rationalization (Yang, 1982/1989) by helping maintain everyone's roles, improve relationships, and at times provide for their termination.

Some Responses/Counter Arguments

As informative as the above accounts are, unfortunately, the sociopsychological, linear model falls well short of a more sophisticated philosophical understanding of the complexity of yuan.

First, whether Chinese indeed become fatalistic remains to be empirically tested. This task is particularly daunting, perhaps impossible, since culture embraces multiple voices that may at times conflict with each other. Even for those who comfort themselves by claiming that "the yuan has yet to arrive," we still cannot be certain that they therefore passively wait for things to happen. It is equally possible that one will focus one's energies inward, try one's best, and leave the rest to the unknown.

Another aspect concerning the emotional basis of yuan is that the struggle in not wanting to let go (or she) is equal in importance to using yuan as an excuse. Although much discussion has centered around how yuan helps explain away individual responsibility, it is equally possible that such a concept brings out the poignant feeling of Chinese over not having their wishes fulfilled, despite their best efforts.

Moreover, the feelings of "having yuan" and "having no yuan" do not just serve as self-fulfilling prophecies. They can also constitute a philosophical interpretation of life. To focus simply upon the negative account and equate yuan with fate leaves out the deep Chinese philosophical thinking about the universe as empty, and its teachings that by purifying heart and mind, together with refining behavior, the individual may achieve a higher spiritual state. Hence, though I may err on the side of being too romantic or sentimental, I would rather choose to read yuan as a guiding concept rather than an excuse, under which Chinese color their interpersonal life with an extra layer of passion.

Second, if Chinese are indeed more interested in elevating others while remaining humble in their own demeanor, and their verbal styles thus remain indirect, reserved, and reluctant in articulating their own viewpoints--by whatever standards--the researcher must not overlook the emotive side of their psyche (Chang, 2010). Rather than just being compelled to be authoritarian or particularistic given their collectivistic cultural orientation (Hofstede, 2001), endorsing Confucian harmony as their key value (G. Chen, 2001), or concerned about their face, Chinese are equally caring toward others. In other words, more than just external form, it is "the emotional basis that leads relational partners to be willing to recede" (Chang, 2002, p. 25).

We might also examine the Chinese tendency to utilize intermediaries in light of yuan's implications. The closer connection between oneself and his or her intermediary is more than just a matter of guanxi or face-concern, but a willingness to share matters with the intermediary because one has more yuan with him or her--or, shall we say, the foundation upon which guanxi is built is yuan. It is for the same reason that even those in instrumental ties--so-called "professional relationships"--often associate with them a personal flavor based in emotion. The relation with one's teacher, business associate, or even someone who performs a paid service, must be brought about through the maturation of yuan. Whether it is close or distant relationships, those who get the chance to enter into one's life are special, unique, and are thus to be cherished (xi) with emotion.

Yuan allows people to cherish interpersonal connection by celebrating the importance of the concern embedded within the relationship, rather than focusing on possible infringements of interpersonal boundaries. Since all interpersonal encounters are merely temporary, a feeling that one "has yuan" with another is more likely to lead to partners being willing to, rather than forced to, give precedence to each other's needs. In such a context, people will be more likely to let things take their course, rather than assert their own position or viewpoint by direct communication. Since the meaning of interpersonal life is to be appreciated, "talking"--and especially speaking for oneself--is less appropriate as a means to solve interpersonal problems and bridge differences. Chinese patterns of communication must be understood, not simply as the fact that they are prevented from expressing themselves, but how their appreciation of the preciousness of relational partners' entering their lives--yuan--makes it possible to place others ahead of oneself.

Third, yuan actually reveals an introspective attitude--i.e., events happen not so much because one is a hapless victim, but result from one's deeds in past lives, leading to the need to contemplate one's own activities. Interpersonal friction may not be seen as a struggle between individuals, but an outcome of one's own deeds--including one's verbal activities--for which one must take responsibility in resolving any problem.

This self-introspection is a far cry from the current literature that portrays Chinese as other-oriented. Note, however, such self-introspection is not about being selfish, but arises from a humble attitude in examining oneself, as one tries to hold oneself responsible for the situation. Yuan involves elements of internal attribution and inspection, as one reflects upon how facilitating conditions were brought about by one's own actions, as well as how one should learn to appreciate the opportunity of being associated with the other.

Fourth, yuan highlights the importance of context in relationship development. If the kind of yuan one encounters in this lifetime reflects the totality of deeds one has generated over uncountable lifetimes, relational problems can no longer be seen as simply local, here-and-now issues of personality or interest conflict solvable by communication skills, but must be understood in the larger context of reincarnated existence. Similar conclusions can be drawn concerning successful relationships.

As a result, for Chinese, "communication" does not have as direct an impact on relational success as Western theories suggest. Partly as a result of the concept of yuan, "communication" assumes a less prominent position in Chinese interpersonal encounters, whether smooth or conflictual. What role communication plays in Chinese intimate and non-intimate relationships must be investigated in light of the differential application of the concept of yuan.

Most importantly, when one's horizon is expanded, verbal articulation to assert one's own position may appear to be trivial or insignificant. Such an assertion reflects one's desire to hold onto certain things, and thus is a refusal to recognize the impermanent quality of the universe.

Final Thoughts

Current theories about Chinese communication fall short of a more sophisticated account reflecting the depth and the emotional side of Chinese thinking in light of yuan, which renders their relationships more colorful and textured. Of course, yuan is only one among many possible aspects one could use to examine Chinese communication. As I have mentioned elsewhere (Chang, 2010), we should adopt a multi-dimensional perspective to explore how Chinese relate to and engage with others. Such a view would emphasize having multiple perspectives, which may or may not cohere, in examining a cultural phenomenon. Simply put, the emotive and romantic side articulated through yuan does not negate a focus on, for example, establishing a harmonious relationship within particularistic parameters. The particularistic orientation of Chinese may reveal a focus on rules of hierarchy, but such a focus may be due to utilitarian considerations, a feeling of having yuan, or both.

Underneath the Chinese particularistic cultural values, I would argue, is a true concern for others and a sense of deep appreciation of having the opportunity to meet another because of yuan. If meeting the other is such a precious opportunity, why would one not put the focus on the other, and humble oneself not just before the other, but before the universe? A famous Chinese saying has it, "It takes a hundred years for [people] to share the same boat, and it takes a thousand years for [a couple] to share the same pillow." With this philosophical contemplation, might we not be able to conclude that verbal articulation asserting one's own position appears trivial and irrelevant?

Recalling my earlier stories, a smile at meetings of hearts between people in those encounters is all that takes to engage others. This interdependence runs counter to literature that describes people who prioritize the group over self, but rather reflects a true sense of sharing, a willing acknowledgement of the universe as manifested by yuan. When we go beyond external rules governing Chinese communicative behavior and enter into their emotive and romantic side as espoused by the folk concept of yuan, we gain a refreshed perspective where inside and outside integrate, and where individual and universe join together. Yuan's contents continue to develop and its meanings become reinterpreted, as yuan is refereed to, accounted for, made sense of, and experienced by Chinese in their everyday lives.

Although scholars have explored yuan from diverse perspectives, much analysis still reflects Western cultural value judgments, treating yuan as nothing more than a fatalistic construct in need of transformation. As a result, we seem to still operate under the Western frame of reference, despite the fact that we treat yuan as a key point of access to explore Chinese communication. I contend that yuan needs to be studied as an indigenous concept, rather than as a mere expression of collectivist cultural values. Folk concepts such as yuan should be studied in their own right, rather than subsuming it under other concepts--in other words, we need to go beyond the argument that Chinese are able to maintain their hierarchical role relationships due to belief in destined relationships.

Having articulated the importance of yuan to explore the depth of Chinese culture, I do not wish to imply that such ideas naturally inform us about how Chinese conduct their interactions. As L. Chen (2002) argues, the relation between cultural beliefs and actual behaviors cannot be taken for granted. Hence, even if we acknowledge the importance of yuan to Chinese interpersonal life, we must remain open to the possible contours yuan may take to exert its impact. The meanings of yuan will continue to be contested and performed, with multiple layers of meanings to be explored concerning how having a yuan-language marks the uniqueness of the Chinese emotional world, and their necessarily eventful interpersonal connectedness.


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(1) Note here the title of the website uses a homophone--instead of using "having" (you), it uses "friend" (you). On the surface, the youyuan refers to yuan of friends, rather than having yuan. It thus creates double meaning: having yuan with people who will become friends.

(2) Yuan is not used only to describe interpersonal relationships, but can denote interconnectedness among all beings in the universe. Whatever one has a deeper involvement with--whether a human being, spiritual being, event, concrete object, or abstract construct--one can describe oneself as "having yuan with" that particular target. For example, one may say something like, "I have a lot of yuan with this house." Wen (1988) also notes that in Buddhism, advice that one should "widely knot good yuan" (guang jie shan yuan) means one should encourage people with good deeds such as making virtuous donations.

(3) For a more detailed analysis of the concept, see Yu and Chen (1996).

(4) According to Yang (1982/1989), the majority of yuan-related proverbs and common sayings in Taiwan refer to marital relationships.

Hui-Ching Chang

University of Illinois, Chicago

Correspondence to:

Dr. Hui-Ching Chang

Department of Communications

University of Illinois at Chicago

Chicago, IL 60607

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Author:Chang, Hui-Ching
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Date:Oct 1, 2011
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