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Ancient tale of best friends has lessons for today

Updated: 2022-01-13 08:49 ( China Daily )
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True friends always stay united in spirit, as exemplified and lauded in Chinese folk tales throughout history. Among such tales, the story of Guan Zhong and Bao Shuya is a good case in point.

Despite the passage of time since it was recorded by historians, the saga of their friendship has always been regarded as a fine example for junzi, the moral exemplar in Chinese philosophy.

Both Guan and Bao were politicians during the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 BC), under Qi Huangong, or Duke Huan of Qi, the ruler of the State of Qi, and the first of the five overlords of that era.

They were born in Yingshang, in modern-day Anhui province in East China, and became acquainted with each other at an early age.

Compared to Guan's family, Bao's was relatively wealthy. Nevertheless, the two became best friends, and Bao admired Guan's talent and erudition.

Known for being a loyal friend, Bao could always comprehend Guan's difficulties and feelings, and never blamed him for his failures and shortcomings.

Before entering politics, they were engaged in business and took part in joint ventures together. But Guan always took a greater share of the profits than he actually deserved. Bao was well aware of this but never accused him of avarice, on account of Guan's poverty.

Guan was dismissed from his posts several times, but Bao believed Guan was not given enough opportunities to fully demonstrate his abilities. Guan also fled battlefields on multiple occasions, and Bao made exceptions for Guan's need to take care of his elderly mother rather than accusing him of cowardice.

The two friends later entered politics as tutors to two princes of Qi. Guan was appointed tutor to Prince Jiu. Bao, meanwhile, became tutor to Jiu's brother, Prince Xiaobai.

After a series of murders and coups, Prince Xiaobai became Duke Huan of Qi, the state's new ruler. Subsequently, the new ruler won the war against the State of Lu which sheltered Prince Jiu and tried to enforce his claim.

Consequently, Qi pressured Lu to kill the prince and send Guan back.

With Guan's repatriation, the two friends were reunited. But the new ruler, Duke Huan of Qi, still bore a grudge against Guan, since Guan had tried to assassinate him. Meanwhile, the ruler planned to elevate Bao, his tutor and guardian, to the post of chancellor.

Bao, however, defended his friend's allegiance to his former master and lauded his talent, persuading the duke to exonerate Guan and elevate him to the position of chancellor instead of Bao. He also persuaded Guan to shift his loyalty to the new ruler.

Duke Huan of Qi took Bao's suggestion into consideration. Years later, based on Duke Huan's governance and Guan's reforms and deft diplomacy, Qi became the most powerful state of that time.

Historian Sima Qian documented in Shiji (Records of the Grand Historian) a quote of Guan regarding his lifelong friend: "My parents gave birth to me, but it is Bao who knows me best."

True friendship and the mutual trust and understanding between friends, as represented in the story of Guan and Bao, have been highly regarded in China for thousands of years and continue to have practical significance in contemporary society and international relations.


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