Uncovering the Essence of True Friendship

A group of smiling Asian friends.

Zhuangzi's definition of a true friend is summed up in three words: "light as water." This means a friendship should not be mixed with interests or other ingredients. (Image: Victoria Savostianova via Dreamstime)

What kind of friendship can be regarded as true friendship?

We all know that interpersonal relationships can be complicated, but not all people we call friends are necessarily so. For example, partners in the business world are usually together, but according to Zhuangzi’s standards, this is not considered true friendship but rather a partnership.

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Zhuangzi’s definition of a true friend is summed up in three words: “light as water.” This means a friendship should not be mixed with interests or other ingredients.

True friendship: The dangers of misunderstanding friendship

People often say their friends cheat on them in real life, but this is typically because they do not understand what a friend is. If you define people as friends based on mutual interests, then it is inevitable to be subject to such lessons.

As many lessons have taught those seeking it, true friendship seems beyond mere interests and mutual understanding. Could it be that there is also a drop of destiny mixed into the cocktail of every true friendship?

The story of Xue Rengui and Wang Maosheng is a perfect example of true friendship.
The story of Xue Rengui and Wang Maosheng is a perfect example of true friendship. (Image: Public Domain)

The true meaning of friendship: Xue Rengui and Wang Maosheng

Let’s tell a story from the Tang Dynasty. A general named Xue Rengui was very poor when he was young. His family could only squeeze into a small cave, and they were often starving. Next door was a family master named Wang Maosheng, who was also an ordinary family. When he saw how poor Xue Rengui’s family was, Wang always saved a little from his food to help Xue Rengui.

Later, Xue Rengui joined the army and followed Emperor Taizong of Tang to fight in all directions. He was eventually made the Duke of Pingyang. Many people came to congratulate him with gifts. When Wang Maosheng, who had helped him, heard that Xue Rengui had become the county prince, he entrusted two large wine jars to him. Xue Rengui excused everyone’s gifts but only accepted the two altars of wine from Wang Maosheng.

When he opened the altar, he found that the altar was not filled with wine but ordinary clear water. A subordinate saw it and became furious, asking who was so bold as to send two altars of water to tease their General Xue.

Xue Rengui laughed and poured out three bowls of water to drink it all, saying that these two jars of water were sent by his good friend Wang. Although he could not afford to ship wine, Xue Rengui was still happy to accept the water because this was a sign that “a gentleman’s friendship is as light as water.”

Wang Maosheng did not seek to benefit from Xue Rengui’s development or curry favor with him, and Xue Rengui also did not forget this old friend. When Xue Rengui went to Wang Maosheng’s house again, Wang Maosheng still served him a light meal as he had before, and the friendship between the two lasted a lifetime.

The story of Xue Rengui and Wang Maosheng is a perfect example of true friendship. They were not involved in status or wealth, so even when Xue Rengui became a county king, Wang Maosheng only sent two jars of water to him, and Xue Rengui was still very happy.

Watercolor painting of a pagoda and trees with plum blossoms by a lake.
Light as water, friendship must be equal. (Image: Stephen Rudolph via Dreamstime)

The essence of true friendship

It seems true friendship can only be described poetically.

Light as water, friendship must be equal. Zhuangzi described such a friend as “looking at each other and laughing, a mirror image in the heart.” At any time together, without talking, a heartfelt smile is enough! True friendship is not based on interests or status but on mutual respect and understanding.

A friendship based on trust and loyalty will last a lifetime.

Translated by Eva

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