From kin to kindred, a character that connects people and brings them together落地为兄弟，何必骨肉亲
If同志 ( t5ngzh#, comrade) was the ubiquitous form of address in the revolutionary past— and has since been appropriated by the LGBT community—then 亲 ( q~n) may be the modern equivalent, at least among young urban women. Often used by Taobao merchants chatting with customers online, it is short for 亲爱的 ( q~n’3i de), or “dear, beloved, cherished.” In the UK or US, a similar term might be “love” or “hon” respectively—a platonic term of endearment, often used by coworkers or new acquaintances, to help close distances and facilitate communication.
The character’s evolution followed a similar path as to how we form social connections in life: We are born with blood ties and, from there, make friends, and build various relationships. First and foremost, 亲 refers to one’s parents, or 双亲( shu`ngqin): 母亲 ( m^q~n, mother) and 父亲 ( f&qin, father). Confucianism views blood kinship as the foundation of society, and over the years, various adherents have promulgated exemplars of filial piety, but not all are exactly shining models to follow—one tale features a poverty-stricken couple, who plan to kill their son in order to save food for the husband’s mother. Luckily, the child survives, as the gods instead reward the couple’s “virtue” with an urn full of gold.
Another story, that’s thankfully more lighthearted, concerns an old man in his 70s, who often dressed flamboyantly and jauntily to appear young for his parents’ sake—so they could take their minds off their own age. The story coined the term 彩衣娱亲( c2iy~ y% q~n, wear colorful clothes to please parents, or simply, “to entertain one’s parents”).
One’s biological offspring and siblings are definitely 亲, such as in 亲兄弟( q~nxi4ngd#, biological brothers). To stress the biological bond, use 亲生 ( q~nsh8ng), such as in 亲生子女( q~nsh8ng z@n)), biological children). Similarly, biological parents are 亲生父母( q~nsh8ng f&m^), while adoptive parents are called 养父母( y2ngf&m^).
Mostly referring to blood relations, 亲sometimes can also mean relations through marriage, as in 姻亲 ( y~nq~n) or “in-laws.” Though the phrase 相亲 ( xi`ngq~n) is roughly translated as “blind date” today, it actually started as an arranged meeting in which a man’s parents would assess and hopefully approve a prospective wife for him.
In other phrases, 亲 also refers to relatives in general, such as 亲戚 ( q~nqi, relatives), 亲属 ( q~nsh^, kinsfolk), 亲友 ( q~ny6u, family and friends). The warm and loving feelings one share with relatives are 亲情 ( q~nq!ng). But sometimes, we also say 远亲不如近邻( yu2nq~n b&r% j#nl!n, “a close neighbor means more than a distant relative”), since one’s neighbors may be better able to extend a helping hand in times of need, compared to distant kin.
To some, guanxi (关系, “connections” or “relationships”) is regarded as a “mysterious” Chinese cultural element, though, in fact, nepotism or favoritism are hardly phenomenon unique to China or Asia. Although there are elements of guanxi that are arguably exceptional, the term is rarely understood that way, and nor does guanxi always guarantee special treatment, such as in the phrase 六亲不认( li& q~n b% r-n, “refused to acknowledge one’s closest relatives”), which means the person does not play favorites with anyone.
Another folk saying goes, 亲兄弟，明算账 ( q~nxi4ngd#, m!ng su3nzh3ng, “even between biological brothers, financial matters should be settled clearly”). A fair and impartial attitude is always to be encouraged in matters of justice, as the phrase 大义灭亲( d3 y# mi- q~n, “punish one’s own relatives in the cause of justice”) describes.
Of course, in real life, it’s often the case that任人唯亲( r-n r9n w9i q~n, “appoint people by favoritism”), but there also exists its equal and opposite, at least in ancient history: According to a legend of the Spring and Autumn period (770 BCE – 476 BCE), when the lord of the Jin state asked his official Qi Huangyang to propose a candidate for provincial chief, Qi recommended someone who was his enemy. The lord later asked him to find a general for the army, and Qi recommended his own son. In both cases, Qi explained: “You asked for an appropriate candidate for the position, which has nothing to do with whether they are my enemy or my son.” The tale give rise to the phrase 举贤不避亲仇( j^ xi1n b% b# q~n ch5u), which means “recommend whoever is capable, family or foe.”
Later, 亲 came to mean people who are close to you, but not necessarily related by blood, such as in 亲如手足( q~n r% sh6u z%, “as dear as a brother”), and 亲近 ( q~nj#n, “be close to”). It is also used to describe sentimental feelings, as in亲热 ( q~nr-, affectionate) and 亲切 ( q~nqi-, warm and kindly). Along the same lines, as a verb,亲 means “kiss,” short for 亲吻 ( q~nw0n). For instance, 她亲了小猫一下。( T` q~n le xi2om`o y!xi3. “She gave the kitty a kiss.”)
Finally, 亲 can also refer to oneself, meaning “personally, in person,” as in 亲自 ( q~nz#). For example, 这是他的亲身经历。( Zh- sh# t` de q~nsh8n j~ngl#. “This event was his personal experience”).
Whether it’s family or friends, 亲 is about those who are, in some way, close to you. Hopefully, the meaning of this character will keep expanding, because, in the end, we are all in this life together.