Yuan (缘) or Yuanfen (缘份; pinyin: yuan2 fen4) is a Buddhist-related Chinese concept that means the predetermined principle that dictates a person’s relationships and encounters, usually positive, such as the affinity among friends or lovers. In common usage the term can be defined as the “binding force” that links two persons together in any relationship. The concept of synchronicity from the Swiss psychologist Carl Jung can be seen as similar to yuanfen, which Chinese people also believe to be a universal force governing the happening of things to some people at some places. Yuanfen belongs to the family of concepts known in theology as determinism.
Some believe that the driving forces and causes behind yuanfen are the actions done in the previous reincarnations. This aspect is therefore similar to karma of Buddhism. However, while karma often refers to the consequences of an individual’s actions on him- or herself, “yuan” is always used in conjunction with two persons.
Unlike other Chinese social relations, which describe abstract, but easily noticeable, connections between people, nowadays, Chinese merely use this word poetically or to emphasize a meant-to-be relationship, and almost never in a serious business or legal situation.
- When one meets a person (of either gender) who is hard to find, one can exclaim: “It is yuanfen that has brought us together!”
- When one encounters another repeatedly in various locations that it seems to be beyond coincidence, one can refer to yuanfen.
- On the contrary, when two persons who know each other (maybe as penpals) but never get a chance to meet face-to-face, it can be said that their yuanfen is too superficial or thin.
The Mandarin proverb: 百世修来同船渡，千载修得共枕眠 (pinyin: bai3 shi4 xiu1 lai2 tong2 chuan2 du4, qian1 zai4 xiu1 de2 gong4 zheng3 mian2)
- Literally: It takes hundreds of reincarnations to bring two persons to ride on the same boat; it takes a thousand eons to bring two persons to share the same pillow.
Often yuanfen is said to be the equivalent of “fate” (as is with the title of a 1984 movie starring Leslie Cheung) or “destiny”. However, these words do not have the element of the past playing a role in deciding the outcome of the uncertain future. The most common Chinese term for “fate” or “destiny” is mingyun (命運 ming4 yun4), literally “the turn of events in life”.
“Providence” and “predestination” are also not exact translations, because these words imply that the things happen by the will of God or gods, whereas yuanfen does not necessarily involve divine intervention.