Jyun4 fan6 (緣分) is a funny thing. In relationships, whether or not you and a loved one are destined to meet and end up together is down to this little concept — but the use of this expression isn’t limited to romantic liaisons alone. Keep running into a friend out and about? You two must have a lot of jyun4 fan6. Got in the same cab twice in a week? That’s jyun4 fan6 right there. Have a colleague that you particularly enjoy working with? Thank the jyun4 fan6 between you. We don’t choose our blood family — and the one you end up with could be a form of that, too.
Roughly meaning fate/destiny, and also known by its Mandarin name, yuanfen, jyun4 fan6 is most frequently used to describe romantic relationships between two people, as a factor that determines whether or not they stay together. It’s also often described as “fateful coincidence.”
A concept that finds its roots in Buddhism, jyun4 fan6 denotes the relationship between two people according to fate and destiny. Buddhism concepts were said to have begun to take hold in China during the imperial Tang Dynasty (618-907) in China, and eventually became part of Chinese beliefs. Everyday people who may not necessarily have understood Buddhism ideals absorbed the religion’s concepts into their daily lives “to serve a certain purpose,” according to the study The Meaning and Functions of the Concept of Yuanfen 缘分 in Contemporary China, published in the Vienna Journal of East Asian Studies in 2015. No scientific evidence that shows the development of the expression was kept in the 20th century, though this term has remained pervasive in modern times.
Essentially, the concept of jyun4 fan6 is used to describe the fate that ties two people together, owing to actions in their past life, as well as whether they’re destined to create a long-lasting relationship. It’s similar to the Buddhist belief of karma, where actions in the present could lead to direct consequences in the future: think “cause and effect.” Between a betrothed couple, for example, their meeting and eventual coupling is believed to have been brought about through serendipity and fate.
Still, the expression is more complex than just two individuals meeting in a bar, at a concert, or during their travels – and then dating and getting married, or becoming firm friends for life. Even though jyun4 fan6 is based on the belief that a relationship between two individuals is brought about through fateful coincidence, a third component of the belief is that all relationships are predestined.
It’s a beautiful idea: the fact that what we do, which leads to who we meet, was written in the stars. But then, there are always those who don’t quite make it all the way. For couples who call it quits, or friends who drift apart, there’s the expression jau5 jyun4 mou4 ban1 (有緣無份) — “have fate, but not destiny.” They had enough fate to bring them on to the same path — but destiny didn’t want them to walk the rest of that journey as one.
The concept may be a strange one to grasp. But the best way of immersing yourself in the idea it is to start looking to loved ones around you, and appreciate the affinity you have with them.
Note: Cantonese romanisation in this article is based on the jyutping system, which uses numbers to correspond to the six main tones in Cantonese.