Those Three Little Words: Expressing Love in China

Those Three Little Words: Expressing Love in China
Mar 17, 2014 By Elaine Pang ,

Outsiders who have never stepped into China can hardly be blamed for believing that Chinese people are incapable of expressing love. For many, saying those three little words can be very difficult. In a culture, for most part governed by Confucianism, where outward conduct was emphasized over inner feelings, China progressed into socialism where the self was downplayed, and ending today in sheer economics, where the pursuit of the material often takes precedence over the relational and emotional. All these factors have played a part in the disappearance of the need for outward displays of love. Yet on the other hand, those living in China can easily testify to PDA (public displays of affection) along sidewalks.

Those Three Little Words: Expressing Love in China
Ai – The character for love.
Source: metaxin

Love among the Ancients

Arranged marriages and chaste strolls in manicured gardens are just some of the stereotypes of ancient China. This is not entirely without basis as society back then was governed by a rigid class system. Betrothals were therefore necessary to prevent economically incompatible unions which would bring shame on the family name. Marriage was largely an economic transaction among parents from both sides, mediated by the requisite matchmaker.

Confucianism was one of the pervasive influences of the day, governing all forms of human interactions with a strict code of conduct, hence dispensing with the need for love and emotions. Similarly, love was unspoken within families, between husbands and wives, parents and children. Children were meant to be seen and not heard and parental love was measured in willingness to discipline as families had multiple children and running a tight ship made sense. In an agricultural economy, children were also economic assets or a source of free labor. Showing love to one’s employees too openly would invite management issues further on.

Symbols of Love

This does not mean that romantic love was non-existent in ancient China. Ancient literature is replete with love poems and tales of clandestine affairs, as in The Dream of the Red Chambers. Expressions of love were symbolic, mostly through gifts of perfume sachets, jade and other jewelry. Similar to Western culture, rings were an unending symbol of marital love, and hence could not be worn by singles.

Likewise, love existed in families; albeit carefully disguised as filial piety or the sacrificial parental love. Examples abound, notably Mencius’ mother who moved the family thrice in search of a suitable environment for his upbringing. A Chinese mother, after moving to various provinces in China but finding no environment clean enough, finally emigrated the whole family to England to alleviate her son’s respiratory problems, could find herself favorably compared to the mother of the ancient great.

Ethnic minorities were traditionally more romantically expressive than their Han counterparts and singing mountain songs about love was a common form of courtship among groups like the Zhuang and Qiang minorities. Festivals, such as the Yi minority’s Torch Festival, typically feature courtship rituals. Young Zhuang women in Guangxi painstakingly hand-embroider silk balls to toss towards prospective suitors.

Love in China, Decoded

China Daily recently ran a piece on how Chinese find it difficult to utter the three words, “I love you,” whether among married couples or between parents and children. The paper even went on to document parental reactions to their grown-up children declaring their love to them. The more humorous include, “Have you finally found a boyfriend?” or “I’ve already sent you the money.”

The most typical “Western” explanation would be collectivism, which downplays the need for expression on a personal and emotional level in China. High levels of power and emotional distance characterize family relationships commonly viewed as chauvinistic and paternalistic from the outside.

The Chinese put it differently. China Daily attributes this phenomenon to a culture that values deeds above words: a trickle-down effect from ancient times. Chinese parental love today takes the form of home-cooked meals, the most up-to-date electronic gadgets and college tuition until postgraduate level. Another explanation would be in the line of Confucianism, where obligation takes precedence over feelings in relationships. Which means one can dispense with the need to express emotions such as gratitude or love.

Of course China has come a long way since the age of the dynasties. Economics and globalization jostle alongside a strict one-child policy, exposing the young to cultures unafraid to express love and other emotions; making parents vulnerable to showing love to their only child.

Walking along any busy urban street, one does not have to look hard to witness the full gamut of PDA, from hand-holding to hugging to full French kissing, making the experience virtually indistinguishable from a walk down any “Western” street in this respect. Young lovers are quick to declare love, whether verbally of through openly romantic gestures such as rose bouquets of 999 stalks. Followers of scandal sites will be acutely aware of the many elaborate public marriage proposals and loosening attitudes towards sex out of marriage. Obviously, many of these physical displays of affection are typical of puppy love (or lust) and die down as quickly as a burst of fireworks.

Displays of love take effort and not everyone has the stamina to go the distance. Couples progressing to the next stage find that dates eventually dissolve into smart-phone gazing sessions. Moreover, it is still uncommon for love to overrule the need for expensive gifts or earning capacity in making the eventual decision to wed. A contestant of a popular matchmaking TV program in Shanghai once famously rejected an unemployed suitor with the words, “I would rather cry in a BMW than laugh on the backseat of a bicycle.”

Predictably, PDA among older couples is few and far between. But one does not have to look too hard for heart-warming sights of silver-haired couples returning from the local markets together, with bags full of vegetables.

Within the family, the typical Chinese parent today is largely unwilling to openly express affection, which is a sentiment often reciprocated. However, today’s young parents, exposed to movies and the Internet, are aware of alternative methods of raising children. They are keen to raise their children with the affection and affirmation they feel they’ve lacked while growing up. The wildly popular Chinese movie, “Dad, where are we going?” which debuted at the start of February 2014, struck a chord with Chinese TV-watchers for featuring open affection of celebrity fathers towards their young children.

Eroding Confucianism values may result in more affectionate and openly loving relationships. However, the downside could be that the lack of societal pressure could erode the protection brought by filial piety. Chinese parents now have the option to sue adult children for neglecting to visit them, indicating that when giving the choice, many children do.

Whether motivated by love or societal pressure, some way of governing human relationships is necessary in every society. For the Chinese the latter has worked well until this day. As the younger generation seems eager to switch over to the former, teething problems are to be expected. But whether for love or obligation, the eventual goal is the same – to ensure the treatment of one’s nearest and dearest with dignity.

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Keywords: Expressing love in China expressions of love; three little words


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Ai - 愛 in traditional Chinese as shown in the picture above. Ai - 爱 in simplified Chinese. The part that's missing in the latter is xin - 心 - heart. One might consider this a symbol of China developing. Take the heart out of love and modern China is what you get. Of course things are a bit more complicated. Economic considerations play quite a role in choice of partner in China, but the presence of love is certainly capable of pushing those into the background. Let's hope the rampant materialism is only a symptom of growth and will be history once wealth is available to everyone in China.

Mar 17, 2014 18:08 Report Abuse



You are quite right that the heart is missing from the original character. You see, when we love, we do so with our hearts, that why they say love is blind. However, with the loss of the heart, people now use their eyes. That's why the eyes see what they like, not feel the love with the heart, which in turn means no more love. Rampant materialism is not a symptom but a disease. How do you explain people with 40 mistresses and 50 houses? This disease develops into greed. Greed in itself is not a bad thing. It's uncontrolled greed that permeates the society at present. So, even if wealth is available to everyone in China, you will never rid the country of this disease.

Mar 18, 2014 00:32 Report Abuse



Filial piety erroding away? Yeah right! I have lot's of Chinese friends who have found someone they truely love but mummy didn't like her so they broke up. I am suprised Chinese mothers don't marry their sons.

Mar 17, 2014 07:37 Report Abuse



In my experience here, there is love only when there is money. Thus, no money = no honey. I am sure some of those who are already married experience this as well in varying degrees. Materialism in this country is already going into overdrive. Many of my local friends remain single (I meant unattached) because they cannot afford to do so. Demands (I mean DEMAND) from girlfriends are very unrealistic. If he can't afford a Louis Vuitton for her it would mean he doesn't love her. So let's not preach about finding love in this country. Of course, there are exceptions here but they are few and far in between. To get married, he must be able to afford a house and car. Without which, he would almost likely be celibate (apart from the visits to the massage parlor). We have had discussions on this subject umpteen times, why keep harping on this issue that love can be found here?

Mar 17, 2014 00:24 Report Abuse



Of course you can find love in this country... the best love that money can buy.

Mar 17, 2014 08:35 Report Abuse