Love in China

Newly wed couple on the grass in Fragrant Hills, Beijing

How does Love in China differs from love in the west?

When it comes to matter of universal concern, there is none more mysterious and omnipresent than ‘Love’. Novelists, philosophers, playwrights, poets, and even columnists have tried to understand and explain the complexities of this most human emotion – but is Love the same the world over? Is Love expressed and fulfilled in similar ways in the East and the West?

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Of course, Love is not exactly the same for any two people – yet there are some fascinating cultural differences that become apparent when one takes a closer look at the way the game of Love in China is played as opposed to the West. Most westerners, in general, believe that love should be the primary foundation for relationships between men and women, including marriage. Love is, indeed, the most compelling reason for ‘taking the plunge’. This is a very romantic attitude towards an institution that has for the larger part of the history of humanity been based upon things much more expedient. Although everyone knows that marriage was once an institution focused primarily upon religious, social, and familial needs, today the vast majority of western couples will tell you that they want to marry, and indeed, believe that one ‘should’ marry, for love, and only for love. Yes, yes, most will agree that society and family are also important, but it would be hard to find a westerner that would put their individual feelings aside and marry someone based principally upon the wishes (or even the advice!) of their parents, their bosses, or their neighbors.

Love, like most life goals in western cultures, is the result of a person’s private wishes and desires. Philosophically speaking, the personal or private good overshadows the familial or public good. Perhaps this is why western divorce rates are so high – the quality of the individual life takes precedence over the preservation of community, continuity and conformity for public benefit. It is well known that the American divorce rate is over 50% – some recent statistics show that approximately 6 out of 10 American marriages end in divorce. But Love is as strong as ever – even though it ends in disillusionment more often than not.

Love In China also occupies the minds and lives of young and old. Yet, some major differences between the quest for love in China as opposed to in the west still persist. I have noticed, from my experience as a professor in Beijing Universities, that most young adults seem to have boyfriends and girlfriends at an early age – often as early as their teens. Unlike their western counterparts, however, they seem to date the same person for much longer periods – often years at a time, and dating seems most often to culminate in marriage.

I have been told in China that a young person who dates many people may be seen as capricious or disloyal, which could lead to a bad reputation. In the west, by comparison, dating has practically become a sport. A westerner who dates only one person is seen as foolishly limiting their pool of candidates for love, and thus their chances of finding the ‘right’ person. Youngsters are generally advised to date as many people as possible, to look for that ‘ideal’ partner. Breakups can be difficult, but as the saying goes ‘there are plenty of fish in the sea’. Sexual activity also seems to occur much earlier among young people in the west, another result of a culture focused on personal pleasure and happiness.

However, the attitude towards Love in China and its expressions, though changing rapidly in larger cities, is far different. For example, while many of my American students have children of their own, never have I seen a student on a Chinese campus with a child. In fact, until recently, Chinese university students were not permitted to marry or have children while in school – - nor can they marry legally today until they are a minimum of twenty years of age (for girls) or twenty-two (for boys). A law was passed in September of 2005 that allows university students to marry if they are of legal age, however, student marriages are still extremely rare in China. The ‘One Child Policy’ ensures that each couple has no more than one child (except in a small minority of cases). Chinese students do exhibit public displays of affection when ‘in love’, but not nearly so often, nor so explicitly, as do Western students. And, in my experience, Chinese young people display affection publicly at a greater rate on university campuses than can be seen in the general public. Overall, Chinese society is far more reserved then Western society when it comes to displaying ‘love’ – that is, kissing and hugging – in public.

Although mature Chinese married couples may have as many ‘bumps along the road’ of marriage as do western couples, China’s divorce rate is only about 16% of the U.S.’s. This may indicate a culture more focused on maintaining a stable society through continuity of the family structure than on personal needs and desires. In fact, until only a few years ago, a couple was required to obtain permission from their work unit to get divorced. If your supervisors did not agree, then you would not be permitted to divorce your spouse. A Chinese married friend of mine tells me that, likewise, in the past one could not get married without the consent of one’s work unit. When she was 22 years old (a decade ago) she wanted to marry her fiancé, but was told that she must wait until she was 23 (men had to be 25 to get married). She acquiesced to this request, knowing that her superiors had both her best interests and the interests of society at large in mind. She says it never occurred to her to challenge their decision. Love in China is strong, but the Chinese are more willing than westerners to curb their desires for the benefit of those around them.

While many things have changed today in China – the legal age for marriage is lower and public displays of affection are more common than in the past – it seems that this willingness to put off immediate gratification and to blend one’s own desires with the desires of family and society is still strong. I was having dinner recently with some Chinese friends, and a lovely couple in their thirties joined us. Wondering how they had met, I asked my friend after dinner to tell me about them. She said that they had actually married when the man was almost thirty, and the young lady eight years younger. The man finally decided to marry because his parents wanted him to do so (a common source of pressure to marry for Chinese singles entering their thirties). Meetings were arranged with a number of eligible single women. When he met his current wife at one of these encounters he fell in love with her, and she agreed to marry him because her mother wanted her to choose a husband who was an intellectual (which he was). Thus both of them allowed their parents’ wishes to direct their choices concerning love and marriage. In my experience, this is the Chinese norm. While taking parental advice concerning the choice of a mate is viewed as customary and beneficial when dealing with Love in China, ignoring (or even defying) one’s parents’ wishes in matters of love is more common in western culture. This is why Romeo and Juliet is considered the most famous of western Romantic stories!

I have heard many Chinese students speak of their future hopes for Love in China in terms of their parents’ wishes, and of wanting to make their parents proud while satisfying their own romantic dreams. Love in China, it seems, is about balancing personal feelings with public and family expectations. In the west, however, the ideal sought is a love that can shut all others out while flying in the face of familial and social expectations. In other words, Love in China is the icing on the cake, or the salt in the stew – but the meal must be catered to everyone’s liking. In the west, Love is the whole cake – a confection prepared for two and only two by a private chef – it doesn’t matter if anyone else likes it, as long as it tickles the palates of the lovers.