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Peter lived for nearly a half-decade in China, including two as a Peace Corps volunteer, and is the author of Socrates in Sichuan: Chinese Students Search for Truth, Justice and the (Chinese) Way. It is the intention of his blog to foster the sort of intercultural understanding necessary for long term relationships.
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What's Love Got To Do with It? (Part 1)    

By Peter V
2903 Views | 1 Comments | 7/23/2012 10:25:57 AM

I am pretty certain I am going to catch a lot of flak for this column, especially given the reaction to my last column, where I was only reporting the views of others. Here I am going to put out my own point of view, and I am sure (or at least hope) it is going to be controversial. I have no problem if you disagree with me. All I ask is for you to realize that what follows represents a deeply held conviction formed after living more than three years in China, dating numerous Chinese women, talking to and interviewing countless others, discussing the matter with friends, doing a good deal of reading and some hard thinking on the subject. So I’m pretty convinced of this claim and doubt that anything is going to come along to argue me out of it. But feel free to go ahead.

So here it is: when it comes to relationships, dating and marriage, romantic love as we understand it in the West-- the notion that passion (eros) should be the driving force in relationships—simply does not enter into the equation for most Chinese women. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as I will argue. But you need to realize this going in, otherwise you are going to be in for a great deal of disappointment and confusion.

Now as I said, I am talking about what is true for the most part. It does not mean there are not exceptions. But the exceptions are rare, and moreover, the exceptions do not mean that the generalizations are not true or revealing. For example, it is true that most Americans are fat; there is indisputable statistical evidence on the obesity of my fellow countrymen. So despite the exceptions—for example, the fact that I and most of my friends are incredibly thin—the generalization is valid. Just so, the fact that you can point to one or two exceptions to this attitude towards love (although I have not found any) in no way blunts the force of the overall point.

Historically speaking, romantic love has played a rather minor role in the decision of whom to marry in China. Since, as the saying goes, in China marriage is between two families, not between two people, there are obviously other things besides love to be factored into the equation of whom to marry. Indeed, the belief that elements besides one’s own desires must be taken into the marriage decision is an instance of what Richard Nisbett has argued for so eloquently in “The Geography of Thought,” the notion that in the Asian mind the group is more important than the individual. By contrast the concept that the individual is more important than the group is woven into the very fabric of the Western theory of individual rights, especially the American idea that we have an inalienable right to pursue our own happiness. These conflicting attitudes towards individualism are not without implications when it comes to romantic love. If I am primarily interested in satisfying my own desires, I will be much more likely to be a devotee of romantic love, allowing myself to be overcome by emotion and following that feeling wherever it leads, regardless of the attitudes of family, friends or society. By contrast, if group needs come first, I am much more likely to restrain my own desires for the good of the whole, especially if there is a sense following my passion will be destructive to some larger harmony.

Given these conflicting attitudes towards individualism, it should come as no surprise to learn that the very notion of romantic love originates in the West. As Denis de Rougemont argues in his masterpiece, “Love in the Western World,” in the stories of courtly love told by wandering minstrels of the medieval period in Western Europe, we see the glorification of romantic passion as something mystical, divine and life-enhancing for the first time in human history. Prior to this, erotic desire had been condemned as part of the general Christian hostility towards the body and its demands, an antagonism evident in everything from the Garden of Eden story to the letters of St. Paul. But as a result of these courtly sagas such as Tristan and Isolde, those who wish to follow their heart in matters of relationships now have a model they can appeal to justify their actions. By contrast, China offers no such historical model parallel to these stories of the Middle Ages that glorify romantic love. (For reasons I will be happy to discuss in the comments section, The Butterfly Lovers does not qualify).

If the courtly sagas of the Middle Ages establish the notion of romantic love in the Western psyche, the intellectual movement of Romanticism, which begins in Europe in the 18th century, will cement the role of romantic love as being at the core of Western attitude towards love. Placing passion above reason and claiming that the individual should look inward for guidance rather than outward towards society and laws, Romanticism is not only or even primarily about individual relationships but it has implications which certainly apply to this domain, validating the notion of following your heart in matters of love even if it means transgressing against the norms and standards of society. Although the movement is shot through with intellectual inconsistencies, its vast influence on Western thought in general and American popular culture in particular is impossible to deny. Indeed it is not too much to say that today Americans are by default hopeless Romantics. Probably one out of every two Hollywood movies has as its theme “love conquers all.” The Titanic is only the tip of the iceberg (pun intended) of not only movies but television shows and novels that glorify following one’s heart in matters of love and relationships and putting aside social conventions and the opinions and attitudes of others. By contrast, the Chinese tradition contains no similarly-themed mainstream intellectual movement. Indeed, Communism in general and the Cultural Revolution in particular were hostile towards he very notion of romantic love, believing that any relationship that interfered with devotion to Mao was harmful and destructive. Given all this historical baggage, then, it is no surprise that romantic love played little role in the actual working out of male-female relationships in China.

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#2012-07-25 14:08:12 by aussieghump @aussieghump

My own viewpoint is that 'romantic love' has really only become fashionable in the West in the last 50 years - most of the stories and songs are more about the exception rather than the rule...Those tales excite us and make us focus on an 'ideal' that we don't actually have in real life.

Looking over the fence to see what the neighbors have! The art form has just been exulted - romantic novel, sexual advertising, toys, potions and legends.
For the most part, I would say that most non-Chinese are as dissatisfied with their 'romantic-induced' marriage compared to a 'traditionally-family induced' marriage...divorce rates appear about the same, fights happen, people still argue - many of the foreigners in China are on their second or third marriage course! Many are looking for 'something different' that they suspect that their culture does not hold.

Maybe the 'reasons' are different, but I don't actually hold the 'romantic' model as being essential different from others! More likely is the way males and females interact to the same stimulus - and whether this is compatible is important - and I think this is the cultural overtone!What do you expect from a situation!

Interesting topic - looking forward to other's views.

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