Transformation Of Romantic Love In Modern Chinese Culture

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Romantic love is universally expressed by emotions through both non-verbal and verbal language. The term, “Love”, is seen in Confucianism and Buddhism and other Chinese contexts, where there is a belief of the basic Seven emotions that includes love. (Yik, 2010) Romantic love is to experience internal happiness in relations to a person. (Oatley & Johnson,1987) In traditional Chinese culture, expressing this kind of happiness was seen as a taboo and the concept of romantic love was only subtly represented in books or songs.

This has changed since the 1980s, when the People’s Republic of China has had its opening up policy that increased the cultural exchange between its people and the world. The traditional and conservative kind of love and romance has then transformed to a more open and westernised dating and marriage culture. In this paper, the author will discuss the changes of romantic love in China brought by 3 aspects of western cultural intervention, Materialisation, Westernization and Individualism. Specifically, the writer will state the changes brought by Materialism on the expectation, Westernisation on the expression and Individualism on the meaning, of romantic love in modern China.

In China, with capitalism and materialism, love is no longer only about self-sacrifice to work for a partners’ family, but the financial sacrifices that one made for another. Back then, Potter & Potter(2000) has described the Chinese love as showing feelings for one another in hard work, like building a house or harvesting for the woman’s family, instead of expressing love with other means.

Self-sacrifice with hard work was considered important as a way to show the romantic love for not only a single person, but also the greater love to the whole family. However, this has changed since the opening up policy, from a centrally-planned economy to a market-based one in which love is shown and displayed via material care for the spouse. With more media advertisements emphasising on western notion of love through materials, e.g. special handbags to be bought on Valentine’s Day and Qixi(七夕), the female consumers have expected their Chinese lovers to buy them the latest luxuries to show their love. (Siegle,2018)

Moreover, dating shows that were aired after the loosen of law on Chinese media, are having inevitable effects on the change in the mindset of Chinese. For instance, on the reality TV dating program “If you are the One”, a 22-year-old model has expressed that she would choose a person that she does not like but owns a BMW, rather than being loved by a poor who owns a bicycle only. (Sebag,2012) Other shows have also contestants expressing that they would not consider a boyfriend if he earns less than RMB 200,000 a month. (Wang,2018) With the emphasis on money and materialism, the media has helped shaping the mindset of the Chinese in choosing their spouse on the criteria of the amount of wealth and materials that are given to the female rather than the hard work that one put.

Through westernisation, Chinese have been more open in using verbal or text to express their love to one another. Back then, Chinese had more restraints when dealing with romantic feelings of love, saying “I love you (Wo-ai-ni)” openly was still an unchartered behaviour. (Lake,2014)In traditional Chinese love songs, love was even depicted as more embedded with more indirect word expressions of love, like “nostalgia”, being used. Lake also mentioned a previous fMRI study that showed, due to the long tradition of embedded expression in love, Chinese might have conditioned response to romance.

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Oppositely, in English songs, desire for sex and happiness are always publicly expressed. With increasingly more Chinese being exposed to the western culture after China’s Opening Up, including western songs listening and watching shows, more of them have openly expressed their romantic love to each other. In the recent decade, many have used direct text, which is a more passive way than face-to-face, to express the affection of love to one another. For instance, many have now use the internet slang of “520”(wo-ai-ni) and “1314” (yi-sheng-yi-si) to text and express their passion for one another. (‘520’,2016). With the worldwide influence of US popular culture through movies, TV, pop music, it is found that there is a movement towards a greater openness concerning the expression of feelings, with the ease of sending love via new technology. (Friedman,2016) Therefore, with more western cultural products being brought to China after its Opening Up, Chinese have opened up its communication for love in a more direct way.

A reconceptualization on the idea of romantic love, marriage and commitment is seen after the imposition of the “Open door policy”. China had a long history in arranged marriage, where romance and love was not essential and the commitment to marriage was seen as a responsibility towards a family in exchange for greater socio-economic benefits. (Wolf & Huang,1980) Parental decisions were highly valued, but romance and passion were seen as unrealistic expressions. Divorce was even seen as tragic events that Chinese women felt reluctant to admit they were divorced.

Therefore, Platte (1988) stated that once a pair was married through arranged marriage, it was seen as a highly committed relationship in family and love, which might not involved romance. However, after the codification of the marriage law in 1980, freedom to marry is granted, and this has changed the behaviour of people in romantic love relationship. The concept of individualism places a role in marriage as people then believe in “marriage-for-love”. (Hatfield & Rapson,1993).For instance, in 1970, only 1.8% of couples have lived together before marriage, which was largely due to the social norm of “improperness of touching between sexes before marriage (男女授受不親)”.

The situation has changed and more than 32% of couples now have reported that with romance and strong feelings for each other, they have decided to live together even though they are not married. (Wang,2018) One also does not have to be fully committed to one another,when it comes to marriage, as marriage is based on love at the moment and this is justified with divorce getting more common. People believe that it is an individual’s freedom to choose whether to continue staying with each other, instead of emphasising on the long term love commitment with the family.

Wang also quoted that the number of couples getting divorce have increased from 170,000 to 3.5million from 1978 to 2013, and this has shown that relationships were not as committed as before and that romantic love relationships are getting more causal. As the romantic relationships between couples have evolved from a collective decision of the family to an individual’s choice, with the change in social norms, Chinese are getting less committed in love relationship.

All in all, with the change in Chinese culture through westernisation, materialism and individualism, the modern era of Chinese romantic love has changed from expecting hard work from one, expressing love subtly, committing long because of family, to expecting materials from spouses, expressing more openly and committing because of individual feelings for one another. With Chinese having more exposure to the western culture, Chinese romantic love is evolving to becoming more westernised and open.

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