I am an American woman married to a Chinese man. I have lived in Shenzhen for many, many years. Consequently, I have heard many, many stories about cross-cultural romance – some successful, some not, others vaguely disturbing.
The other day, a good friend – Euro-American man because these labels mark the site of negotiation – told me that Chinese women say, “I love you,” way too soon. Creepy soon. So, I asked another good friend, Chinese woman, why it might be that my friend would go out on one or two dates with a woman and she was already willing to confess her love. My Chinese woman friend countered with her own question, “I thought that foreigners [meaning Westerners] were open about their feelings. Isn’t that true?” I then asked a Canadian born Hong Kong women what she thought it meant to say 爱 and she replied that she usually meant something leaning towards appreciation and gratitude.
Given that I like, respect, and trust these three people, I started thinking that the romantic cultural gap was even further than I had once thought (and yes, pangs of what was I actually doing when I fell in love ringing in my ears). I knew my Chinese friends often had different understandings of their place in a family because they have different understandings of what a family is. I knew that my Chinese women friends were more likely to start dating with an eye to marriage than my Western women friends.
And yet. I hadn’t stopped to think about what it might mean to say, “I love you,” in Shenzhen because that feeling has been so fundamental to how I have defined myself. Nor am I alone because one of the define features of modernity in the West has been the way that individual passion for god or a person or an ideal defines a fully human life. Consequently, I have assumed that love was not only a universal feeling, but universally important without stopping to consider that (1) it may not be universal even in the West or that (2) even if it is universal, forms of expression are certainly not.
After these conversations, I began listening to the use of 爱 in conversations and media broadcasts. I now think that 爱 means something closer to “appreciate” or “enjoy” or “desire” or “am grateful for”. More interestingly, I think 爱 allows Shenzhen Mandarin speakers to establish a site of individuality or personality. Who and what they love allows them to have something that is personal. Importantly, I also think 爱 is a much less socially important emotion (possibly because of its individualizing function) than are other sentiments, such as loyalty and trust and long-term commitment.
All this to say, I think that Shenzhen Mandarin speakers say I love you in order to create an individualized self. This self is recognized as being distinct from and often in opposition to the more important social and/or collective self. Anecdotal evidence follows.
(1) Accomplished children generally thank (in order) – their parents, teachers, classmates, and audience for supporting them to succeed, after which they add the line, “I love you all.” （我想感谢爸爸妈妈，感谢我的老师，感谢我的同学，感谢观众朋友；我都爱你们!) Given that that gratitude is hierarchically ranked and explicitly differentiated while爱 is general, this use of 爱 seems to signal that all the support excites or makes the speaker happy.
(2) One of the main ice-breaker conversations that Shenzheners enjoy is about hobbies or 爱好 – literally love-like (好 is a fourth tone noun in this phrase).
(3) 爱 is used to describe foods and activities that people enjoy – he loves to eat sweets (他很爱吃甜品); she loves to play tennis (她很爱打网球). Interestingly, this use of爱 seems in contrast to fear or 怕 as in the expression – he’s afraid to eat spicy food (他很怕吃辣的); she’s afraid to get sun tanned (她很怕晒太阳). In this context, it’s easy to see that this is not fear of boogeymen fear, but rather fear as dislike or something that challenges a sense of self.
(4) Once when my husband and I were having difficulties, I complained to a friend and told her how I intended to handle the situation. My friend responded, “It’s great that you dare to love and dare to hate (你敢爱敢恨多好).” In retrospect this use of 敢 seems to indicate the personal and marginalized aspect of爱.
(5) Likewise, I have been repeatedly told that Chinese women do not “become obsessed with passion (痴情),” but are loyal (忠) and faithful (贤).
(6) Indeed, a true friend is someone who is revealed over a long time (日久见人心), the person who is still by your side when those who love to eat and carouse with you (酒肉朋友) have gone their merry way.
To return to the question of what’s love got to do with it, clearly not as much as one such as I – western, feminist, using love to establish a life – would like to think. Hence, the “creepiness” of Chinese women who declare their “love” after several dates, when in fact all they might be saying is “I like you” and “Given the fact that I’m dating, it means I’m looking for husband material and I think you’ll due.” That said, once married, “I will be faithful and due my duty to you, my parents, your parents, my friends and yours – in short, I’ll live a socially responsible, respectable, and meaningful life.”
Now it may be that part of reform and opening China will be the increasing importance of 爱 in defining, constituting, and giving meaning to individual lives. But maybe not. And I don’t think matters because there are so many, many ways to be fully human and I’m learning to love – rather than fear – the diversity.