Wanna talk about your love life? People in China do. For the past year, I’ve been living in Shenzhen and working on a collection of true stories about love and marriage experiences since the rise of Communist China. Far from being viewed positively, romantic love often generates suspicion among the older generations and confusion among the young. This brief Valentine’s Day story, told to me by a charming twenty-two year old Buddhist woman, illuminates the clash of old and new ideas about love:
“The first time a boy kissed me, I was fifteen, and it was Valentine’s Day. He pretended to have a school question to ask, but instead he declared that he liked me. He pressed a rose into my hand, which I tried to refuse, stammering that I didn’t like him at all. I turned to go, but he pulled me close and kissed me! I wrestled my arm away and raced into my house, very flustered. After that, I hated him, thinking he was a morally rotten boy. I had never seen anybody kiss or hug in my hometown, not even married people, and nobody said, “I love you” either. I just wanted to cultivate friendships and avoid loving anyone, so I never talked to that boy again. If people in my hometown ever kissed like young lovers do in the cities, everyone would think they were degenerates, even today.”
Chinese Valentine’s Day is a relatively recent Western import that launched on shaky footing, as romantic love has not always been welcomed in China. For much of the last millennium, the term “romantic love” actually described illicit dalliances with concubines, courtesans, or prostitutes, rather than respectable spousal relations. Marriages were almost exclusively arranged by parents for financial, social, or political reasons, and teen brides met their husbands at the wedding and moved into their new homes for the purpose of bearing sons and doing housework. In the 1920s, however, young revolutionaries began to talk of marrying for love, a concept so new that a new vocabulary had to be created to describe it.
The connotation of “romantic love” has shifted dramatically since then, and today’s lovers can safely express themselves on Valentine’s Day (celebrated not in February, but during August’s Qixi festival), ‘I Love You’ Day (May 20), and even ‘Single’s Day’ (November 11), a popular date for marriage proposals. Ironically, China now celebrates more love holidays than any Western nation, perhaps because saying “I love you” out loud is not culturally common, so special days provide a safe space for young couples to risk saying something new. These holidays are just one indicator of China’s rising love culture, a distinctive social movement with young people squarely at the forefront.
A recent study1 explored one aspect of this new love culture: high school dating. Teen love relationships, which were extremely rare twenty years ago (especially among students), and are still categorically unacceptable to most Chinese parents, are nevertheless on the rise. The study, a joint effort by Chinese and Canadian scholars, assessed hundreds of high school students (mean age: 16.6 years) in both countries to examine the linkages between parental, peer, and romantic relationships. They found that Canadian teenagers were twice as likely as their Chinese counterparts to report a current romantic relationship: 25% of boys and 10% of girls in China reported having a boyfriend or girlfriend, compared to 39% of boys and 45% of girls in Canada. While such numbers suggest that Chinese boys are two-and-a-half times more likely than Chinese girls to be involved in a romantic relationship, the researchers argued that culture affected this result. Because Chinese families are much stricter with daughters than sons and also expect girls to stifle early feelings of love (like the Buddhist woman who wanted to “avoid loving anyone”), perhaps Chinese girls truly do date less often. One can’t help wondering, though, who the boys are dating if not their female classmates? Perhaps Chinese girls underreported their romantic involvements out of embarrassment or the fear of getting caught.
The researchers noted two other important differences between China and Canada. First, in China, but not in Canada, teens that felt close to their parents were much less likely to date in the first place. Chinese culture still prizes “filial piety” or loyalty and obedience to parents, and “good children” are supposed to do what their parents would think is right. Since Chinese parents usually forbid high school dating, and such relationships must be kept secret, it follows that “good” children might avoid dating altogether in deference to their parents. Secondly, and most likely relatedly, Chinese teens reported less trust and companionship with boyfriends and girlfriends than do Canadian teens. The researchers did not speculate why this is the case, but since young love is not socially acceptable, and many Chinese would even consider it morally wrong, it might be hard for teens to fully enjoy and commit to these questionable relationships.
The older generations in China may never change their view, but as more and more young Chinese teenagers are choosing to date, and to celebrate love holidays like Valentine’s Day, ‘I Love You’ Day, and Singles’ Day, it’s hard to ignore what amounts to a modern revolution of the heart. One can only wonder what’s next—Chinese ‘Tell Your Parents About Your Boyfriend’ Day?
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Melissa Schneider - Science Of Relationships articles | Website
Melissa is a couples counselor and writer interested in the dynamics of romantic relationships. She covers dating trends on her blog “Where Is This Going?” and is currently working on a collection of true stories about love and marriage in modern China. Follow her on Twitter @WhereIsThsGoing.