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Firewood, Rice, and Fairy Tales: Ideas about Love in the US and China

“Marriage is mostly just firewood, rice, oil, soy sauce, vinegar, and tea.” -Chinese proverb 

Although China’s rising ‘love culture’ has borrowed many foreign ideas, such as teen dating and Valentine’s Day (see my last article), China’s romantic relationships hardly mirror Western ones. Young Chinese are usually free to choose their spouses, but they are not free to linger long in singlehood. If a woman hits her late 20s without a husband, everyone calls her a shèngnǚ (剩女) or “leftover woman” — a label invented by the government in 2007. Faced with mounting social pressure from parents and colleagues, today’s Chinese singles commonly marry because it is “time,” not because they are in love. 

I have observed as much while living in Shenzhen, China, where I conduct research and collect stories about love and marriage experiences on the mainland. Recently, I spoke with Hua Lu, a 25 year-old barber from Sichuan who had reached his “should be marrying time.” His parents prod him incessantly to find a wife, promising to arrange introductions if he does not meet one soon. They counseled him to choose an ordinary girl — one he could get along with — rather than aspiring to a rich or beautiful partner. Hua Lu agrees that he must marry, and told me that his choice should not be difficult, as falling in love with his future wife is not important. Instead, his main criterion is to find a woman who treats his mother very well.

When I asked if his wife would be happy with such an arrangement, he said, “My wife will not need much àiqíng (艾青) or 'romantic love,' because she will also think the way I do. She will know qīnqíng (親情 or 亲情), the love between family members, is the most important thing in life.” Hua Lu’s vision of marriage is a common one, though it might startle Westerners, who usually prioritize romantic love with a potential spouse above their good relationship with future in-laws.

A study in the Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology1 recently examined such differences between American and Chinese concepts of love. Participants were asked to read hundreds of one-line love stories and to indicate which ones were true about love or descriptive of their current relationships. While many one-line love stories resonated with participants in China and the United States, there were some basic differences between American and Chinese thinking, as captured by the four stories below:  

  1. “Love as Fairy Tale”: I still believe in the concept of living happily ever after, provided you get to meet your Mr. or Mrs. Right.
  2. “Love as War”: Relationships involve a great deal of conflict, which I believe is actually good for the relationship.
  3. “Love as Gardening”: I think a love relationship between two people is similar to a delicate flower; it will die if it is left unattended.
  4. “Love as Confusion”: I sometimes find my partner completely beyond comprehension; it is as if he or she is not from this world.

The study found that only Americans preferred stories depicting love as a fairy tale or a war, whereas only the Chinese participants agreed that love was like gardening or confusion. These findings made sense to me in light of the conversations I have had with Chinese couples.

The idea that love is a war, for instance, runs counter to the deeply-held Chinese value of family harmony. Chinese couples emphasize “containing” their partner’s difficult qualities and “bearing with” the challenges of marriage rather than demanding change or resolving conflict. Moreover, the structure of marriage leaves less room for couples to be the center of their own drama. Married couples often live with one set of parents, and everyone pushes the couple to have a baby before their first anniversary. Balancing the needs of an extended family leaves less time for a couple to focus on interpersonal needs or disagreements.

Love as a fairy tale does not mesh with Chinese concepts of love either. While imported movies and books do gush about finding love and living happily ever, such optimism has not overtaken the Chinese psyche. Americans cautiously hope their love will endure the decades of marriage (read more about love and relationship development here), but Chinese people believe romance will inevitably dwindle and that qin qing, or “family love” will replace the pedestrian needs of daily life. In China, it is understood that romantic love has an expiration date, and nobody fusses over this fact.

I found it odd that Americans did not endorse the story of love as gardening (read more about the "garden" analogy here), prone as they are to date nights and relational maintenance. Nonetheless, this view of love is especially salient to Chinese couples, for whom practical actions often outrank verbal or passionate displays of love. Saying “I love you” is uncommon in China, but people express love by providing for their family, cooking dinner, or caring for their spouse’s parents. Americans couples do these sorts of things too, but without verbal and affectionate confirmation of their love, they might feel more like roommates than lovers.

Finally, the depiction of love as confusion may sound strange in the West, where a spouse is relied upon to meet many of one’s emotional needs. By contrast, many Chinese couples endorsed the one-line love stories in this category, which spoke of strange and incomprehensible partners whose actions were bizarre and unpredictable. Since marriage is urged at the right time, with or without love, many Chinese couples commit to marriage before knowing each other thoroughly. Since divorce is also discouraged, confusing partnerships might be more normal in China and might endure longer than they would in America. The stress of a confusing partner may be more tolerable, though, as Chinese couples traditionally rely on extended family and friends instead of their spouse, for emotional support.    

This study has captured a moment in time in Chinese concepts of love, but young people’s ideas are changing. Marriage and sons are no longer the means of survival they once were. Today’s Chinese daughters can go to college, get a lucrative job, and support their parents without a husband. This critical shift creates new possibilities. If young people are not herded into practical, friendly marriages, they might dream beyond the old adage: “Marriage is mostly just firewood, rice, oil, soy sauce, vinegar, and tea.” Perhaps passion, joy, and surprise could await them in marriage as well.

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1Jackson, T., Chen, H., Guo, C., & Gao, X. (2006). Stories We Love By: Conceptions of Love Among Couples From the People’s Republic of China and the United States. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 37(4), 446-464.

Melissa Schneider - Science Of Relationships articles | Website
Melissa is a licensed Dating and Relationships Counselor and the Co-Founder of LuvWise.com. Follow her blog or connect on Twitter. Take her free relationship test or work with her to get over that breakup and learn how to build your own great relationship, right from the very first date-- find out how.

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