Tracing ‘love’ through history in ‘When True Love Came to China’

 

 

China, February 21, 2016 – Shanghai Daily

 

IN the 1984 movie “Falling in Love,” Robert De Niro and Meryl Streep bump into each other during a Christmas shopping trip. It’s a short and fleeting moment the two share, and yet it will change their lives when, months later, they recognize each other on the train. Both are married, but they can’t help but fall in love.

 

Granted, it’s an old movie, and if you’re a little younger, you might have to ask your grandma about it. But if you don’t know “Falling in Love,” you must be familiar with Richard Linklater’s love trilogy starring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy — ­­Before Sunrise (1995), Before Sunset (2004) and Before Midnight (2013), which tells of a similar story of two strangers who meet — and are magically drawn to each other.

 

What is clear in those movies is the central message that the two characters have involuntarily submitted to something more powerful than themselves — falling in love.

 

Of course the Chinese audience understands the yearning and desire of young love, but then what? In “Falling in Love” Robert De Niro tells his wife about the woman on the train, and said that he had never slept with her. His wife replied, “No, this is worse!”

 

But just why is it worse? Lynn Pan asked the audience at M on the Bund in Shanghai for the launch of her new book “When True Love Came to China,” which will be officially released on March 1 by Hong Kong University Press.

Pan said she had asked many of her Chinese friends why Robert De Niro’s film wife reacts the way she does. The answer Pan would expect is simple — because it isn’t about sex, it’s about true love — but so far, none of her Chinese friends have come up with this explanation. By and large, the Chinese would say that if it isn’t about sex, it is better, Pan said.

 

“The Chinese don’t put much store by love,” said the 71-year-old author. “You can often hear them say this of themselves, not in any tone of self-depreciation but matter-of-factly. In one sense it is true: except among a small minority, romantic love is not felt to be of overriding importance in the choice of whom the Chinese marry.”

 

And that’s where her book begins.

 

Arranged marriage

 

Arranged marriage was the norm in China for centuries before the early 20th century. Often, young people would get a first glimpse of their spouse at their wedding. Sometimes, marriages were arranged by parents even before their children were born.

 

For the Chinese, love is not essential in a marriage. There’s less sentiment attached to it than sex, which serves the prime purpose of producing legitimate heirs to the family.

 

So, while marriage was one of life’s central experiences in China, the ideal of the primacy of love never was. As Pan pointed out in her book, “The Chinese were not preoccupied with love to anywhere near the same degree as in the West, where marrying someone you love has been given a uniquely strong emphasis since at least the 18th century.”

 

Well, you may say the Chinese don’t know much about love to this day. But you can’t blame them, can you?

 

Broadly speaking, romantic love in China today has a history of only about 80 years — given that you start counting in 1935 when a draft of marriage law in its modern sense was first passed but little enforced due to the War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression that broke out two years later, according to Pan.

 

The true sense of love, as being free, distinct from lust and as unifying flesh and spirit, would still not exist if it were not for the May Fourth Movement of 1919, which is seen as a sweeping literary and intellectual renewal that has been called the “Chinese Renaissance” and is said to be the Chinese answer to the Enlightenment in Europe.

 

During the May Fourth period, besides questioning the relevance and validity of the age-old Confucian tradition and practices, new ideas such as liberty, democracy and science were much sought after from abroad in order to promote the liberal development of democratization in China.

 

“To love in the Western way was one answer the Chinese intellectual vanguard found to the question of how Chinese civilization might advance to a better outcome than that to which its backwardness appeared to be dooming it,” Pan said.

 

“It was a time that promised crucial breakthroughs in Chinese attitudes to love, sex and marriage… We have seen the enthusiasm with which the May Fourth progressives embraced these ideas. Their appetite for Western literature was so enormous; numerous authors jostled for their attention, Goethe with Kollontai, Schopenhauer with Dante, and so on…”

 

Romantic love

 

Based on a bundle of love stories of prominent men such as Hu Shi, Lu Xun, Yu Dafu and Xu Zhimo, as well as leading women such as Eileen Chang and Ding Ling who lived their lives through the early 20th century of China, Pan’s book shows how love’s profile in China shifted with the rejection of arranged marriages and concubinage in favor of free individual choice, monogamy and a Western model of romantic love.

 

She describes the life and work of these fascinating characters, who sought education and ideas in New York, London, Paris, Berlin and Tokyo and brought them back to China for further development, quoting and analyzing what they had left behind.

 

Most of the chapters are headlined by a work of literature, starting with the Chinese classics and including Dumas, Goethe and their ilk, as well as their various translations, making it a treat to read from start to finish.

 

That those Western ideas did translate, but not all that well and not in their entirety was what Shanghai-born writer Eileen Chang had in mind when she wrote her short story “Stale Mates (1956).”

 

Pan says that Chang was her favorite Chinese writer, who she thought was “hopelessly romantic.”

 

In a letter to her closest friends dated June 16, 1969, Chang wrote: “To this day we Chinese don’t know much about love, and even our love stories don’t often tell of love.”

 

Although Pan’s book is nominally about love in China, Western love, and the social and literary history that are its context, are much illuminated by being viewed via its reflection in Pan’s Chinese mirror.

 

About The Author:

 

Born in Shanghai, brought up in Borneo (Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia), educated in England and a former resident of Geneva, Helsinki, Singapore and Hong Kong, Lynn Pan now lives in Shanghai again. She has written a dozen books on China and the Chinese diaspora, including “Shanghai Style,” “Tracing It Home,” and “Sons of the Yellow Emperor,” the winner of the Martin Luther King Memorial Prize.