In traditional Chinese etiquette, hugs are simply not an option. Although Chinese people have become more open-minded in recent decades, the idea of hugging remains a discomforting one. This is especially true for members of the opposite sex, who may feel that public displays of affection are a source of embarrassment. Even hugs between spouses fall under this taboo.
The younger generation, however, seems to be gradually warming to the idea. This is especially true of young couples, who can sometimes be seen hugging or even kissing their partner in full view of passersby. Still, careful observers will note that as soon as the couple is married, such displays of physical intimacy are shelved along with the wedding dress. Other than intimacy for the purposes of procreation, married couples seem disinclined to express their feelings for each other through physical contact. Whatever spark of passion that once existed between them is slowly lost to the clanging of pots and pans and the monotony of daily life, until eventually there is nothing left. Even if there are occasional moments of contact between spouses, the experience is no different than if one’s left hand were to touch one’s right. That special feeling they once shared is gone. Once married, it is common for more traditional Chinese couples to cease all outward signs of affection. Even today, this loss of emotional feeling — and the negative influence it can have — is rarely discussed.
A lack of physical contact can also be observed between Chinese parents and their children. I was born in the 1960s and have come to know Chinese people of all ages and from all walks of life. Very few of them have ever received a genuine hug from their parents. As for me, I’ll never again have the chance to experience what it would feel like to embrace my father. Thirty years ago, as he stood at death’s door and I in front of him, I couldn’t even work up the courage to hold his hand. I was 22 years old. What it would have felt like to have my father’s big hands wrapped around mine is something that is harder for me to contemplate than the existence of God. I was nearing 50 by the time I worked up the courage to hug my mother. She was past 80 by then.
More than a decade ago, Lu Ming, a Chinese author living in the United States, released a book titled “Chinese Lack Hugs.” In it he wrote: “Chinese people suffer from a lack of hugs and intimacy. We struggle to use our bodies to express the feelings of friendship and closeness we feel toward others. This is a real pity.” The reason for this pity, the author believes, is that Chinese culture is too hanxu, or “restrained,” and “lacks a rich language for expressing emotions and shared feelings between people through actions.”
But this judgment is far too broad and seems out of touch with reality. Chinese culture is indeed restrained, but traditional etiquette is certainly not lacking a rich language of physical expression. Largely passed down through the Confucian tradition, this etiquette contains a set of richly complex rules for governing physical actions.
All of these various rituals — such as zuoyi, a traditional rite that involves extending both hands and bowing — share one distinguishing feature, however: The parties performing them must maintain a distance from one another to avoid coming into physical contact.
During traditional Chinese weddings, for example, after the bride and groom have performed the bows to heaven and earth, by custom they should then bow to their parents, and finally to each other. Regardless of whether the bow being performed is a full kowtow or a zuoyi, all parties involved must keep their distance. This sense of distance, and the feeling of courtesy and respect it conveys, lies at the root of traditional Chinese culture and etiquette.
That said, cultural beliefs are one thing, and their social manifestations are another. In reality, this carefully maintained distance often fails to produce its intended effect of cultivating mutual courtesy and respect. On the contrary, it can cause people to drift apart emotionally or become cold toward one another.
In traditional etiquette, the norms for the distance to be maintained between individuals are exceedingly strict. The most well-known of these is the tenet that “Males and females should not allow their hands to touch” — a dictate that applies even to contact between very close relatives. More than 2,000 years ago, the philosopher Mencius discussed this rule, arguing that it could be broken only in the most exceptional of circumstances. For example, if your older brother’s wife had fallen into a river, then as her brother-in-law you could touch her in order to save her. But in daily life, men and women were not permitted to sit together. After marriage, if a woman returned to visit her family’s home, she was not even allowed to sit with her own brothers, much less with other men. Given the tightly controlled distance that had to be maintained between men and women at all times, any bodily contact was naturally seen as improper, and this belief remains at the root of Chinese people’s discomfort with hugs between members of the opposite sex.
“Of all people, women and servants are the most difficult to deal with,” Confucius once said. “If you are familiar with them, they lose their humility; if you maintain your distance, they are discontented.” Over the years, these words have inspired countless interpretations, but most scholars agree that Confucius was espousing a patriarchal view, passing judgment on the social psychology and character of women. In his view, women were muddled and difficult to reason with, and so it is not hard to see why Chinese men today put on airs when interacting with members of the opposite sex. In addition to men and women not being allowed to touch hands, they are also under the influence of a patriarchal society that has over the years accumulated no shortage of opinions about women.
Between this ingrained prejudice and the various antiquated rules governing their interactions, men and women in China have found themselves separated by a deep chasm. After over a century of modernization, this chasm is narrowing, but it still casts a shadow over relationships and influences the way people interact with one another, with an aversion to hugs being just one example. Ultimately, modernizing technology and material goods has proven far easier than modernizing our beliefs and ideas.
Do Chinese who don’t like hugs really not need them? I don’t think this is the case. If you take some time to observe the people around you, you’ll soon notice that even those who say they don’t like hugs will, after finally opening themselves up to this form of expression, experience something that is not just a physical act, but a whole emotional world they had previously been closed off from.
The first time I made up my mind to hug my then-80-year-old mother… Well, to be honest, we were both quite awkward and clumsy about the whole thing. After multiple attempts, however, we found that we truly enjoyed the sensation. Later, whenever other relatives came to visit, she insisted on hugging everyone before they left.
The feelings of warmth and comfort imparted by a sincerely given hug are utterly unique. In China, perhaps more than elsewhere, the gesture represents not only a shift in etiquette, but also a transformation of values and physical behavior. Of these two transformations, the latter is doubtless the more difficult, though I am confident that it will become more natural with practice.
Translator: Kilian O’Donnell; editor: Zhang Bo and David Paulk.
(Header image: A Chinese actress hugs a Chinese actor at an event in Cannes, France, May 17, 2013. VCG)