Modern ‘Ai’: Passion, Patriotism, and China’s Politics of Love
In honor of Qixi Festival, Chinese Valentine’s Day, Sixth Tone is publishing the first in a three-part series on the politics — and politicization — of love in modern China.
Nathaniel Hawthorne once likened love to “the heart’s native language.” Not to contradict the famous American Romanticist, but if love is the native language of the heart, then, as scholar Haiyan Lee points out, it’s always been spoken in borrowed tongues. To Lee, love is a concept that defies naturalistic, universalistic, and essentialist reductions. It reflects how people engage with social and political changes to make sense of their cultural, political, and personal belonging — and how the state creates and renews the institutions that define these identities.
In China’s case, I find that focusing on love — ai — as a public discourse, or more precisely, a political discourse, can help illuminate the country’s modern history. At almost every stage, various manifestations of ai have exerted a radicalizing pull on contemporary China, even as the term itself was successively appropriated by predominant political actors and ideologies for their own ends. By understanding this history, we can learn much, not just about China as an emerging world power, but also about how ordinary Chinese understood and responded to the upheavals of the past hundred years.
Ai didn’t always mean “love,” at least not as it’s currently understood. According to the Han dynasty (202 BC-220 AD) dictionary “Shuowen Jiezi,” ai was synonymous with hui, meaning generosity, clemency, or kindness. This interpretation is backed up by the even earlier “Analects.” When asked the meaning of “benevolence,” Confucius is reported to have said, “It is to love (ai) all men.”
What Confucius’ ai didn’t refer to, however, were interpersonal relations such as romantic love.
Instead, like many other modern colloquialisms that emerged alongside China’s forced opening to the world in the mid-19th century, ai as an expression of affection and sentiment grew out of the process of encountering and seeking to translate Western, primarily Christian, philosophies and texts. Nineteenth-century missionaries to China adopted ai to render the word “love” as it appeared in scripture, such as in the line, “For God so loved the world.”
This process wasn’t always smooth. Whereas American missionary Sidney Gulick could rhapsodize that love “was the sweetest word in the English language,” to most Chinese audiences it would have sounded like a Confucian injunction.
Yet ai would come to be valued within a broader, secular context, too. Lin Shu, a famous literary figure in the late Qing (1644-1912) and early Republican periods, was the first to coin the more personal aiqing, or “sentimental love.” Breaking with Confucianism, Lin saw public displays of emotion as a marker of aesthetic sensibility and moral superiority. His appalled fellow townspeople, meanwhile, derided him as a wild scholar.
Lin’s 1897 translation of “Joan Haste,” in which the term aiqing first appeared, is a rather lesser-known work. But his 1899 translation of “La Dame aux Camelias,” together with Wu Yanren’s 1906 novel “Sea of Regrets,” became founding texts of the Mandarin Duck and Butterfly school, an indigenous literary movement in the 1910s and 1920s that transformed the romantic literary styles of the late Qing.
The school emerged at a unique time in Chinese literary history: To borrow from the cultural critic Ray Chow, it was a period of dislocation between “arcaneness and mundaneness” and “the elitism of learned writing and the accessibility of popular fiction.” Its authors wrote love stories for a rapidly growing urban reading public hungry to both consume and express romantic emotions — content long considered embarrassing.
Even as the romanticism of the Mandarin Duck and Butterfly School was ascendant, however, the political upheavals of the 1910s — the collapse of the Qing, the rise of the warlords, and popular discontent with the terms of the Treaty of Versailles — would soon alter the political landscape.
Beginning in 1919, the post-Versailles May Fourth Movement called for a rejection of Confucian hierarchy and obedience, striving to bring Western notions of equality and democracy to China. Love and liberty were prominent themes in May Fourth texts, but to writers of this generation, romantic love was not limited to an attachment between individuals; it also extended to the larger collective.
This leads us to a new concept — aiguo, or “love of country” — and another genre of literature popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries: Heroic Sons and Daughters. Writers of Heroic Sons and Daughters literature associated heroism with serving the nation as a citizen. And in so doing, they subsumed love within the encompassing narrative of nationalism.
Underpinning the genre is a shared feeling that love only becomes “heroic” when lovers acknowledge the priority of patriotism and familial duties, to which they must subordinate their passions.
This depiction of love was still a radical departure from Confucian morality, which emphasized filial piety and hierarchy. Still, it’s worth noting that both aiqing and aiguo, as expressed in early 20th century literature, could be as gendered and conservative as they were revolutionary.
In particular, male protagonists tended to be heroic, embracing broad ideas of patriotism, inscribing meaning, and dispensing judgment. Female characters, on the other hand, were often represented as either the obstacle to the man’s grand transpersonal ideals or the mediator of them. Women had to faithfully and loyally perform duties given to them by their male relations and sacrifice themselves for their values. In doing so, these narratives showed how a man could transition from being the master of the family to a citizen of the state — while reproducing the patriarchal gender hierarchy and social order.
Traces of this mindset can be found even in some of the earliest Chinese works dealing with romantic love. In 1903’s “Xin Liaozhai — Tang Sheng,” for example, the son of a Chinese merchant in the U.S. breaks up with an American girl out of patriotism for China. The girl, distraught at the prospect of being American forever, kills herself.
The discourse of love and heroism in the late Qing and the early Republican periods helped foster a new way of expressing emotions. In the end, however, it was patriotic aiguo, and not the more sentimental aiqing, that replaced Confucian values as the purpose of moral cultivation.
Editors: Wu Haiyun and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Wang Zhenhao.
(Header image: Wang Zhenhao for Sixth Tone)