The Chinese Concept of Love

The sweet caress of twilight, there's magic everywhere. With all this romantic atmosphere disaster's in the air. Can you feel the love tonight? The peace the evening brings. The world, for once, in perfect harmony with all its living things.

Two philosophical underpinnings of love exist in the Chinese tradition, one from Confucianism which emphasized actions and duty while the other came from Mohism which championed a universal love.

Ren ("benevolent love", ) focuses on duty, action, and attitude in a relationship rather than love itself. One displays benevolent love by performing actions such as kindness from parents, loyalty to the king and so forth.

Ai () was developed in reaction to Confucianism's benevolent love. It was argued that it was not correct for people to care about different people in different degrees. People in principle should care for all people equally. Rather than adopting different attitudes towards different people, love should be unconditional and offered to everyone without regard to reciprocation, not just to friends or family. A passionate caring love, a fundamental desire. Either selfish or selfless, the latter being a key element towards enlightenment.

Ai, the equivalent of the Western concept of love. A verb (e.g. wo ai ni 我愛你, or "I love you") and a noun (such as aiqing 愛情, or "romantic love"). The phrase 'Wo ai ni' (I love you) carries with it a very specific sense of responsibility, commitment, and loyalty. Instead of frequently saying "I love you" , the Chinese are more likely to express feelings of affection in a more casual way. "I like you" is a more common way of expressing affection in Chinese; it is more playful and less serious. The Chinese are also more likely to say "I love you" in English or other foreign languages than they would in their mother tongue.

As seen in the Financial Times recently, the most important factor to have shaped how we love is art. It is through novels, poems, songs and, latterly, films that we have acquired our ideas about what aspects of our feelings we should value and where our emotional emphases should fall.


Photo credits: Jordan Whitfield ~

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  1. Language is so interesting. “Love” in English is used to talk about a lot of different things – not just relationships, but also things. I’m just as likely to say, “I love my cat” or “I love my parents” as much as I am to say, “I love coffee.” There are so many meanings, and they can be conditional or unconditional. In other languages, there are usually different words to say the different kinds of love, but in English there is only one. It’s so interesting to see how different languages express emotion.

    Kate |

  2. Beautiful post! It is interesting to note that my the usage of “love” and “like” in Mandarin is very similar to my Indian language Tamil. Agree that the easy access to art forms through globalised media is re-shaping our emotional processes and responses. “Those who know many languages live as many lives as the languages they know.” ‒Czech proverb

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