How the Chinese Fell in Love with Love, Caveats and All:
Review of When True Love Came to China

By Lynn Pan

Reviewed by Haiyan Lee
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright June, 2017)

Lynn Pan, When True Love Came to China Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2015. vii, 325 pp. ISBN-9789888208807. Hardcover. $65.00/£54.95.

In her novel Dept. of Speculation (2014), Jenny Offill relates the experiments of the nineteenth-century French doctor Hippolyte Baraduc who claimed to have photographed the emotions. Allegedly, he found that different emotions produced different images on the photographic plate: “Anger looked like fireworks. Love was an indistinct blur.”

After Baraduc, no photographer has attempted to replicate this feat. But the wordsmiths of the world—the novelist, poet, playwright, and the occasional philosopher—never cease trying to limn that indistinct blur. And it is, familiarly, the European men and women of letters who have done most of the heavy lifting, with their invention of a sublime, exclusive, all-engulfing, and bound-for-matrimony love that goes by the name of “romantic love” or “true love.”

Everywhere else where the Europeans and the newly Europeanized native intelligentsias cast their gaze, however, love was found wanting. It was either mired in the muck of lust, or muffled by political ideologies like Confucianism and Communism. Nonetheless, through feverish translation, bold linguistic reinvention, arduous writing and publishing, and headlong life-imitating-art, “true love” conquered the world with its unique blend of transcendental delight and world-shattering agony. And there is no turning back. No culture that has tasted the transports of romantic love can be content with whatever arrangements traditionally governed sexual partnerships (think arranged marriages). More than any other European invention, love has won hearts and minds the world over in large part because it is rarely recognized as such, either by its eager adherents or by scholars.

Such is the tale told by Lynn Pan in When True Love Came to China. Pan is a Shanghai-born and U.K.-educated professional writer with a number of non-fiction books about China and overseas Chinese under her belt. Published by Hong Kong University Press, her book is clearly aimed at an educated public not well versed in Chinese history and culture and yet curious and eager to learn about China the presumed superpower-to-be. There are, of course, already too many books about China’s projected economic and military ascendency to fit on the bookshelf of even a conscientious reader. But are the Chinese also poised to take over the world in matters of the spirit? Will they change how the rest of the world love, desire, and relate to one another?

When True Love Came to China does not directly answer such dicey questions. Instead, it tells a far more familiar and comforting story: how a European invention was adopted and embraced by the Chinese in the early part of the twentieth century and still governs Chinese emotional life, more or less, today. The story has been told before. Indeed, the present reviewer is so tasked most likely because I wrote the second monographical study of the idea of love in modern China (Revolution of the Heart, 2007; the first being Leo Lee’s The Romantic Generation of Modern Chinese Writers, 1973). In the intervening decade, I have been approached by a good number of journalists and lay readers hoping for a more straightforward account of the story of love in China than what they find in my book. It is with these readers in mind that I’m very pleased to have this handsomely produced volume on my desk.

There are many merits to the book, written by a non-academic who is willing to get her feet wet (but not too soggy) in academic literature, who takes intrepid dips into philosophical traditions east and west, and who is not coy about invoking the latest neuroscience research on love. Pan’s citations of scholarly sources are sparse and sporadic, and there is a curious avoidance of the aforementioned monograph by the present reviewer despite the resurfacing of much of its primary materials and some of its arguments. One imagines that the author and/or her research assistant consulted it and deemed it relevant enough to warrant an entry in the bibliography but found the overlap too great for comfort—hence the studied silence. Giving scholars credit is generally not the strong suit of journalists, and it seems particularly true in the present case. Be that as it may, the book’s intended readership probably couldn’t care less about such scholarly niceties. If (English-speaking) readers want to know how the Chinese learned to love in the only way they (the readers) know how or consider legitimate, Pan’s book will leave them duly edified, via its breezy, idiomatic prose with a clear narrative arc and minimal digressions.

In terms of the timeline, the book is heavily tilted toward the early decades of the twentieth century, with a quick backward glance to the imperial era and an even swifter peek at the present century. The chapters are short and usually cover two or three writers and their representative works. Pan makes it clear that her chief interest is historical rather than aesthetic, and that she is limited to working with what the literati class has left behind and for that reason her story is one of how China’s educated elites fell in love with love. To do so she adopts the time-honored “life and work” convention and interlaces it with dollops of political history to keep the reader oriented.

All the usual suspects do a turn here: Tang Xianzu, Feng Menglong, Cao Xueqin, Lin Shu, Xu Zhenya, Lu Xun, Hu Shi, Yu Dafu, Shao Xunmei, Xu Zhimo, Ding Ling, Zhang Ailing, plus a host of supporting actors and extras. Their foreign oracles, from Plato to Goethe, Rousseau, Dumas fils, and Ellen Key, also receive considerable attention. There are some insightful cross-cultural comparisons of gender and sexual norms, and some sensible and sensitive readings of literary texts, including a reevaluation of the caddish protagonist of Love in a Fallen City by Zhang Ailing: against the critical consensus, Pan sees his dilatory tactics as part of an earnest quest for true love. But the primary attraction for the average reader, one suspects, lies in the spirited (and sometimes gossipy) retellings of the tangled love lives of some of early twentieth-century China’s most colorful individuals, particularly Yu Dafu, Xu Zhimo, and Zhang Ailing.

In some ways, the author is refreshingly untroubled by the specter of Orientalism to lament openly certain lacunae in the Chinese cultural makeup.  In brief, she contends that the traditional Chinese approaches to love, either prohibiting it as immoral or playing it as a form of connoisseurship, do not permit the elements of free will, mutuality, and the metaphysical dualism of soul and flesh. In her own words, “love was neither ‘sacred’ nor ‘free’ in China. To trace how it became so under Western influence is one of the aims of this book” (7). And it succeeds admirably at this task and should satisfy most lay readers and undergraduate students. Along the way, they will reap a bonus in learning that romantic love has a history in the West as well and is bound up with the history of Christianity, the rise of the individual, and the expansion of a capitalist economy, among other things. They will at least be more sensitized the next time they contemplate love’s repression, eclipse, or demotion in the face of crasser considerations in another socio-cultural setting, be it imperial China or contemporary China.

It is uncharitable to pick on a book not meant for academics. So let me keep criticisms to a minimum. Readers with a more critical bent might chafe at the author’s gloss on “foot fetishism,” or her evocation of a turn-of-the-last-century Chinese person’s sheer befuddlement at the idea of love as redemption, or her conclusion that “the idea that sexual and emotional exclusivity is intrinsic to love is a thread that has failed to be more than loosely stitched into the fabric of love’s Chinese makeover” (282).

The problem is not one of political incorrectness, but of treating love as sui generis, despite the author’s acknowledgement that love is embedded in the constellation of human emotions and manners and mores. Any study of love—in China or elsewhere—ought to situate love in a larger affective terrain and map out its relationship to other emotions, attachments, loyalties, values, and ideals, such as those pertaining to parents, children, sworn brothers, comrades, charismatic leaders, deities, political principles, utopian goals, the homeland/motherland/fatherland, and, yes, even pets. This means engagement with the growing and truly multi-disciplinary scholarship on emotion. Failure to do so is not Pan’s alone. China scholars have mostly avoided such engagement, disdaining love’s bourgeois taint and mass cultural trappings, and preferring subjects that lend themselves better to empirical approaches, like sex. But when scholars eschew love, we also shirk our pedagogic responsibility, leaving our students alone to peer into the indistinct blur or shunting them elsewhere for easy answers.

Haiyan Lee
Stanford University