Love has a few meanings but many connotations and symbols. When we were young, we already felt the love from our parents and siblings. As a child, I felt that without love my family, and I could never have survived the harsh realities of relationships and be a part of a larger family, which is the community. Love motivates us to do something greater than what we are used to doing. But as Chinese, our actions and feelings are influenced by our beliefs and the way we are brought up. I was taught not to be simply swayed by my emotions. Instead, reason has to prevail. Love has many symbols and can do many things, but it must not influence rational thinking.
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The one-child policy has affected our view of love and marriage. The Chinese population is rapidly growing, and the young have to help in controlling the bloating population. They say that we have the responsibility as human beings for the earth in which we live. We have to respect the law and the authorities who have imposed the one-child policy.
Before proceeding further to tell my experiences on love, I have some ideas to tell about the symbolisms and entailments of this word love. Love is a sacrifice. Love is a conflict between emotions and beliefs. People fight and die because of love. Love represents so many symbols, and one of these is marriage. But while it represents marriage, love makes lovers fall apart. Love and romance, the Chinese way does not simply end in marriage, although there may be exceptions. Marriage is different. So is family planning. These are parts of reality, while love seems to be a fantasy. As we grow up, we imagine so many things, and we cannot use images without love. They usually go together. When we stop imagining, we tend to realize that love is not real. Marriage is the real thing, which is about sacrifice. The first sacrifice you encounter in Chinese marriage is the one-child policy. You have to accept this as a bitter pill.
I grew up in a family that value culture and beliefs more than love. We were taught how to love the family, but it is different from the western belief about love. To a Chinese woman, love can be sacrificed for the sake of marrying someone whom the family has chosen. As soon as she is given in marriage, she has to adjust herself to live with the family of her husband. Marriage is not an outcome of love but the union of two families and not of two individuals. Marriage and not love transforms individuals.
The Chinese idea of love and marriage is unique. Marriage represents love in western culture, but in the Chinese tradition, marriage is not about love. It is the union of two individuals, along with their families. The family has a great influence on the choice of a lifetime partner. It is at this time that love becomes a battle between emotion and tradition.
Let me relate an unforgettable childhood story involving my family. A sister of mine fell in love with a Westerner. This love has to end when the proposal for marriage begins. Love becomes a conflict between culture and feelings of two people in love. The scene you are about to witness is not the scene of a classic movie. It happened before and is part of my childhood experience, which has deeply ingrained in my being.
“We have arranged for your marriage,” I heard my father say it to my sister, who was sobbing as she realized she had broken the family tradition. My feeling at that time was one of pity, although I tried to counsel her against following her emotions. “Marriage with a Westerner would not give you joy but sadness,” father told her. I saw in my sister’s face a mixed feeling of rebellion and oppression.
“Marriage to someone who is well off in the community will you give you security. They are a respected family. This is your chance; don’t lose this opportunity. This is for your good, not ours. Take that love out of your body. It’s just a simple feeling.” Father added that tradition should not be broken, and anyone who attempts to do so is a disgrace to the family. A prearranged marriage is a long-time practice in our community, and even in the many places in China.
I didn’t know why sister did it – fall in love with someone who is not Chinese. She knows the rules. Marriage, as an agreement of two families, has been practiced for so many generations. It is against our tradition to marry someone who is a stranger to the family, especially Westerners. To old folks in our clan, love is not a symbol of marriage but a conflict of interest. From childhood, we were taught to obey our parents. The virtue of obedience has to continue up to adulthood. Obedience is the number one virtue in Chinese culture.
As in any other Chinese story, my sister ended up marrying a Chinese who was an eligible bachelor in our community. “You will be happy with this guy!” Father said, triumphant and smiling as he consoled my sister.
Is this an accepted fact in Chinese culture? Traditionally, love and romance have nothing to do with marriage. Marriage is an arrangement, a contract between two families and not about love between a man and a woman. As I contemplated on our culture, I wanted to rebel. I haven’t submitted myself for love. Love will always be here, but I do not want to experience what my sister and the rest of the young ladies in my community have experienced love.
Marriage the Chinese way is a one-way journey. It is not affected by love. In other words, if you are in love, never think of marriage, because these two are separate. It is a way of politics, and the legal system goes with it. The elders have observed this tradition, our land prospered, and our people grew with it. Laws of our land respect the authority of elders and parents and jurisprudence have made this culture and belief the foundation for marriage cases. Divorce is not a part of our beliefs when we speak of marriage.
Is prearranged marriage still practiced today? It may not be so popular now, but the authority of parents seems to be a law in our land. Education can heal this “problem,” if you may call it that way. And many of the young ladies and gentlemen in China today are more educated than before. On my part, I have vowed not to follow it, but I do respect our culture and my parents. It is a part of our past and the greatness of the people and our country, if I may say so.
What happened to my sister, who was forced to marry a young Chinese bachelor? Well, I heard they are still together, but as to how peaceful their marriage is, I do not want to know. There are times that I hear stories of failed marriages in our community. Regarding the one-child policy, many oppose it, but we could do nothing. The authorities are just imposing a regulation to control the population. The one-child policy is also an off-shoot of love. We bear children because of love. Since China has more children now, we have to be content with only one for each family.
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My parents gave me the best education I can have. At times, I tell them my “own” virtues and lessons I learned in the university. But never have I told them about marriage that I know because I still respect their opinion. I would sometimes tell them about the magnanimity of love, but never have I told them that I have fallen in love with a Westerner and that love and marriage should go together. As time goes by, they will learn to understand that I have somebody. As time has slowly diminished their belief about marriage as a transaction, I inculcated in them through diplomacy that love does not conflict with marriage, but a symbol of marriage. Love is a wonderful thing, just like marriage.
I still believe in their authority as parents. I still respect their opinion and ideas as near truth, and never will a young Chinese disrespect her parents. Their approval in a lasting union is the most important. Local communities and old folks’ beliefs have been modified, influenced by the young. Many of my young friends have changed their views although they are still influenced by tradition and opinion of parents and members of the family.
In contemporary China, prearranged marriage is not anymore practiced, but the young Chinese believe that the family should be consulted during marriage plans. As a young Chinese, I have to follow my thinking. Love will not be the main factor in my choice of a lifetime partner. That is the Chinese way even if I am university educated. We use reason rather than love in our choice of a husband or wife.
In spite of tradition, we Chinese haven’t surrendered love altogether. We still feel this wondrous feeling of love and its many entailments. There are lucky people who follow tradition by marrying someone they fall in love with. Love becomes a symbol of marriage, or marriage becomes an entailment of love. This is happening in my community, but it is also happening in many communities in China. There’s only one problem: we can express our love but can only have one child. Sometimes, I feel three people – a mother, a father, and their only child – do not constitute a family. But that is the reality about love in contemporary China.