On the overt verbal expression of romantic love as a modern habit

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In a comment to this post, "A trilingual, biscriptal note (with emoji)" (2/5/17), liuyao remarked,

Interesting that 愛 to mean (romantic) love might be a modern invention. A search in Dream of the Red Chamber (which is regarded as Beijing Mandarin in 18th century) reveals that all instances of it are in fact "to like" (something or someone). 愛吃的 = (what he) likes to eat; 不愛唸書 = doesn't like to read books/study.

liuyao's observation is so noteworthy that I promised to write a separate post on ài 愛 — herewith I am delivering on that promise.

The word that liuyao is talking about is ài / 爱 (as critics of simplified characters never tire of pointing out, the simplified form lacks a "heart" [xīn 心] at the center).  Nowadays, the first English word that we think of when we see this character is "love", but that's not what it always meant, and it has many other connotations even in today's world:  "passion; affection; like; cherish; treasure; hold dear; delight in; be fond of; take good care of; be enamored of; be keen on; be apt to; be in the habit of").

Here are the definitions for ài 愛 in Paul Kroll, ed., A Student's Dictionary of Classical and Medieval Chinese (Leiden:  Brill, 2015), p. 1a:

1. be partial to.

a. be fond of, care for; be attached to, cherish, love (ant. 惡 wù, abhor; 憎 zēng, detest).

b. affection, kindness.

c. dear to one; admirable.

2. to pity, sympathize with.

3. be overly partial, jealous of; to stint, begrudge, be loath to part with.

4. (med.) frequently, regularly.

a. easily; prone to; with pleasure.

I recall that in the study of Literary Sinitic / Classical Chinese (LS / CC) during graduate school, one of the strongest senses I acquired for ài 愛 was "stint; (be)grudge".

In Axel Schuessler's A Dictionary of Early Zhou Chinese (Honolulu:  University of Hawaii Press, 1987), p. 2 ab, he gives the following definitions:  "to hold dear, to love, to grudge" (that would be for roughly the first half of the first millennium BC).

I would not want to make the claim that ài 愛 never referred to romantic love in premodern times.  That is evident from the eighth among the dozen definitions of the character in Hànyǔ dà cídiǎn 漢語大詞典 (Unabridged Dictionary of Sinitic), pp. 631b-632a, and from the pages of compounds into which it enters (pp. 632a-637a).  We also know from literary works throughout the ages that romantic love most certainly existed before modern times.  Here I will mention only Chánghèngē 長恨歌 ("Song of Everlasting Sorrow / Regret") by Bo Juyi (772-846), which has been masterfully translated by Paul Kroll and is readily available in Victor H. Mair, ed., Columbia Anthology of Traditional Chinese Literature (New York:  Columbia University Press, 1994), pp. 478-485.  The character ài 愛 does occur in "Song of Everlasting Sorrow / Regret" (twice), but only in combination with other characters: 

ēn'ài 恩愛 ("affection between a couple")

chǒng'ài 寵愛 ("dote on; favor; make a pet of")

Still, I think that liuyao was onto something when he noted that ài 愛 in Dream of the Red Chamber meant "like", not "love".  I will illustrate this special attitude toward romantic love and its expression with the word ài 愛 from my own life experience.

My wife — following her mother — adhered to traditional Chinese norms, values, and customs.  They were innate; she couldn't willingly act any other way, and it made her feel very uncomfortable to be forced by circumstances to do so.

Li-ching didn't like to say or hear others say "I'm sorry" and "Thank you".  She thought those were superficial Western forms of etiquette (cf. Mary S. Erbaugh, "China expands its courtesy:  Saying 'Hello' to Strangers," The Journal of Asian Studies, 67.2 [May, 2008[, 621-652).

Above all, she never once said to me "Wǒ ài nǐ 我愛你" ("I love you") and she would have found it "disgusting / nauseating" (ròumá 肉麻) for me to say such things to her.  She really did not like to hear them.

We were married for 41 years; we deeply cherished each other and had tremendous respect for one another; but throughout our marriage we never said those three words to each other.


  1. Acilius said,

    February 14, 2017 @ 10:29 am

    "We were married for 41 years"- Peace be upon her.

  2. Chris Button said,

    February 14, 2017 @ 11:04 am

    It makes me think of French "aimer" and Italian "amare" which can mean "like" or "love" depending on the context with or without romantic connotations as appropriate (an association which I believe goes back to Latin). Naturally, individual words from the same root like English "amicable" or "amorous" can lean more to one side or the other.

  3. WSM said,

    February 14, 2017 @ 11:57 am

    Even now, in *very* intimate personal contexts, "我喜欢你” (lit. I like you) is preferred as a less rouma way way to convey love.

  4. John Rohsenow said,

    February 14, 2017 @ 12:21 pm

    I have for many years known a family from Hangzhou (both English teachers, I will admit), whose daughter studied and lived with an American
    family during her UG education years, (where she doubtless picked up
    all sorts of rouma habits). I noticed that her parents were very touched
    when she started ending her phone calls, etc. by saying "I love you",
    but I must confess that she said it in English, and it was, of course, to her parents. I'll have to ask her (American) husband what she says to him.

  5. JorgeHoracio said,

    February 14, 2017 @ 12:54 pm

    Chris, of course, aimer can mean 'like' … 'aimez vous Brahms?'
    (In Spanish it gets more complicated)
    But what about English?… I suddenly remembered the words to 'Pretty little black-eyed Susie':
    I love the sea , I love the navy, love my biscuits soaked in gravy ,
    But…. I love you best of all

  6. WSM said,

    February 14, 2017 @ 1:37 pm

    @John Roshenow explicable as due to different cultural context, but also, as you hint out, due to the buffer of trafficking in a second language, that diminishes effects of various usages across the board (so saying "wo ai ni" in Chinese might seem less rouma to me, and "I love you" less embarrassing in English to a native Chinese speaker). This buffer effect is clearly observed wrt cuss words, which non-native speakers routinely over use, because it simply doesn't register as strong internal emotional feedback as it should.

    It's worth noting that Ken Liu's short story "Paper Menagerie" deals with the buffer effects involved in conveying emotions in first and second languages in a very moving way, specifically in regards to "wo ai ni", however in a parent/child vice romantic context.

  7. TK said,

    February 14, 2017 @ 4:28 pm

    3 words.
    Is saying them,
    so hard?

    Or, asked differently,
    Is saying them so important?

    Most important,
    Is feeling them,
    And sharing doesn't always require
    Speaking them outright.

    Two peas in a pod, don't discuss.
    But closer than them,
    There are none!

    Happy Valentines Day

  8. Jerry Friedman said,

    February 14, 2017 @ 4:37 pm

    JorgeHoracio: For an even more ròumántic song, try "I Love", by Tom T. Hall.

  9. Chris Button said,

    February 14, 2017 @ 5:01 pm


    French "aimer" is basically the equivalent of English "like" unless said between two people when it develops other connotations. As a result, I can go with French "je t'aime" with my wife today (she speaks both languages), but I'm not going to risk something as insipid as English "I like you" which on a word-to-word basis would be its direct equivalent.

  10. David Marjanović said,

    February 14, 2017 @ 5:30 pm

    I can't translate "I love you" into my German dialect. (Rendering it in Standard German is trivial, but that's different.) The whole root is absent except for an adjective/adverb that means "lovely" ~ "nice". There are two words for "like", but they don't extend to romantic love.

    as critics of simplified characters never tire of pointing out, the simplified form lacks a "heart" [xīn 心] at the center

    The simplified form does, however, contain a "friend" that is absent from the traditional form – quite possibly that's a socius as in socialism.

  11. Riikka said,

    February 14, 2017 @ 6:12 pm

    As a Finn I have tremendous respect for the translators of nowadays popular soap operas where people finish phone calls to their children with "I love you", or – even worse – explain how they love the other person's outfit. Those things do not translate to Finnish at all. The TV-companies' translator companies seem to have settled for "olet rakas" (=you're dear) as the conversation-final "I love you", but even that sounds so very tacky. After all, according to a well-known joke a husband tells his complaining wife that he told her already once that he loved her when he married her, and he would let her know if the situation ever changed.

    According to the current understanding the Finnish verb "rakastaa" (=to love) comes from old Germanic word '*frakaz', that meant "greedy" or "lustful". It is possible that the meaning of the word had changed from sexual desire to more temperate and abstract a feeling before the 16th century where we have our earliest written sources from. Still, to be honest, "I love your shoes" translated to Finnish sounds slightly fetishistic in my ears, and ending phone calls to a child with "I love you" just does not feel that right, either..

  12. CuConnacht said,

    February 14, 2017 @ 7:04 pm

    One of several anachronisms I noticed in the film Carol (set in 1952-53) was the rather desperate farewell "Love you!" from the young woman's boyfriend as she drove off with Carol. I am old enough to know that that was not done, not until some time in the 1970s.

  13. Victor Mair said,

    February 14, 2017 @ 10:11 pm

    In recent years, in China and in Europe and North America, there has been a large amount of scholarly research on words for "love" in early Sinitic, the historical development of the character ài 愛, and comparison with comparable terms in other language groups. Wolfgang Behr kindly shared with me many links and attached files that present the latest research on these topics. I'm pleased that overall their findings support the basic thrust of this post.

  14. JorgeHoracio said,

    February 15, 2017 @ 8:27 am

    @Jerry Friedman: thank you! Pretty song!

    @Chris : agreed, but even 'love' can mean little more than 'like' occasionally

  15. Michael YorkMch said,

    February 15, 2017 @ 9:41 am

    Once upon a time I made a brief attempt to learn Chinese (having spent most of my adult life learning Thai). I had a friend at the time who was Thai-born Taejiew Chinese. I shared with her that I was studying Chinese. I then used the three word phrase that is the subject of this thread, ""ua ai nee"". She, a respectable, married woman of 35 at the time, blushed deeply. "What did I say? I just said 'I love you', right?", I asked. ""Well, not exactly," she replied. "Your said "I desire you." Here ended my Chinese study. (I have virtually zero visual memory, so Chinese was never goiing to yield to my efforts in any event.)

  16. TheLong1930s said,

    February 15, 2017 @ 11:33 am

    'amare' in Italian is odd – it's never used for 'like', that I can think of, and rarely for 'love'. It's only really used for romantic love, and even then only in moments of strong feeling.
    'I love pasta' = 'Adoro la pasta' (although sounds rather over-emphatic, and something like 'Mi piace tantissimo la pasta' would be better).
    'I love you' to your child, say = 'Ti voglio bene'
    'I love you' to your partner as normal expression of affection = something like 'Ma quanto ti voglio bene!'
    'I love you' to your partner as declaration of your undying passion in a heated moment = 'Ti amo'.

    Dubbed films have Americans and others taking leave of each other by saying 'Ti voglio bene', which doesn't exist in that sense in Italy, but is an accepted convention in translation, I think people think.

  17. JorgeHoracio said,

    February 15, 2017 @ 12:54 pm

    Very similar situation in Spanish:
    'Te amo' is rare, reserved for passionate moments, or for rather corny dialogues ….
    Normal is 'te quiero' or 'te quiero mucho' = I'm (very) fond of you

  18. Chris Button said,

    February 15, 2017 @ 2:00 pm


    Interesting – it seems I should not have lumped Italian "amare" together with French "aimer" (I only speak French, not Italian).


    Given the use of "amar" in Spanish and Portuguese being more like Italian "amare", I wonder if the direction of semantic change is "love" > "like" rather than "like > love" (i.e. what appears to be the base meaning in French of "like" is actually the derived one). It would be interesting to look at the usage in Latin. The original Indo-European root seems to go back to one of those "(a)ma-" words associated with notions of "motherhood".

  19. Victor Mair said,

    February 15, 2017 @ 6:11 pm

    From Wolfgang Behr:

    I had a few offline queries about the materials mentioned by Victor, so
    here is what I wrote to him yesterday —

    … Since you're always interested in etymologies and conceptual
    histories, kindly have a look at the following presentation:


    These slides were produced for a panel "From Chu with Love. Concepts
    and Tales of Attachment and Infatuation in Early Chinese Manuscripts"
    Christian Schwermann (now at U. Bochum) and I organized for the EACS
    biannual meeting in St. Petersburg last year, which included the

    Behr, Wolfgang (University of Zurich)
    "Every Breath You Take: Notes on the Etymology of ài"

    Schwermann, Christian (University of Bonn)
    "The Kinds of Love Are Seven in Number": Semantic Range and
    Philosophical Significance of ài in Early Chinese Manuscripts

    Andreini, Attilio (Ca’ Foscari University, Venice)
    "Some Kinda Love" … Love, Affection, and Appreciation as Seen through
    the Guodian Corpus of Bamboo Manuscripts

    Guo Jue (Barnard College)
    “Nothing Is More than Being Brothers”: Familial Relations as Seen in
    the Warring States Chu Legal Cases from Baoshan Tomb 2

    Giele, Enno (University of Heidelberg)
    Crow, Dove, Man, Woman: On Birds and Emotions in Early Chinese Sources

    Lau, Ulrich (University of Hamburg)
    The Statutory Offence of Illicit Sexual Intercourse (jian 奸) as
    Reflected in the Legal Manuscripts from Qin and Early Han Times

    The corresponding abstracts can be found in this booklet: http://tinyur

    I won't have the time to reproduce any full narrative for these slides
    at the moment, but let me quickly note a few things:

    (1) The loss of the "heart" element in the modern abbreviated form,
    commonly (and ad nauseam) blamed on the loveless Communist writing
    reformers, is due to the regularisation of a grass script form which
    can be traced to the Song-Yuan period. The whole process is explained
    very nicely in this article, on which I drew heavily in my presentation:


    (2) The semantics "to care for", "to spare" etc., predominating in the
    early texts, has been studied in great depth by Christian Schwermann
    (U. Bochum) in a masterful paper on "Sparsamkeit und Nachhaltigkeit im
    antiken China" [Frugality and sustainability in Early China]; not sure
    if he has published it in the meantime. See also, form a comparative
    philosophy perspective, Mark L. McPherran, "Love in the Western and
    Confucian Traditions: Response to Chung-Ying Cheng", Journal of Chinese Philosophy 39 (4):495-506 (2012):


    (3) The earliest lexical exponent for a meaning close to "to love" in
    Chinese is probably ren2 仁, before it became an ethical term "hijacked"
    by the early Confucians. A summary of the argument can be found in
    yours truly,

    "Der gegenwärtige Forschungsstand zur Etymologie von rén 仁 im
    Überblick", in: W. Behr, Licia di Giacinto, Ole Döring, Christine Moll-
    Murata, eds., Auf Augen­höhe. Festschrift zum 65. Ge­burtstag von
    Heiner Roetz, special issue of Bochumer Jahr­buch zur
    Ostasienforschung, 2015, pp. 199–224.

    available here: http://tinyurl.com/hnelpxj

    (4) For the now classic sociological deconstruction of European
    "romantic love" as being a quite modern phenomenon, pls have a look at
    Niklas Luhmann's (1927-1998)

    _Liebe als Passion: Zur Codierung von Intimität, Frankfurt: Suhrkamp,
    1982 [Engl. transl. _Love as Passion: The Codification of Intimacy_,
    Cambridge: Polity Press, 1986; French transl. _Amour comme passion. De la codification de l'intimité_, Aubier 1990].

  20. Erika said,

    February 15, 2017 @ 8:47 pm

    My husband was born in Taiwan in the early 1970s, and both of his parents are Taiwanese. They've been in the US (California) about 35 years now but still speak primarily Mandarin at home. When we visit them my mother-in-law invariably hugs us when we arrive and before we part ways and says, with some emotion, "ài nǐ, ài nǐ". I don't know if this is due to the infrequency of our seeing them, so her feelings are strong (as are ours) but it is quite interesting to learn that her way of speaking to us may not be as commonplace as I thought.

  21. Chris Button said,

    February 15, 2017 @ 10:22 pm

    "Every Breath You Take: Notes on the Etymology of ài"

    The etymological association of "spirited" (passionate) with words like "respire, aspirate" (breathing) makes this pretty persuasive.

  22. Noel Hunt said,

    February 16, 2017 @ 8:36 am

    ’’Li-ching didn't like to say or hear others say "I'm sorry" and "Thank you". She thought those were superficial Western forms of etiquette’’—not wishing to say 'sorry' is an indication that one doesn't want to accept responsibility for some wrong perpetrated; not wishing to say 'thank you' is an indication that one does not want to acknowledge a debt of gratitude, however small, to another person. This is why Chinese fall miserably short of any standard of civilized behaviour.

  23. Neil Dolinger said,

    February 16, 2017 @ 1:46 pm

    @Noel Hunt
    "not wishing to say 'sorry' is an indication that one doesn't want to accept responsibility for some wrong perpetrated; not wishing to say 'thank you' is an indication that one does not want to acknowledge a debt of gratitude, however small, to another person."
    Generally true from a Western standpoint, but please consider the possibility of a culture valuing actions more than words. Expressions of regret that are not backed up by changes in behavior are hollow expressions. Expressing gratitude by through reciprocity of beneficial actions could be seen as much more meaningful than words, particularly in — as was China throughout much of its history — a society of very scarce resources.

    "This is why Chinese fall miserably short of any standard of civilized behaviour." Any standard of civilized behavior? That's a lot of world you are covering!

  24. Neil Dolinger said,

    February 16, 2017 @ 1:55 pm

    I was not able to get access to the full article linked here, "China expands its courtesy: Saying 'Hello' to Strangers,", so I can't comment on more than what is presented in the abstract. However, I have seen increasing adoption of (what I as a Westerner would consider) courteous language and actions by PRC citizens in their transactions with other PRC citizens, at least in the cities. I didn't see cultural police in the background observing this behavior, so I conclude that the people themselves believe now there is value in this form of language.

  25. Dave Cragin said,

    February 16, 2017 @ 9:03 pm

    When watching a Chinese movie, a young man said to a young woman “我喜欢你.” (Wo xihuan ni). Literally, “I like you”. However, the subtitles translated it as “I love you.” I asked Chinese friends about it and many gave statements similar to the above. Hence, the subtitle actually conveyed the feeling correctly.

    One friend said “I never say “wo ai ni” to my wife. I say “wo xihuan ni”, but the implication is I love you.” Many others agreed with this. A few did use “wo ai ni.”

    As a small example of this, when texting with wechat, it often offers emojis as well as the character for the pinyin you type. After you pick the characters “I like you” or “I really like you” (wo hen xihuan ni 我很喜欢你), wechat offers symbols of love such as red hearts that you can add to the sentence.

    Hence, when texting “I like you”, wechat KNOWS you might mean “I love you.”

    Noel – Attacking an entire other country because they express their ideas and feelings differently than in English is really off-base. In Japan, a close friend might finish your sentences for you. This doesn't mean Americans are rude because we don't. It's just an interesting cultural difference. As Neil noted, opening's one mind to a different cultural perspective is the key to understanding.

  26. Victor Mair said,

    February 19, 2017 @ 12:06 am

    "Everyday Chinese: Saying 'I love you'" (Shanghaiist, 2/18/17)

    Ròumá 肉麻 recordings.

    The photograph at the top of the page shows a Caucasian couple gazing in each other's eyes and about to kiss.

  27. stephenl said,

    February 25, 2017 @ 11:22 am

    Are Chinese etymologists just being polite when they say early renditions of 心 are just a torso/physical heart rather than a penis (which is what they tend to look more obviously like…)? (http://www.chineseetymology.org/CharacterEtymology.aspx?characterInput=心 or https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/心 ). Or am I just being prurient?

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