ChinaFile: It's Hard to Say 'I Love You' in Chinese

“We didn’t say ‘I love you,’” said Dr. Kaiping Peng, Associate Professor of Psychology Emeritus at the University of California at Berkeley. I’d ventured over to his China office on the campus of Beijing’s mighty Tsinghua University to talk to him about the romantic prospects of China’s rising fleets of well-educated, unmarried Chinese known as shengnü, or “leftover women,” but our conversation quickly took a historical detour. Though these days Peng wears Diesel jeans and spends his time jetting between Berkeley and Beijing, when he was a young, love-struck student during the Cultural Revolution things were different. “We said, ‘wo xihuan ni,’ (‘I like you’),” to express our deepest romantic feelings. Only in the more educated classes, where partners spoke English, were “I love you’s,” ever exchanged—and never in Chinese. “‘Wo ai ni,’ or the Chinese equivalent of ‘I love you,’ is a thing of the last thirty years,” he told me. “Before then, you just showed love through holding hands, kissing, or maybe writing or doing something nice—but you never said it.”

This was hard for me to get my head around. “I love you,” is probably about the third phrase Chinese students learn in English class after “hello” and “nice to meet you.” In China, I’ve seen it on everything from notebooks to bed sheets, from wall stickers to breakfast treats. My dentist once gave me a promotional keychain that said “I love you” on it after I had a cleaning. Yet, never having been privy to a Chinese world of close romantic attachment (things never did work out with my dentist), I had naively assumed that “wo ai ni” was used much like its English equivalent.

“No,” Guang Lu, a thirty-one-year-old investment banker with a strong affinity for Shakespeare, tells me. “The newness of those words still makes them very difficult for us to say.”

Could the reason for that be chemical?

Beginning in June 2010, with funding from a grant issued by the Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology, a team of scientists began to look at Chinese brains. The team was comprised of Dr. Arthur Aron, a psychologist at Stony Brook University; Dr. Lucy Brown, a Clinical Professor of Neurology at Albert Einstein College of Medicine; Dr. Xuchu Weng of the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing, and Dr. Xiaomeng Xu, now Assistant Professor of Psychology at Idaho State University. By the time their study was over in August 2012, they would revolutionize the understanding of the Chinese brain and its relation to romance. Their work began in Beijing, where they recruited eighteen Chinese college students who reported being “deeply in love.” The students, who had been in relationships for an average of seven months, were put into a functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) machine at the Beijing MRI Center for Brain Research and shown a sequence of pictures for thirty seconds at a time. These included pictures of neutral, familiar acquaintances as a control, followed by a smiling picture of their sweetheart.

When viewing a headshot of their special someone, all of the participants showed vibrant activity in the dopamine-rewards system of the brain known as the ventral tegmental area, or VTA. Previous neurological studies have shown that this is a completely normal brain response; when a person falls in love, the VTA, as well as another nearby part of the brain—the caudate—is active. Stimulation of the VTA generally is associated with a cocaine high, the high a person might feel after winning a large sum of money, or with the “can’t think, can’t eat, can’t sleep” headiness of new love.

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