Essay: Five Chinese Love Languages

I don’t know how to love or to express love anymore.

Gary Chapman popularized the concept of Five Love Languages: words of affirmation, acts of service, receiving gifts, quality time, and physical touch.

I went over these concepts in my head many times. Sure, I understand these concepts intellectually. But l can’t shake off the feeling that as someone who grew up in China, these love languages feel alien and superficial to me deep down. Just like English, I speak and write perhaps rather fluently, but in my subconsciousness, it’s still a nonnative concept and I cannot fully express myself in such a foreign language for certain deep issues. Well, that and any arithmetics (multiplication table in Chinese is burnt in my memory).

People talk about tiger parents and how strict Asian parents are. But we don’t really talk about how subtle and counterintuitive Chinese love is. Maybe you have a notion that Chinese people don’t really express love. Or even take it even further to say we don’t know how to love. It’s true that we almost never say, verbally and literally, “I love you.” But we do express love in certain roundabout and indirect ways, and I would like to give these languages some names for clarity – both for my own understanding, and for bridging some sort of cultural gap.

What are the love languages in Chinese? In short, I propose it’s the exact opposite of the five love languages as Gary Chapman proposed.

Chapman’s Love Language Chinese Love Language
Words of Affirmation Words of Criticism
Acts of Service Dictation of Service
Receiving Gifts Refusing Gifts
Quality Time Absence as Sacrifice
Physical Touch Attention with Distance

Love Language 1: Words of Affirmation v.s. Words of Criticism

It’s a long standing joke among Asians that one would come home with 99 out of 100, and the parents will be unhappy and ask why you didn’t achieve 100; while U.S. kids go home with 85 out of 100 and the parents will be cheering them for doing such a wonderful job.

Chinese parents nag. They compare us to other kids. They are constantly criticizing that we are not working hard enough; wearing too little in the winter; working too hard; eating too little; sleeping too much; sleeping too little. Whatever you do, they find ways to criticize.

My friends say that I am too hard on myself, and sometimes people around me. I have high standards. And never felt adequate. One of the phrases that were drilled into my mind by my parents when I was little was – 法乎其上,得乎其中。法乎其中,仅得其下。It roughly translates to – if you hold the highest standards, you achieve mediocre results; if you hold medium-high standards, you will only get crappy results.

But there was one night recently, after being away from home for so many many years, after not seeing family for so many years, I really wish my parents could nag me and could tell me what to do. Instead of having me figure out what I want to do with life myself – I guess there is the element of being careful what you wish for. I wanted freedom, now I have freedom. But sometimes freedom comes with great responsibility. They nag because they care. They criticize because they always want you to have a better life. That’s the translation of the love language no.1.

Love Language 2: Acts of Service v.s. Dictation of Service

Love language no.2; acts of service. It translates in Chinese to an overwhelmingly concept that the service will be provided to you no matter if you need/want it or not. They will take away your agency and design a life path for you out of love.

They will cook for you, dress you, send you to classes, force you to learn things because it is good for you – why do you think I learned so much random stuff? There is a long delayed gratification and appreciation that only kicks in many many years later.

Did I enjoy being forced to learn the piano? Not until later on. Not until I stand in a concert venue and begin to truly appreciate the music on my own. Does it create trauma? Absolutely. The lost agency, blurred boundaries, the less developed sense of identity. These are all collateral damages. But is it out of love? Maybe we can argue that it’s such a strong act of service that it becomes a sort of dictation.

Love Language 3: Receiving Gifts v.s. Refusing Gifts

After I started earning a salary, I wanted to buy my parents gifts. And they would always refuse.

It’s like Tai Chi.

It’s never one round. The beauty is in the back-and-forth. It’s the art of proposing and refusing.

If you ever have dinner in China, people would fight over who pays the bill. Person A would say – let me pay for it. You can pay for it this time. B would say – oh no no need to trouble you. I can pay for it. I still owe you for the last time. A would say – oh oh that doesn’t matter, let me pay for it. This would go a few rounds until hopefully one of the parties backs down.

It’s the same with gifts. One gives a gift. The other says oh no absolutely I cannot take this. Take it back with you. The first person then goes – but you have to accept! This is only a humble gift and please take it. Round and round you go. That’s the love language.

Love Language 4: Quality Time v.s. Absence as Sacrifice

My mom went to Shenzhen when she was young to try to be a software entrepreneur. This was when the software industry was just starting in China and right after I was born. She came home during the Spring Festival one year, and said that I didn’t recognize her. And she got really scared.

She then left Shenzhen and came back to where my dad and I were. I always joke that if she had stayed in Shenzhen and did a startup, I could be a rich second generation instead of working my ass off myself.

It’s an impossible choice. There are 69 million left-behind children (留守儿童) in China, whose parents left where they are for a better job opportunity to provide for the family. I understand the struggle as I left my parents behind to pursue education and career. Is my love language quality time? I can hardly claim so.

People make the impossible choice to be absent out of love; out of the constraints of reality. People choose absence because they want a better life for the ones they love. So yes, instead of quality time, I speak absence.

Love Language 5: Physical Touch v.s. Attention with Distance

I don’t recall my parents hugging me. But I do remember one winter I went home, and I woke up in the middle of the night. I found my mom just looking at me sleeping.

She looked at me as if I was some precious treasure that she was about to lose again in silence.

The other day I was in the subway and I suddenly remembered the cliche essay every kid was forced to learn in primary school – 背影 (The Sight of Father’s Back), essay by Ziqing Zhu. When I was learning it I thought the story was dumb. What’s the big deal about the sight of father’s back awkwardly navigating the tracks and buying oranges.

That’s the silent, suppressed expression of love, from a distance. Not to disturb you. But there for you.


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  8. 背影 (The Sight of Father’s Back), essay by Ziqing Zhu