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Warm love, cold calculation a paradox

05-06-2011 15:14 BJT

BEIJING, May 6 (Xinhuanet) -- Discussing Titanic recently, some Chinese female college students readily affirmed having enjoyed what they considered to be a very "romantic" film.

(Source: China Daily)

They agreed, too, with one of their classmates who said: "Of course their love would never have lasted." I asked why not? She replied: "They were from different social classes." Her opinion is representative of Chinese tradition, which holds the best marriage matches are between social equals.

This raises an interesting question: Would the students hold the same view of success if the woman in the film was from a lower class than the man? I think not.

Chinese society is undergoing a transformation whereby dating is replacing more formalized courtship norms that provide greater individual freedom, flexibility and insecurity to the meaning of sexual and emotional intimacy. The increasing popularity of romantic love expressed during a dating couple's ordinary conversations has moved love, perceived as imaginary play and an essential goal of life, from society's margins to its center stage.

Chinese TV channels are full of talk and reality shows, discussing almost every facet of romantic love and what achieving personal happiness and having a successful conjugal life means. China's single-child generation has swallowed the TV-version of romantic love hook, line and sinker, or so it seems.

A 23-year-old woman's idea about love is representative of her generation. She says: "Love is more than an expression. It is taking care of my man when he is sick, jumping up and down on receiving exciting news, or just watching him sleep. It means cooking for him and then eating together. Love also involves enjoying the quiet pleasures of being together and doing small stuff with my man." For her and others of her generation, love is based on equality and the sharing of life's intimacies. In effect, it is not just cool to be in love, it is essential to have a satisfactory life.

In cultures that idealize romantic love, there are often two competing images of love: one is based more on spiritual fantasy that idealizes love as an endless state of being, and the other is anchored to practical realism that involves a cold assessment of another person's physical and material qualities, and economic prospects. It is this dual and often dueling aspect of love which accounts for male cynicism that sees a woman talking of timeless commitment but terminating a relationship as soon as she meets a man with better financial prospects.

In contrast, women are equally perplexed by men's actions. Some men, for example, will not go out with a woman who is below their threshold of physical attractiveness. Some married men concede that as time goes by and their wives age, they find their love for their spouses vanishing. For such men, love is related to a certain level of physical attractiveness. It seems the material side of life impacts men and women equally, albeit they use different criteria to express it. This begs the question: What has love got to do with marriage?

In a recent survey, Chinese women did not list love as an especially important criterion when asked what they would look for in a life partner. Instead, more than 70 percent of the respondents said they would not marry a man who didn't own an apartment, hold a good stable job and have substantial savings. The finding that many women assess a man's overall talents and achievements minutely before deciding to marry him is in total contrast to their equally intense emphasis on the value and importance of romance before and after marriage. It also constitutes one of China's more intriguing paradoxes and requires an explanation.

What the survey suggests is the presence of a deeper cultural shift in spouse selection criteria of men and women to include personality attributes that are equal to and, in many cases, more important than physical attraction or material resources.

So are Chinese women pragmatic materialists or sentimental romantics? When it comes to understanding women's motives, an intriguing paradox arises. Chinese women believe, as much as their counterparts in other countries, in an idea of pure love and simultaneously associate a man's ability to get material resources as evidence of his ability to provide and thus his capacity to sustain real or true love. For most Chinese women, there is no contradiction between desiring material resources and falling head over heals in love. A 19-year-old woman explained what at first was something of a paradox to me: "Economic condition is the basic element of any relationship but love is the decisive element. Economics is important, but I need love too."

It is the intertwining of an idea of romantic love with the need to have material resources that produces the conflict in expectations: If actions speak louder than words, then the more memorable acts will have a tangible manifestation.

To this end, material resources, in the form of diamond rings, gold necklaces, new cars and expensive vacations are taken as evidence of a man's commitment. For men, this presents something of a dilemma. If they give too much, too quickly, they can never be certain whether a woman sees the gifts as love or just payment for her time. In the domain of love, it is easy to cheat. But withholding material gifts for too long can result in the loss of a potential partner. This is a conundrum for all.

The author is a professor of anthropology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and a visiting fellow of Fudan University, Shanghai, where he co-teaches a class on marriage and the family.

Editor:Yang Jie |Source: Xinhua

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