Love is a many-splintered thing in the Chinese language

Wan Lixin
Shakespeare said "the course of true love never did run smooth," which is maybe why Chinese people have so much trouble addressing it.
Wan Lixin

A friend from Singapore observed that when her English name Eve became easily confused with the Chinese for yifu (clothes), she asked to be addressed as Wang Taitai (Mrs Wang) instead.

Then she was reminded that addressing her as Wang Taitai could give others the impression that she is pompous and aloof, "like an old-moneyed woman sitting on a mighty throne."

When I reflected on her predicament, I thought how Chinese mainlanders do seem to lack proper forms of address for spouses or even sweethearts

Taitai (wife) also implies a wealthy woman who doesn't work, and other titles carry subtleties: laopo is familiar but slightly disrespectable; qizi is too formal. The term furen is also a bit pompous.

The standard address for my parents' generation was jiashu (family member), which could refer to husband, to wife or to children. It still appears to be the most acceptable of all alternatives and is my own favorite.

The Chinese have a complicated etymological history with what to call loving relationships.

One term much in vogue for my parents' generation and still sometime heard today is airen. It is sometimes misleadingly translated into "lover." To my mind, this term is slightly evocative of the stirring years of Chinese revolution, when dedicated underground couples would often address each other that way.

As a matter of fact, airen as a form of address is a Western import, probably from Sweetheart Abbey (according to one investigation), founded in 1273 by Lady Dervorguilla of Galloway to honor her late husband John Balliol's memory – at least this is what I came across online when I tried to trace the origin of airen.

In Chinese, airen in the "sweetheart" context is strictly confined to the legally married, whereas in English, it can simply be a term of endearment or a reference to someone who is loved or loveable.

In Chinese, the term duixiang refers to a "boyfriend" or "girlfriend" in a steady relationship, serious enough to be headed for marriage. But the term is neutral and utterly devoid of any romantic association, which may reflect the fact that most Chinese are very undemonstrative when it comes to love.

Chinese television programs and movies often show passionate lovers or couples exclaiming "I love you!" But that may be appropriated from Western manners. I have never seen that happen in real life.

In fact, the character ai (love) itself, when used in term of romantic relationship, is a fairly late development in Chinese etymology.

According to the interpretation in "Shuowen Jiezi," the first Chinese dictionary, the word ai originally meant "an act of benefiting others." In the first chapter of Confucius' "Analects," the word airen has been translated as "love for men."

According to the translation by James Legge, it reads: "To rule a country of a thousand chariots, there must be reverent attention to business, and sincerity; economy in expenditures, and love for men …"

The husband-wife relationship is deemed the most fundamental of the five types of human interactions, which include ruler and subject, father and son, brothers and friends. However, the husband-wife relationship has always been placed in an intricate network of other relations. Thus, when a husband introduces his wife to others, he often says something that translates roughly as "this is your aunt."

And this "aunt," depending on the specific web of relations, can refer to any number of familial relations.

No wonder kinship terms so often befuddle English translators.

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