TRBQ pays a visit to the marriage market in Shanghai to talk with parents who are looking for mates for their adult children, and host Dean Olsher talks with scientists about brain scans of people who are in love. The question is, does “love” mean the same thing in different cultures? And it appears the answer is yes. And no.
Additional reporting for this podcast was provided by Rebecca Kanthor and Xie Yifan in Shanghai.
Comparison shopping for a mate
Every weekend in Shanghai, hundreds of parents flock to what’s called the Marriage Market, looking for love. Or at least marriage.
They’re not looking for themselves, though. They’re trying to find mates for their children.
Sometimes they come without telling their kids what they’re up to. Some line the sidewalks, with descriptions of their sons and daughters on white pieces of paper. Some walk along, browsing the selection.
In China, this practical view of love is common. Americans, on the other hand, have a kind of romantic ideal about getting swept off their feet. But does that mean Chinese people feel different things when they say they’re in love?
One of the parents at the Marriage Market identifies himself as Mr. Lan. He is hoping to find a spouse for his son.
“Here, we can find the information of single women who have a pretty high educational level,” he says through a translator. “These are girls who obtain undergraduate or master, or even doctoral degrees. They have limited time outside of work. They don’t even have time to look for a spouse, so their parents have to come.”
The parents exchange information about their kids’ age, height, income. They discuss whether the prospective groom owns an apartment. Personal ads hang in neat rows on walls in the park. Most are just words, not pictures.
Lan believes people should worry about character first, and looks second.
“You wouldn’t marry a girl from the barbershop because she’s pretty,” he says. “You have to consider whether the family will accept the choice. Because falling in love isn’t simply the matter of two people, it concerns the whole family.”
This is an old and widespread idea: that marriage is about uniting families. It’s not just about love—and maybe not about love at all.
Historian Stephanie Coontz says Westerners tend to take for granted that love should come before marriage, but really it’s a recent notion. She says for centuries, around the world, marriage was an economic and political transaction.
“For example, in ancient China the word for love connoted a very socially disrespectable relationship,” she says. “Falling in love before marriage in India was considered an actively antisocial act.”
Marrying for love, she says, was selfish. You were supposed to put your family’s needs first.
Coontz says some of our current ideas about romantic love stem from southern France, where aristocrats developed the conventions of courtly love. Even to them, though, marriage wasn’t about love.
“Actually, they believed that the only true love could occur outside marriage,” Coontz says. “Since marriage was an economic and political arrangement and a mercenary institution, the truest love was an adulterous love.”
This idea of courtly love has gotten a lot of attention from scholars. In fact, they used to argue—and some still do—that the whole concept of romantic love was invented by European troubadours in the Middle Ages. Until recently, it was widely believed that people outside of the West did not even feel romantic love.
Researchers have since endeavored to find out if that’s true.
“We looked for evidence of romantic love,” Fischer says. “And that could have been love poetry, or elopements, or just general descriptions of what we would consider to be romantic love.”
Fischer says they found romantic love in an overwhelming 88.5 percent of cultures. In the cases where they didn’t find it, the anthropologists studying them hadn’t even mentioned or asked about love.
Their conclusion: It’s very likely that romantic love is found in all cultures. Fischer says this answer just leads to a new question.
“Is the love people feel in those cultures the same as the love Westerners feel?” he says. “If you ask people in other cultures about love, they often describe it differently from Westerners. In China and other eastern countries, surveys have found that people are more likely to stress the negative aspects of love than Westerners are. Things like jealousy and heartbreak.”
In Shanghai, if you stop people in the park or outside a department store and you ask them about love, you hear a lot about communication and working at love.
You hear about duty. Responsibility.
This is the general sentiment from Jessie Chen, a 24-year-old accountant in Shanghai.
“Being involved in a romantic relationship is a lot like having a job, actually,” she says. “Because first of all you have to trust your colleague/your lover to be good at what he is doing. Secondly, the other person has to trust myself to do my job well. Both of them are very risky, can be risky. Having a job is risky; having a romantic relationship can be risky.”
Another researcher, Mona Xu, wanted to know if the cautious, responsible way Chinese people respond to surveys about love means they don’t fall in love the way Westerners do. Xu is a psychology professor at Idaho State.
“It’s really difficult to know,” she says. “Are people accurately reporting their experiences, and there’s this drastic difference between how Westerners experience love and how Easterners experience love? Or is it that culture is influencing how people talk about it, or how familiar they are with even being asked these questions?”
To find out, Mona Xu decided to look at the brains of Chinese people.
She based her study on work that had already been done in the U.S. and England. Scientists recruited people who said they were madly in love and put them in an MRI machine to see what happened in their brains when they thought about their sweetheart.
What they found was activation in parts of the brain associated with thinking, but also in parts that are associated with craving, motivation, addiction and euphoria. That leads Mona Xu to a fairly clinical definition of love.
“It is a motivated goal state driven by a desire for union with another person that is often emotional in nature,” she says.
Some researchers call love a basic human drive, like the sex drive. Based on that premise, almost everyone would be expected to have it.
Xu expected that when she looked at the brains of Chinese people in love, they would look like the brains of Westerners in love—and she was right.
“We found that they’re almost identical,” she says.
Xu’s study lends support to the idea that love is love no matter where you are, even if culture influences how we talk about it and think about it and feel about it.
And of course, culture can change.
It’s changing in China, in fact. Educated young women are marrying later. And as millions of people move to cities, they lose the social networks that might have helped them find spouses. That’s why marriage markets have sprung up in recent years.
Instead of working with neighbors and relatives to broker marriages, parents have to negotiate with other parents who are strangers, or with matchmakers like Zhou Yun.
“Things were a lot more simple back then,” Zhou Yun says. “People were quite innocent.”
She says things were simpler when she was young. Now, it’s harder to find a spouse.
“In contemporary China, young people put a lot of emphasis on material conditions,” she says. “They are quite picky.”
Some people at the park say young people are getting new ideas about love from friends who’ve studied overseas, or from studying overseas themselves. Some do seem to be adopting a more Western, more Hollywood idea of love.
Suzette Xu is 30 years old. She grew up in Shanghai, but she sounds a bit like a Westerner when she talks about love. To her, it’s about finding the dream guy, not about responsibility.
“Once you’ve felt the kind of feeling when you’re in love with someone, it’s addictive, really addictive to me,” she says.
She’s eager to take a chance on love.
“Every single chance that I can possible take,” she says. “So I can fall in love with someone.”
Suzette Xu says being in love is like eating tiramisu.
“Because it’s creamy,” she says. “It’s sweet with a little bit of bitterness.. It’s a very pleasant thing. I can’t wait to have more!”
Read more on what scientists have learned about love.
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