Chinese Corner

Love You to Death and Back3 min read

How to Romance in Mandarin – Liz Carter

 

Love is in the air, or at least all over social media and the candy aisles of your local convenience store. Valentine’s Day is occasion for many a confession of love or vow of faithfulness, including in most of the Mandarin-speaking world. So how do you woo in Mandarin?

The answer is, in much the same cliché way as in English. You can fall in love at first sight (yí jiàn zhōng qíng 一见钟情) or come to love someone over time (rì jǐu shēng qíng 日久生情). You can love for someone for the rest of your life (yī shēng yī shì 一生一世) or even to death and back (sǐ qù huó lái 死去活来).

There are also sayings with more of a story behind them. The Chinese version of “beauty is in the eyes of the beholder” comes from the tale of Xi Shi, a legendary beauty whose appearance was said to have dazzled fish into forgetting how to swim and geese into falling from the sky, the moon to hide itself and the flowers to feel shame. The saying goes that “lovers’ eyes produce Xi Shi” (qíngrén yǎnlǐ chū Xī Shī 情人眼里出西施), an equivalent of “beauty is in the eyes of the beholder.”

My favorite love story is often billed as a tale about a platonic friendship. Bo Ya was a zither player in ancient China who happened to meet a man named Zhong Ziqi while travelling. Zhong Ziqi could listen to Bo Ya playing the zither and tell from the sound what the musician was thinking and feeling. Bo Ya and Zhong Ziqi arranged to meet the next year, but Zhong Ziqi didn’t show up. When Bo Ya went looking for him, he discovered that his friend had died. In sorrow, he broke his zither over the man’s grave. Even now, someone who understands you deeply – a soulmate – is a zhī yīn 知音, someone who “knows the sound.”

For the more cynical, there are the words of Eileen Chang, who wrote in her 1944 novella Red Rose, White Rose about greener grass on the other side of the fence:

Marry a red rose and eventually she’ll be a mosquito-blood streak smeared on the wall, while the white one is “moonlight in front of my bed.” Marry a white rose, and before long she’ll be a grain of sticky rice that’s gotten stuck to your clothes; the red one, by then, is a scarlet beauty mark just over your heart.

However you feel about love, Valentine’s Day is as good a time as any to confess your feelings. If there is no special someone in your life, or you simply have no desire for someone else, there is nothing wrong with refusing to settle. But if you do plan to celebrate romance, please keep your single friends in mind and remember, xiù ēnài, sǐ de kuài 秀恩爱,死得快 – “those who rub their love in other people’s faces are doomed to break up quickly.” ∎

Mandarin terms are transliterated in pinyin. Featured image by Yin Fo and used under Creative Commons license.

Liz Carter

Liz Carter is the author of Let 100 Voices Speak (I.B. Tauris, 2015) and co-author of The Grass-Mud Horse Lexicon (China Digital Times, 2013). Formerly managing editor of Tea Leaf Nation, she is currently based in Los Angeles pursuing a PhD in Chinese linguistics at UCLA.