Excerpts from a forgotten Chinese love tract, translated by Jonathan Keir
In his 1940 novella Aiqing zhi Fuyin, Tang Junyi’s lapsed Zoroastrian protagonist, the deracinated “world philosopher” Delas, embodies the author’s disgust for both communism and capitalism, and his search instead for wartime refuge in a “spiritual philosophy.” Instead of explaining love away in Freudian, Darwinian or other ideological terms, Tang sought to persuade readers that “what we need to do is the opposite, namely to explain the lower spheres of human movement in terms of the higher ones.” Love, for Delas, is best understood as a transcendental source of mystery and wonder – not a predictable, Tinderesque outcome, but a triumph of human free will over such bleak determinism. – Jonathan Keir
The Morality in Love
At this point one of the youths stood up and asked: “Master, allow me to ask a random question. Love should have a single focus; I have seen examples of it in others and experienced it for myself: a concentrated love is the most precious. But I do sometimes wonder why this must be so. I mean, every young person, before she settles on a partner for marriage, considers an enormous field of options; she might at different moments turn her amorous needs and energies on any number of targets. We might even say that she loves all these possibilities. But from the moment she has chosen a long-term partner, her love is suddenly concentrated on one person. Isn’t it a major loss to move from a plethora of potential targets of love down to just one? Why can’t we just live pan-amorously and enrich our love lives accordingly? I don’t need a moral lesson; I need a real reason.”
Delas took up the challenge: “I can indeed answer your question. First, let me put myself in your position, choosing a mate among countless alternatives. One can replace many; in fact, one is many. When two people make vows to each other, they are effectively saying: ‘From this day forward, I will only ever take this ladle down with me to the river.’ But we need to amend this slightly, since we can only drink one ladle at a time from the river anyway.
“You can’t have multiple loves, because human love requires you to have all your wits about you; that is why you need to concentrate your love on one person. The most important thing about love is not the fact you love her, or that she loves you, or that you love each other; the most important thing is that she knows you love her and that you know she loves you. This mutual ‘knowledge’ is all that really matters.
“When you have that, you not only love her, you also love her love for you; she not only loves you, but she also loves your love for her.
“Son, let me tell you, the core of your love life is your basic gratitude that your partner loves you, your love for love itself. Everyone who has truly been in love knows that the happiness of love comes from this mutual seal. But you may not often be consciously aware of this gratitude; this kind of meta-love can only exist between two people who have concentrated it on each other. If you love her and others simultaneously, how can she feel any basic gratitude towards you and your love for her? This basic gratitude comes from the fact that you could love others, but don’t; you have the option of spreading your love thinly over multiple targets or concentrating it all on one. She is only one person, but you make her stand in for everyone; this is the source of her basic gratitude. If you treat her as one among many, then she simply enjoys her original status; she has nothing to be grateful for, no reason to value your love for her. Your love for her won’t be loved by her, and you naturally, in the end, won’t be loved by her either.
“You can’t look at it from the outside and say that a person with many love stories has had a richer experience than a person with just one. Firstly, you need to know, love is like light: its rays are strong in a small, concentrated space, but dissipate to nothing in the wider cosmos. You need to remember that a thinly spread love will not prompt others to love your love for them; only a focused, exclusive love can do that.
“Like reflections in two facing mirrors, requited love multiplies itself endlessly; such an exclusive love can grow to be infinitely stronger than the scattergun love in your untrained heart. The universe’s logic is ingenious; only when you have fought your way through the myriad external illusions of love can you begin to cultivate its real, endless possibilities in a relationship with one person. The real plenty is in the opposite of what you might think.”
Like reflections in two facing mirrors, requited love multiplies itself endlessly”
On Staying Loyal to the End
Another youth then stood up and asked: “Master, I loved someone once, but then I discovered I loved someone else more. Can I give the first love up? Again, I don’t need moralising, just a philosophical argument.”
The old man replied: “Son, it all depends on what you promised her. If you promised her eternity, you absolutely can’t go and start loving someone else, regardless of whether you were publicly married or what the law says about your relationship. This is because, at the moment you promised eternity to her, you felt that she was replacing all those other possibilities; you were cancelling all these other options.
“We are self-conscious beings with an understanding of time. When you promised eternity to her, you weren’t simply speaking for the present moment, but promising to love her, alone, forever. You were, at that moment, self-consciously and freely conditioning your future. She would have known what you meant, and would have believed you, and you know she would have believed you. She wouldn’t just have believed in the person saying it, but in the future you as well, the eternal you. At that moment, you were allowing her to place her confidence in the contents of your heart as it is now. You would have wanted her to believe you at the time if that’s what you were saying; in fact I can see now that you said it with plenty of self-confidence. That all conditions what should be in your heart now.
“Son, I am sure you still remember what was in your heart then, you took responsibility for it, this is the very essence of what it means to have an identity over time.
“You need to know, the eternal love you expressed, the self-confidence with which you expressed it, was an expression of the fact that your heart transcends time and informs your whole life. A heart which transcends the limits of time should not be susceptible to the ravages of time, but rather remain constant through them. You shouldn’t go back on any such promises.”
As Delas finished speaking, the setting sun was already disappearing behind the mountains”
Choosing Between Two Loves
No sooner had Delas answered this question, however, than another came from the floor. An extremely gaunt-cheeked young woman, concealing profound melancholy, rose to say:
“I have the misfortune of being loved by two equally amazing young men. I can’t distinguish my feelings for them; all I endure at the moment is misery. They are both so deeply in love; I can’t bear inflicting such suffering on either of them. Master, can you help me solve my dilemma?”
“This type of situation does not arise very often,” Delas replied, “but it is possible. You are right to trouble yourself over your decision, but I don’t think the dilemma is absolutely insoluble. If your feelings and theirs really are equal, you can always ask your parents or your brothers and sisters; they are unlikely to be indifferent. You will still have to deal with the suffering you inflict on the unlucky one, but by following the advice of those you love and fulfilling their hopes for you, you will at least remain faithful to the metaphysical principle at stake.”
“But I don’t have any relatives to help me with my decision,” the girl replied. “I was raised in an orphanage; there is no one I can turn to.” …
“You clearly have a heart full of fellow feeling if you have thought things through this far. For someone like you there is always another option: you can say no to both of them, adding your own loneliness to theirs. If they truly love you, admire your gesture and are ready to sacrifice themselves for you as you sacrificed yourself for them, you will find a way to achieve genuine friendship with both of them and to collaborate on other projects. If only one of them is willing to make such a sacrifice, you will see that he had the stronger character after all.”
As Delas finished speaking, the setting sun was already disappearing behind the mountains. The snow-capped Himalayas were offset by clouds on the horizon. With the Ganges on one side and the forest on the other, the youths surrounding the frail but lithe white-haired man painted an earnest picture. Delas had spoken for a long time; he looked in need of a break. Immersed in the solemn beauty of the scene, the youths finally brought a natural end to their questioning. ∎