Book Review: When True Love Came to China, by Lynn Pan

Lynn Pan’s When True Love Came to China is one of the most fascinating books I’ve ever read about anything. It argues that China was a stranger to love – or at least to “true love” – until the New Culture and May Fourth movements of the 1910s, when love was imported to China from its Western place of origin.

To make her case, Pan reviews Chinese and Western literary sources and shows that China, where “feeling” and “lust of the mind” were indeed well known, nonetheless fostered only a pragmatic experience of male-female coupling, due to the prevalence of arranged marriage and also to the Confucian preoccupation on moral perfection, which left little room for supposedly frivolous pursuits such as being in love. It fell to the Western mind, with its predisposition toward religious ardor, to develop the tradition of ecstatic devotion to one person. Even if the reader is uninterested in China, Pan’s chapter on the idea of love in the West is worth the price of the ticket.

That Pan limits her search for love to the Chinese and Western literary corpora tempted me to call foul, for love, as I thought, must surely evince itself outside of books. Psychologists, anthropologists, ethnomusicologists, and folklorists might be even more insistent that Pan’s approach is myopic and that  a better-directed hunt for love should also lead through their respective fields. Upon reflection, however, it makes sense that broader cultural phenomena such as love would sooner or later find expression in books, with the more significant phenomena garnering the most articulation. When True Love Came to China is in fact a monumental testament to the importance of books. Pan’s treatment of China’s pioneering lovers of the early twentieth century makes the primacy of book-borne sensibility undeniable.

When Pan quotes from Yu Dafu’s (1896-1945) letter to Wang Yingxia (1908-2000) – “Oh Yingxia! You are truly my Beatrice.” (p. 204) – she clinches both arguments, proving that love is a Western import to China and that books are important. Earlier chapters of When True Love Came to China highlight the role played by Ellen Key (1849-1926) and her book Love and Marriage, as well as the better-known effect in China of Henrik Ibsen’s (1828-1906) play A Doll’s House, in which the protagonist Nora walks out on her family. Nora is shown to be the role model proposed by the ardent Xu Zhimo (1897-1931) to the married Lu Xiaoman (1903-1965) in Xu’s exhortation for her to leave her husband and run off with him (p. 217).

For love to flourish, freedom and the idea of personality (see p. 163 and thereabouts) must also be secured, and Pan traces China’s quest for these latter prizes as well. The liberation of women, obviously, becomes an important part of the story, and students of this subject will find much in the way of further reading in Pan’s bibliography.

There is simply too much here – love, freedom, religion, marriage, feminism, history, China, Japan, Europe – for the present reviewer to summarize. When True Love Came to China is enthralling from so many angles. It is essential reading for life.

Author: Harry Miller

I have traveled and lived in Taiwan, China, and Japan and am now a professor of Asian history and author of Southern Rain, a novel of seventeenth-century China.

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