Editor’s Note: Though Valentine’s day is a fast and growing holiday in China, there are very significant ways in which the Chinese differ from Americans in the way they express love and affection towards one another. Perhaps the most notable of these, is the use (or rather the non-use) of the words “I love you” to communicate love. In this article, we will explore this phenomenon.

Show Me, Don’t Tell Me

I love you.

Three little words you might say this Valentine’s Day, but would be hard pressed to hear from your Chinese friends. Though this phrase technically exists within the Chinese language (我爱你” or “wǒ ài nǐ”),  in practice, its usage is actually pretty limited. Most Chinese adults, in fact, will never say these words to another adult, considering them to be too awkward, strange, or overly sentimental.

While Americans may find this notion hard to believe, it is not without proof. In 2014, a Chinese television station filmed a group of college students telling their parents “I love you,” many for the first time. Instead of genuinely (or even casually) reciprocating the sentiment as you might expect in America, the majority of parents were actually stunned by their child’s words. Some immediately burst out laughing, others questioned their children’s motives, asking if they were drunk (1:03-1:08) or pregnant (1:40-1:47). 

Xia Xueluan, a sociologist from Peking University confirms this phenomenon, observing that, “unlike their American counterparts, Chinese parents are not used to hearing the phrase ‘I love you’ when they speak to their children. Children, likewise, rarely hear their parents affirm their love for them verbally. As Jing, an international student from China, shared “Though my father has never told me [I love you], I know he loves me.

Why It’s Hard to Say

So, why do most Chinese avoid saying the words “I love you”? There are several possible reasons. The first is simply a matter of cultural differences. Every culture, after all, has different ways of communicating love. In American culture, love is often conveyed explicitly in direct words. In Chinese culture, however, a person’s actions speak much louder than words. Most Chinese parents express their love indirectly through their care and financial support of their children. One Chinese student said, “My parents have never told me they love me. Though I know they love me because they sacrifice so much for me to come to America to study”.

Secondly, the phrase “I love you” actually connotes a stronger and deeper meaning in spoken Chinese language than it does in English. Because the Chinese believe in restraining their deeper emotions in order to protect themselves and others from embarrassment or “loss of face,” such a strong display of emotion is generally avoided. One Chinese student shared “We are not allowed to share openly and transparently. We must act reserved.” As any display of emotion could result in undesired consequences, they refrain from doing anything that could potentially dishonor themselves or others.

Most likely, however, this absence stems from the fact that ancient Confucian customs continue to influence modern culture today. Late Chinese scholar Francis Hsu noted that the Chinese family unit under Confucianism depended on strength and order. Within this structure, any man who appeared openly affectionate with his wife was deemed weak in character. When today, Chinese men refrain from saying “I love you” to avoid being too emotional, it is possible it is because this thought has sustained to the present day.

It is Necessary?

And yet, though the utterance of “I love you” still is and historically has been uncommon in the home, young people today hear these words at an increasing rate in the media around them. The phrase “wǒ ài nǐ” is now spoken in movies, written in novels, and sung in songs more than ever before. Does it matter that cultural recognition of verbal affection has increased without an equal increase in cultural practice? On the one hand, Kory Floyd, an American professor of Human Communication at the University of Arizona known for his research on ‘affection deprivation,’ maintains that “affectionate” communication is good for everyone. There are physical and mental benefits, he argues, for expressing feelings of love and affection. It would then seem essential for someone’s “heart” or native language to express this deep love language from the heart.

Chinese blogger Candice Chung, however, disagrees. She states, “[the] Chinese know how to love fiercely. They do it through immense generosity, unwavering loyalty, and a lot of food.”5 In her opinion, Chinese people love just fine, they just love differently. It’s not better or worse, just different.

What do you think?

Thoughts to Ponder

How was love expressed in your family? How does this influence how you show love to others outside your family?

What are some practical ways to communicate your affection towards your Chinese friends?

Global Times, January 29, 2014
2 Eng Chan, “Three Ways Chinese Parents Show ‘I Love You’ Is Overrated”, China Pod, November 24, 2016.
3 Under the Ancestors Shadow, Columbia University Press, 1948.
4 Communicating Affection, Cambridge University Press, 2008.
5 “Why Chinese Parents Don’t Say I Love You”, Sydney Morning Herald, July 21, 2016.