“I love you” might be one of the most important combinations of three words in the English language. It’s the signal that a romantic relationship is serious, an indication of closeness for a sibling, parent, or child, and a constant refrain for pop songs.
In Mandarin, “I love you” translates as “我爱你” (Wo ai ni), but the way it’s used in China might be a little different, and Chinese state media is wondering why.
The Global Times reports that two online videos showing children telling their parents “I love you” have gone viral in China. The first, filmed by an Anhui TV station, shows a number of college students telling their parents they love them. The response are mixed. “Are you drunk?” asked one parent. In another similar video, shot by a Shanxi TV station, a father responded even more bluntly — “I am going to a meeting, so cut the crap.”
Even the positive reactions make it clear that the words are expressed rarely: “I am so happy you called to say that, it is the happiest thing that happened to me in 2014,” one parent answered.
Why don’t Chinese families use those words? Theories revolve around the nature of Confucian teaching, or the remnants of 20th Century Communism. “The parents’ responses show that many Chinese are not good at expressing positive emotions,” Xia Xueluan, a Sociologist from Peking University, told the Global Times. “They are used to educating children with negative language.”
This isn’t the first time that China has done some soul-searching about familial love — last year China Daily asked a cross-section of people if they said ‘I love you’ to their parents, spouses, and children. “I have never said ‘I love you’ to my family, and I don’t think I will in the future,” one 56-year-old told the paper. “Saying it aloud is embarrassing for me.”
Still, that doesn’t mean that love can’t be expressed. In a separate article, China Daily spoke to Zhao Mengmeng, a 31-year-old woman who said she had never told her father she loved him face-to-face (“I find it a bit odd”). Sometimes actions speak louder than words, however — Zhao gave her father, a single parent, a photo album featuring photographs of them together on almost every one of her birthdays in June 2012. The pictures went viral online, being forwarded hundreds of thousands of times on Weibo.
“I didn’t sleep the night I heard about it,” her father told China Daily after the story attracted mainstream attention. “I have now memorized some of the comments on the collection of pictures.”