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Western Love, Chinese Qing

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A Philosophical Interpretation of the Idea of Love in Romeo and Juliet and the Story of Liang-Zhu (or The Butterfly Lovers).

Romeo and Juliet (1968)

Directed and co-written by Franco Zeffirelli, the Shakespeare film adaptation won Acadamy Awards for Best Cinematography and Best Costume Design. The film was shot in Italy and used actors who were close to the age of the characters from the original play, which became key to its success. Photo: PictureLux / The Hollywood Archive / Alamy

“Love, such as we understand it since our twelfth century does not even have a name in their language... From the viewpoint of the idea of love, there are really two worlds, the Oriental and the Occidental"
- Denis de Rougemont

Quote Source1

I tend to agree with de Rougemont in general that the metaphysical and theological approaches in the Western articulation of the problem of love in terms of eros-philia-agape are foreign to the Chinese mind. The idea of ‘love’ in the Chinese culture is rendered as ‘qing’ (情), which I think has a completely different meaning horizon from the Western conception of ‘love’. However, de Rougemont has merely made an assertion without going into Chinese philosophy and literature to illustrate his point. Perhaps his alleged ignorance should not be blamed. Compared with the vast Western philosophical literature on the problem and nature of love, there is very little said in Chinese culture on this topic. For the Chinese intellectuals, past or present, qing is not a proper subject matter to be thematised.

The Greek concept of love as eros and the Christian idea of God’s love as agape belong clearly to the Western tradition.

However, amorous relationships are human phenomena which are obvious and taken for granted in all cultures. The difference lies only in the understanding and interpretation of these phenomena according to the particular cultural categories of meaning. The eros-philia-agape schema denotes the hermeneutic horizon from which the human relationship called “love” is being conceptualised and understood in the Western tradition. Irving Singer, agreeing with de Rougemont, argues for the uniqueness of the West because the two cultural roots of the West, namely, the Greek and the Christian, determine the reference and meaning of all discourse on love. For the eros tradition, he says, “In ancient Eastern philosophy — Hinduism Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, Zen — the eros tradition scarcely existed. Correspondingly, the East did not develop the concept of love in ways that are comparable to those of the West.”2On the other hand, religious love is also unique. Singer further comments, “Religious love is mainly a product of the Judaeo-Christian tradition… The two thousand years of Christian theology and philosophy consist of one attempt after another to understand, and render amenable to worship, a love that might be God.”3 The Greek concept of love as eros and the Christian idea of God’s love as agape belong clearly to the Western tradition. When de Rougemont and Singer assert that romantic love is an invention of the West, it is because romantic love cannot be understood without the reference to both the Greek eros and Christian agape.


Our present world, however, does not consist of isolated cultures. Western cultural tradition has been eroded by the enormous force of modernisation. At the same time, all other civilisations were confronted by the challenge of the process of Western modernisation. Consequently, the whole world is being transformed. The result is a gradual adoption, sometimes unconsciously, sometimes with bitter struggle, of Western ideology, values, standards, and, in short, almost all western culture, into one’s own. We take for granted the ideas of political and economic freedom, human rights, government, science and technology, as well as standard of living, entertainment and so on, which are all of Western origin, as if they were indigenous to our own culture. In fact, our generation is born into this predicament: we are both Chinese and Western.

Psyche Revived by Cupid's Kiss

A masterpiece of Neoclassical sculpture by Antonio Canova, this shows the mythological lovers at a moment of great emotion, characteristic of the emerging movement of Romanticism. It represents the god Cupid (Eros) at the height of love and tenderness, immediately after awakening the lifeless Psyche with a kiss.

The Weaver Girl and the Cowherd

The artwork in the Long Corridor of the Summer Palace in Beijing shows the reunion of the couple, Niu Lang and Zhi Nu, on the bridge of magpies. The earliest-known reference to the myth dates back to over 2,600 years ago, and was told in a poem from the Classic of Poetry.

It is indeed true to say that in the past, there were two different traditions of the idea of love in the West and the East. There was no romantic love in China. But this assertion has lost its validity in the contemporary world. The popular media culture shows that perhaps ‘romantic love’ is the best and most welcome commodity. Even our vocabulary and the conception of love have changed drastically without our awareness. Less than a hundred years ago, the locution “I love you”, which is most common today, did not exist in any Chinese texts, and definitely no Chinese would utter such a sentence to his or her lover!


I consider a comparative study of the idea of love between the Chinese and the Western traditions more than an academic interest. It is our existential concern to uncover the radical meaning of love embedded in our present consciousness. What we mean by romantic love is the product of a cross-fertilisation of two originally incommensurable traditions of love. To illustrate this, I choose Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet as the most obvious example of romantic love, which is at the same time one of the most well-known romantic plays to modern Chinese, and compare it with the Chinese legendary story of Liang-Zhu (梁祝), better known as the Butterfly Lovers, whose depiction of love is considered equally romantic by most Chinese today.



There are certainly many superficial similarities between these two stories. A contemporary Chinese scholar, Hong-xin (洪欣) compares the content of the two love stories and concludes that there are “surprising similarities”. He enumerates five points:


  1. The heroes and heroines met accidentally and fell in love of their free will;
  2. There were hidden conflicts and crises in their love;
  3. There was someone who helped them in the realisation of their love;
  4. The two pairs of lovers were crushed and destroyed by “reactionary” forces;
  5. Their lives ended tragically.4


The romantic love of Liang-Zhu has been further popularised and made known to nearly all Chinese through the Butterfly Lovers Violin Concerto by He Zhan-hao (何占豪) and Chen Gang (陈刚) of 1959. One cannot fail to notice the similarities in tone and mood of the Butterfly Lovers Concerto to that of Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Overture. Tchaikovsky, needless to say, is one of the chief romantic composers in 19th-century Western music.


So much for the apparent similarities between the two stories.

The Idea of Love (Qing) in Liang-Zhu

I have used the version of the story recorded in Qing-shi leilue (情史类略), edited and written by the important late Ming literary author Feng Meng-long (冯梦龙 _1574-1646) in the discussion here. Since the story is not a long one, I translated it completely for the purpose of discussion.


Liang Shan-bo (梁山伯) and Zhu Ying-tai (祝英台) lived in the time of the East-Chin (东晋) dynasty. Liang’s family was in Hui-ji (会稽) while Zhu’s home was in Shang-yu (上虞). They studied together for some time. Zhu went home first and was later visited by Liang in Shang-yu. Only then did Liang realise that Zhu was female. He went home and told his parents that he would like to marry Zhu. Unfortunately, at that time, Zhu was already betrothed to the young son of the Ma family. Knowing that, Liang was very sad and was at a loss. Three years had passed before he became an official at the town Jin (). Soon after he became seriously ill and was going to die. Before he died, he made a wish that he was to be buried at the foot of the Qing-dao Mountain (清道山). Another year passed and this was the time for Zhu to leave home for the marriage to the son of the Ma family. The party was stopped by a sudden storm when they passed the Qing-dao Mountain. Then Zhu visited Liang’s grave and wept sorrowfully. The grave opened suddenly and Zhu threw herself into it and died. Hearing of the incident, the Ma family reported it to the Emperor’s court. Minister Xie-an (谢安) requested the Emperor to ordain Zhu as ‘Chaste-lady’. In the time of the Emperor He (和帝), Liang manifested himself spiritually to serve the people. Because of this, he was ordained ‘Chaste-loyality’ (义妇). This story was recorded and incribed at the Jin-temple. It was also recorded in the ‘Annals of Ling-po’ (宁波志).


The butterflies in Wu-zhong were transformed from orange larvae. Women and children called the yellow butterfly Liang Shan-bo and the black one Zhu Ying-tai. According to legend, the Zhu family visited the grave after Zhu died and burned clothes in front of it. From the flames of the burning clothes appeared a pair of butterflies. It was believed that such a tale was created by some concerned persons. 






Source: Compilation of Qing Stories (情史类略) Chang-sha, 1984 pp. 282 -293 by Feng Mong-long.

Liang Shanbo yu Zhu Yingtai (1963)

Also titled The Love Eterne, this is a musical film of the Huangmei opera genre directed by Li Han Hsiang based on the story of Liang-Zhu. The film won six awards at the 2nd Golden Horse Awards, including Best Picture. Photo: Photo 12 / Alamy

Moral duty without qing is hyprocritical if not void of meaning. On the other hand, qing can only be manifested completely and perfectly if it is confined within the moral order.

For the modern reader who believes the romantic version of the Liang-Zhu story, the original is an anticlimax. There was no rebellious struggle of the lovers to act against their parents. Liang made no love vow to Zhu and contemplated no secret marriage. All he did was to ask permission from his own parents to marry Zhu and became seriously ill after he knew there was no hope. There was no love at first sight. The whole episode took a long time (at least seven years) to complete. The only trace of any romanticism was perhaps the butterfly legend, but that was only later added to the original story.


If we disregard the romantic frame of reference and return to the original text, we should discover the love manifested between Liang and Zhu was nothing extraordinary. It was most conservative and moral in nature. The idea of individuality and personal freedom was unknown to them. The overarching principle of morality in traditional Chinese culture is li (礼): appropriateness and correctness. For a learned scholar like Liang, the essential obligation is to see whether one’s behaviour abides by the moral order. Marriage is considered to be no private business between individuals but between families. Consent and approval from parents are to be strictly regarded. The tragedy of the lovers lies exactly in the conflict between their mutual recognition of love and parental approval. Since Zhu was promised by her parents to be married to the son of the Ma family, it cannot be changed, simply because any change would contaminate the honour of Zhu’s parents.


What Feng values is certainly not the ‘romantic’ ending in the transformed butterflies but the persistence of love that endures all sufferings and finally survives even death. It is indeed most unfortunate to have an unconsummated love because of other moral duties, but it is of the utmost value to preserve this mutual love.


According to Feng, all human relationships are possible only because of the presence of qing between them. Qing is therefore that something which bestows meaning and value to human life and relationships. For Feng, the evidence of qing is seen from its functions in the human world. Suffering, happiness, joy, sadness, sorrow, anger, jealousy, perversion, indulgence, chastity and virtue — all these human phenomena are the result of the functioning of qing between human beings. Feng contrasts morality with qing in the stories and concludes that qing is more important than morality, li (礼). He says, “The common Confucians understand that qing should be regulated through morality, without realising that in fact morality requires qing to sustain it.” Accordingly, moral duty without qing is hyprocritical if not void of meaning. On the other hand, qing can only be manifested completely and perfectly if it is confined within the moral order.


With this idea of love by Feng, the ‘tragedy’ of Liang-Zhu is readily understood. There is the conflict between qing and moral duty. In this mundane world, morality triumphs. However, qing transcends morality and completes itself through willed togetherness in death.

Don Quixote

Miguel de Cervantes seems to be criticising the medieval idea of chivalry and notion of courtly love through the misadventures of his delusional protagonist. He reveals the destructive power of love when breaking away from the social reality in search of the poetic ideal – a perfect but unattainable love. Photo: History and Art Collection / Alamy

The Idea of Love in Romeo and Juliet

Unlike the story of Liang-Zhu, which is basically moral and conservative, Romeo and Juliet is about passionate love, which is at the same time rebellious and transgressional in nature.


De Rougemont is extremely critical of this genre of passionate or romantic love. It is because in the final analysis all these exciting, turbulent and tragic loves are but a kind of useless self-consuming passion. What the passionate lovers want in their love is not the completion of love in the form of marriage or a ‘happy-ever-after’ ending but the continuation of the feeling of love and being in love. So paradoxically, the passionate lovers do not love each other. “What they love is love and being in love.”5Neither do they aim for happiness because they welcome suffering, which is, in the final analysis, the essence of passion. Obstacles and conflicts, whether they are intrinsic or self-created, are the fuel necessary for the burning of passion. Death is the ultimate goal towards which the lovers move and, by dying, they consume their passion in eternity.

It is no wonder that the idea of passionate love is in every sense a reaction against this classical love. While the latter emphasises the objective, universal and general nature, the former takes the subjective, individual and particular as issue.

The transgressional and rebellious nature of passionate love lies exactly in this: while the lovers believe that their destined and fated love is unavoidable even though they know assuredly that it is forbidden, impossible and sometimes immoral, they vow to stay by their love. In so doing they set the whole world against them. The Capulet and Montague families are age-old enemies, so Romeo should not love Juliet. But the emotional seizure of love renders the lovers blind as they are led by their destiny into the blind alley of passion. They consider everything that is obstructing them to be meaningless, be it family, friendship, morality or religion — only through death can they get out of this curse.


However, there is a deeper level of transgression. The idea of love in the Western tradition from Plato to the Middle Ages is dominated by the eros-philia-agape schema.


According to this schema, the true object of love is never an individual person but Truth, Good and Beauty. Passion, as portraited by Plato in Phaedrus, is the irrational element which must be saved and transformed by reason. And in Symposium, eros is defined as the desire for the permanent possession of the Good, the Beautiful and ultimately the desire for immortality.6 The Aristotelian philia does not include emotion or pleasure as the essential element, but virtue. And accordingly, only between virtuous men can there be true philia.7 Agape is the unconditional love that God bestows on men. In short, the dominant idea of love before the Middle Ages is intellectual, virtuous and religious love.


It is no wonder that the idea of passionate love is in every sense a reaction against this classical love. While the latter emphasises the objective, universal and general nature, the former takes the subjective, individual and particular as issue. Of course, the idea of passionate love takes a long history to develop. The second volume of Irving Singer’s Nature of Love is devoted to outlining the genesis of passionate love through the development from courtly love in the 12th century to romantic love in the 19th century.


With the clarification of the idea of love both in the classical and in the passionate sense, we can return to the analysis of Romeo and Juliet. It is clear that here the love in question does not fall in any of the categories of classical love.


We should remember that before Romeo met Juliet, he was deeply involved with Rosaline, who was immediately forgotten when he was struck by the beauty of Juliet! The whole series of events from falling in love to committing suicide spanned less than a week.8 One might doubt the grounds for their love except that they were attracted to each other sexually and emotionally.

The meeting at Juliet’s balcony confirmed their overwhelming mutual desire for each other. They believed that they were destined to be lovers: “Call me but love, and I’ll be new baptiz’d; Henceforth I never will be Romeo.”9 With this pronouncement, they put the whole world against them and their fate was then sealed.


If this is the case, that this passionate, romantic love of Romeo and Juliet is but an emotional and sexual madness of two adolescents, then what is the reason for its powerful influence on the Western consciousness of love?


I think the lasting contribution of the idea of love exemplified in Romeo and Juliet and other romantic love lies in the recognition of the self as the individual subject of love. Exactly because classical love in the eros-philia-agape tradition aims at universality, perfection and immortality, it renders any humble individual impotent in the search for love. After all, normal people are weak and fragile. The demand for the intellectual pursuit of the truth and the good is too idealistic for most common people. However, the sudden awareness of falling in love transforms the lovers: the overwhelming power, albeit a self-deceptive one, generates from the passionate union of love, isolates the lovers from the rest of the world. They become themselves. Each lover identifies himself or herself as a unique particular person in front of the beloved. The particularities of two individuals paradoxically dissolve into the universality of love.

The Peony Pavilion

The National Ballet of China performed The Peony Pavilion (牡丹亭) at Sadler’s Wells Theatre in London in 2016. Originally written for staging as Kunqu opera by playwright Tang Xianzu (汤显祖) in 1598, the play depicts how a young couple overcome social conventions, transcending time and space, life and death, to be together at the end. Comparative studies were often made between The Peony Pavilion and Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream due to their similarities. Photo: theatrepix / Alamy

Henceforth Romeo has acquired the greatest happiness and power that any single individual can have. By giving himself totally to Juliet, he gains her totally in return: this complete union — this wholeness — is exactly the ideal of love expounded by Aristophanes in Plato’s Symposium. Love is the desire for the whole. “…this is where happiness for the human race lies — in the successful pursuit of love, in finding the love who is part of our original self, and in returning to our former state.”10 The tragedy lies, unfortunately, in the polarisation of this union and the rest of the world. Any insoluble conflicts and obstacles will not disappear though they are temporarily suspended. Apparently there is only one answer: only in death can the wholeness be petrified. Death is the final climax of passionate love.



It is clear that in traditional Chinese culture there was no intellectual and religious love, nor passionate and romantic love. Lin Shu (林纾), one of the very first Chinese literary translators, rendered the Lambs’ Tales from Shakespeare into Chinese in 1904. The story of Romeo and Juliet was translated not just into the Chinese language but in a way into Chinese culture. The love scene between the lovers was rendered in a very subtle way. The common word for love ‘ai’ (爱) did not appear yet in Lin’s stories. I suspect the introduction of the words and phrases of love, such as lian-ai (恋爱), ai-qing (爱情), ai (爱) used as verb like wo-ai-ni (我爱你) happened after 1900 and before 1918, as Lu Xun’s (魯迅) new poem The Goddess of Love (爱之神) was published in 1918.11


Since that time, Chinese culture has undergone tremendous changes. The May Fourth Movement was not just an outcry for science and democracy, which were believed by Chinese intellectuals of the time to be the answer to the modernisation of China, but also a cultural revolution of the Chinese mind. The active introduction of Western culture by Chinese intellectuals aimed at a transformation of traditional Chinese ways of thinking and feeling into what they thought to be modern, so that an emancipation from the conservative bondage of the past could be achieved. Love is one of the major categories of change. Leo Ou-fan Lee points out the importance of the Western meaning of love in that period. He says:


Love had become an overall symbol of new morality, an easy substitute for the traditional ethos of propriety which was now equated with external restraint. In the general temper of emancipation, love was identified with freedom, in the sense that by loving and by releasing one’s passions and energies the individual could become truly a full and free man.12


Such an idea of love is clearly not the traditional idea of qing but essentially the meaning of romantic love in the Western sense. Hence Lee refers to these Chinese intellectuals as the romantic generation.


I believe the romanticisation of the Chinese qing begins in this period. Since then, moral virtues are no longer seen as the fundamental constituents of the idea of qing. Instead, passion and romance become its true meanings. Interpreted from this perspective, it is no surprise to see that the modern version of the legend of Liang-Zhu does not have the classical meaning of qing but is regarded as a romantic story similiar to Romeo and Juliet.


This article was abridged for THINK from the original:

“Western Love, Chinese Qing — A Philosophical Interpretation of the Idea of Love in Romeo and Juliet and The Butterfly Lovers”. Journal of Chinese Philosophy, 26.4 (1999), pp. 469-488.


Prof Cheung Chan-Fai obtained his BA and MPhil degrees from the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), and Dr. phil. from Freiburg University, Germany. His research interests include phenomenology; the philosophy of love, death, and happiness; Utopian thought; the Idea of University; theories of General Education; and the philosophy of photography. Before he retired from CUHK in 2012, he was Professor and former Chairman of the Department of Philosophy, as well as Director of the following Departments/Centres: University General Education, the Edwin Cheng Foundation Asian Centre for Phenomenology, the Research Centre for General Education, and the Leadership Development Programme. He is the author of, among others, Existential Questions (2019); Proximity and Distance (2019); Existential Reflections (in Chinese, 2019); Phenomenology of Photography (in Chinese, 2019); Another Place, Another Time (2018); Life, Love and Death (in Chinese, 2016); and Kairos: Phenomenology and Photography (2009). He is also a regular radio presenter on culture and philosophy, and has held more than ten solo photography exhibitions in and outside Hong Kong.

JUNE 2021 | ISSUE 8

At The Crossroads of East and West

  1. Denis de Rougemont, “Love” in Dictionary of the History of Ideas, New York: Scribner’s Son, 1973, p 100.
  2. Irving Singer, The Nature of Love, vol I, Plato to Luther, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984, pp. 150-151.

  3. Ibid, p. 159.

  4. Hong-xin (洪欣), “A Comparison between ‘Liang-Zhu’ and ‘Romeo and Juliet’”, (《梁祝》《羅密歐與朱麗葉》比較說), 《戲劇學習》, (4) 1985. The version of ‘Liang-Zhu’ compared in this article is not taken from the original story but a later derivative yue-yu (越剧). Unless otherwise stated, all translations from the Chinese text are mine.
  5. See Denis de Rougemont, Love in the Western World, New York: Harper & Row, 1956 (1940), esp. Book III, p.41.

  6. “So if we were right in describing love as the desire always to possess the good, then the inevitable conclusion is that we desire immortality as well as goodness. On this argument, love must be desire for immortality as much as for beauty." Plato: Symposium: 207a, translated by Tom Griffith. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985.

  7. See Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics, Bk 8.

  8. See the introduction to the New Clarendon Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Oxford: at the Clarendon Press, 1981 (1941), p. 10.

  9. Romeo and Juliet, Act II, Scene 2, l.49-50.

  10. Plato, Symposium, 193c

  11. Pan Kuang-dan (潘光旦) mentioned in one footnote in his Chinese translation of Havelock Ellis’ Psychology of Sex in 1933 that lian-ai (恋爱) was only recently used in China. See his Psychology of Sex (性心理学), Beijing: 1987 (1933), p.461.

  12. Leo Ou-fan Lee, The Romantic Generation of Modern Chinese Writers, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1973, p.265.


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Leaders and changemakers of today face unique and complex challenges. The HEAD Foundation Digest features insights and opinions from those in the know addressing a wide range of pertinent issues that factor in a society’s development. 

Informed opinions can inspire healthy discussions and open up our imagination to new possibilities. Interested in contributing? Write to us at info@headfoundation

Stay updated on our latest announcements on events and publications

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