Does the West have a monopoly on romantic love?

The World
Updated on

People around the world fall in love. That seems like an obvious truth today, but it used to be quite controversial.

In fact, some scholars still believe that romantic love was invented by European troubadours in the Middle Ages, and that people outside of the western tradition don’t really experience it.

“We decided to see if that was true,” says anthropologist Ted Fischer, who teaches at Vanderbilt University.

In 1992, he and William Jankowiak, an anthropologist at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, did a survey of anthropological research on 166 different cultures around the world.

“We looked for evidence of romantic love, and that could have been love poetry, or elopements, or just general descriptions of what we’d consider to be romantic love,” Fischer says. “And we found it in an overwhelming majority of cultures.”

Fischer says in the few places where they didn’t find evidence of love, well, the anthropologists who did the original studies weren’t looking for the factors he and Jankowiak were looking for. So elopements or love-related suicides might have occurred and just not been noted.

“So we thought it’s very likely romantic love is found in all cultures,” he says.

Jankowiak and Fischer’s paper made a big splash, and today it’s widely accepted that people in cultures outside of the West experience romantic love.

But perhaps not all romantic love is the same.

“When you look at cross-cultural research of romantic relationships, you get these very striking cultural differences,” says Xiaomeng (Mona) Xu, a psychology professor at Idaho State University.

For example, when asked about love in surveys, people in some Asian countries are more likely to describe love in negative terms than westerners are.

“The sorts of cross-cultural differences that come out of self-report questionnaires would suggest that easterners, for example, really don’t feel passion, really don’t think about love as a positive thing,” Xu says.

In countries with a tradition of arranged marriage, falling in love is disruptive and dangerous. Historian Stephanie Coontz studies marriage, and she says only recently has there been an assumption that love would come before marriage.

Historically, “falling in love before marriage in India was considered an actively antisocial act,” Coontz says. “In ancient China, the word for love connoted a very socially disrespectable relationship.”

Falling in love is arguably about pleasing yourself, and some cultures put more emphasis than westerners do on serving your family or your community.

When asked about love, many people in China will talk about melding two families, or carrying on the family name. They’re likely to emphasize long-term attachment, rather than Hollywood-style romance. They’ll talk about duty and commitment. When freelance producer Rebecca Kanthor talked to people on the street in Shanghai about love, the word that kept coming up was “responsibility.”

“Being involved in a romantic relationship is a lot like having a job, actually,” says Jessie Chen, 24, a Shanghai accountant. “Both of them are very risky, can be risky. Having a job is risky. Having a romantic relationship can be risky.”

Chen says she’s hoping to find a husband whose parents will get along with her parents.

“Two years ago, I would say getting married is more about loving someone,” she says. “But now I’m getting more and more practical.”

That kind of approach to marriage is still common in China.

“It’s very pragmatic,” Xu says. “It’s based on thinking about whether or not this person is going to fit into your family and if they’re going to be a good financial choice, etc.”

And yet there is love poetry in China, and songs about romantic love. Xu says the surveys that seem to indicate a lack of passion in China don’t ring entirely true.

“The issue is that all of these studies are done using self report,” Xu says. “So it’s really difficult to know: Are people accurately reporting their experiences and there’s this drastic difference between how westerners experience love and how easterners experience love? Or is it that culture is influencing how people talk about it?”

Xu headed the first study to look at the brains of Chinese people who were in love and compare their brain scans with those of people in the US and England.

“We found that they’re almost identical,” she says.

Xu says the few differences her team found may have been because they were using a stronger scanner than earlier studies had used.

This research provides support for what Xu had guessed was the truth: “How we go through the process of love can be very culturally defined,” but the experience of love is really not so different from culture to culture.

And Chinese culture may be changing when it comes to love and marriage.

Nowhere is that more apparent than in the marriage markets that have sprung up in Chinese cities in recent years. As millions of people have migrated to urban areas, old ways of negotiating matches have become impossible. You can’t consult with the neighbors if you don’t know the neighbors.

On a recent weekend in Shanghai, people looking for spouses filled People’s Park to look at personal ads laid out on the sidewalk or attached to walls. Many were parents looking for spouses for their adult children — sometimes without the children’s knowledge. Some opened umbrellas, set them on the sidewalk and clipped laminated sheets of paper to them, listing their children’s vital statistics — age, height, income.

Zhou Yun, senior matchmaker at Shanghai Hongyan Matchmaking Company, was at the market to help arrange meetings, for a fee. She says things have changed since she was a girl.

“In contemporary China, young people put a lot of emphasize on material conditions” when they look for a spouse, she says. “They are quite picky.”

One thing many parents of young women insist upon is that the prospective groom have his own apartment. Not many young men can offer that. Zhou Yun says people want too much, and so they’re not likely to find spouses.

“Many young people are the single children in the families,” she says. “Their parents are concerned about their kids being taken advantage of in marriage.”

Some people in Shanghai say they think Chinese ideas about love are changing, influenced by the West. But Zhou Yun disagrees.

“Actually throughout Chinese history, falling in love hasn’t changed much, regarding how people feel,” she says. “Regardless of Chinese or foreigners, our feelings are basically the same when it comes to love and relationships.” 

Editor's note: This story was updated to correct the university affiliation of researcher Xiaomeng (Mona) Xu.

Rebecca Kanthor and Yifan Xie in Shanghai contributed to the reporting in this story. You can read and hear more on "What is this thing called love?" at our partner The Really Big Questions.

Are you with The World?

The story you just read is available to read for free because thousands of listeners and readers like you generously support our nonprofit newsroom. Every day, the reporters and producers at The World are hard at work bringing you human-centered news from across the globe. But we can’t do it without you: We need your support to ensure we can continue this work for another year.

When you make a gift of $10 or more a month, we’ll invite you to a virtual behind-the-scenes tour of our newsroom to thank you for being with The World.