Warp, Weft, and Way

Chinese and Comparative Philosophy 中國哲學與比較哲學

Pre-Qin Love (愛)

[Moving up to front, to restart discussion on this topic — see new comments]

Because it’s now come up twice, in separate places (here and here), I can’t stop thinking about this question: What does ai 愛, broadly translatable as “love,” connote? If I had the time, I would do some actual research into this. But since the antecedent of that conditional is false, I’m going to allow myself just to post the question and my initial thoughts, and see what others think. Let me paste here a version of the comment I made at Tang Dynasty Times, attempting to understand the early Chinese concept through some early Greek ones, and see what kinds of responses I get:

My sense of ai in early Chinese literature is that it is actually more like agape–along with philia–than eros. Lian 戀, along with perhaps se 色, captures the sense of eros much better. Ai seems very much reserved in Classical Chinese for these two senses:

1) kindly attachment and affection (sort of like philia and agape); benevolence, if the direction of hierarchy in the relationship is right


2) fondness; or in the verbal sense, to fancy (sort of like hao 好, in the Classical sense)

I can’t call to mind any instances of ai that I’ve come across that connote the type of longing and lustfully urgent desire that eros suggests.

Or maybe that’s too narrow a rendering of eros? Maybe. Still, I think the broad outlines of what I’m saying are right at least.

Afterthought: The meaning of agape isn’t determined by its use in Christianity. So, I don’t think that’s a factor here.

I might sound confident, but I’m happy, as always, to be set straight.

February 1st, 2009 Posted by | Chinese philosophy - 中國哲學 - 中国哲学, Comparative philosophy, Confucianism, Mohism | 13 comments

13 Responses to Pre-Qin Love (愛)

  1. Peony says:

    Hi Manyul

    I commented at length here

    狂気の愛 (amour fou).

    I really wanted to verify “sigh” (Are there any mention in your texts?) Barthes’ mention is from the Symposium– of course where else would Barthes be poking around but there or Goethe?? 溜息→感嘆

  2. Manyul Im says:

    Hi Stephen & all else,

    Yes; in particular, my own silence–the product of my attempts to dispatch some obligations with deadlines–has not helped. In an attempt to ameliorate that and to begin the textual discussion (and in the spirit of “we have to start somewhere”), I paste below all of the instances of ai in the Analects, along with the readily available Legge translations. After discussing these, perhaps we can move on to other texts, including the Mozi instances.

    Instances of ai in the Analects:

    1.5 – 子曰:“道千乘之國:敬事而信,節用而愛人,使民以時。” The Master said, “To rule a country of a thousand chariots, there must be reverent attention to business, and sincerity; economy in expenditure, and love for men; and the employment of the people at the proper seasons.”

    1.6 – 子曰:“弟子入則孝,出則弟,謹而信,汎愛眾,而親仁。行有餘力,則以學文。” The Master said, “A youth, when at home, should be filial, and, abroad, respectful to his elders. He should be earnest and truthful. He should overflow in love to all, and cultivate the friendship of the good. When he has time and opportunity, after the performance of these things, he should employ them in polite studies.”

    3.17 – 子貢欲去告朔之餼羊。子曰:“賜也,爾愛其羊,我愛其禮。” Zi Gong wished to do away with the offering of a sheep connected with the inauguration of the first day of each month. The Master said, “Ci, you love the sheep; I love the ceremony.”

    12.10 – 子張問崇德、辨惑。子曰:“主忠信,徙義,崇德也。愛之欲其生,惡之欲其死。既欲其生,又欲其死,是惑也。‘誠不以富,亦祗以異。’” Zi Zhang having asked how virtue was to be exalted, and delusions to be discovered, the Master said, “Hold faithfulness and sincerity as first principles, and be moving continually to what is right – this is the way to exalt one’s virtue. You love a man and wish him to live; you hate him and wish him to die. Having wished him to live, you also wish him to die. This is a case of delusion. ‘It may not be on account of her being rich, yet you come to make a difference.'”

    12.22 – 樊遲問仁。子曰:“愛人。” 問知。子曰:“知人。”樊遲未達。子曰:“舉直錯諸枉,能使枉者直。”樊遲退,見子夏。曰:“鄉也吾見於夫子而問知,子曰,‘舉直錯諸枉,能使枉者直’,何謂也?”子夏曰:“富哉言乎!舜有天下,選於眾,舉皋陶,不仁者遠矣。湯有天下,選於眾,舉伊尹,不仁者遠矣。” Fan Chi asked about benevolence. The Master said, “It is to love all men.” He asked about knowledge. The Master said, “It is to know all men.” Fan Chi did not immediately understand these answers. The Master said, “Employ the upright and put aside all the crooked; in this way the crooked can be made to be upright.” Fan Chi retired, and, seeing Zi Xia, he said to him, “A Little while ago, I had an interview with our Master, and asked him about knowledge. He said, ‘Employ the upright, and put aside all the crooked; in this way, the crooked will be made to be upright.’ What did he mean?” Zi Xia said, “Truly rich is his saying! Shun, being in possession of the kingdom, selected from among all the people, and employed Gao Yao, on which all who were devoid of virtue disappeared. Tang, being in possession of the kingdom, selected from among all the people, and employed Yi Yin, and an who were devoid of virtue disappeared.”

    14.7 – 子曰:“愛之,能勿勞乎?忠焉,能勿誨乎?” The Master said, “Can there be love which does not lead to strictness with its object? Can there be loyalty which does not lead to the instruction of its object?”

    17.4 – 子之武城,聞弦歌之聲。夫子莞爾而笑,曰:“割雞焉用牛刀?”子游對曰:“昔者偃也聞諸夫子曰:‘君子學道則愛人,小人學道則易使也。’”子曰:“二三子!偃之言是也。前言戲之耳。” The Master, having come to Wu Cheng, heard there the sound of stringed instruments and singing. Well pleased and smiling, he said, “Why use an ox knife to kill a fowl?” Zi You replied, “Formerly, Master, I heard you say, ‘When the man of high station is well instructed, he loves men; when the man of low station is well instructed, he is easily ruled.'” The Master said, “My disciples, Yan’s words are right. What I said was only in sport.”

    17.21 – 宰我問:“三年之喪,期已久矣。君子三年不為禮,禮必壞;三年不為樂,樂必崩。舊穀既沒,新穀既升,鑽燧改火,期可已矣。”子曰:“食夫稻,衣夫錦,於女安乎?”曰:“安。”“女安則為之!夫君子之居喪,食旨不甘,聞樂不樂,居處不安,故不為也。今女安,則為之!”宰我出。子曰:“予之不仁也!子生三年,然後免於父母之懷。夫三年之喪,天下之通喪也。予也,有三年之愛於其父母乎?” Zai Wo asked about the three years’ mourning for parents, saying that one year was long enough. “If the superior man,” said he, “abstains for three years from the observances of propriety, those observances will be quite lost. If for three years he abstains from music, music will be ruined. Within a year the old grain is exhausted, and the new grain has sprung up, and, in procuring fire by friction, we go through all the changes of wood for that purpose. After a complete year, the mourning may stop.” The Master said, “If you were, after a year, to eat good rice, and wear embroidered clothes, would you feel at ease?” “I should,” replied Wo. The Master said, “If you can feel at ease, do it. But a superior man, during the whole period of mourning, does not enjoy pleasant food which he may eat, nor derive pleasure from music which he may hear. He also does not feel at ease, if he is comfortably lodged. Therefore he does not do what you propose. But now you feel at ease and may do it.” Zai Wo then went out, and the Master said, “This shows Yu’s want of virtue. It is not till a child is three years old that it is allowed to leave the arms of its parents. And the three years’ mourning is universally observed throughout the empire. Did Yu enjoy the three years’ love of his parents?”

    A few comments I have:

    Im1. In particular, 3.17 “…you love the sheep, I love the ceremony” indicates something quite different from romantic or erotic love, but also something that complicates the idea of “affection”–can one, even Confucius, have affection for a ceremony? Maybe some reverence, but could that count as affection?

    Im2. I’m not so sure that Stephen is right about “shocked disbelief” being appropriate as reaction to the Mohist doctrine of inclusiveness, if we consider ai in its broad meaning in these Analects passages–the Mohist view seems quite continuous, especially with Analects 12.22.

    Im3. Just a quick thought about Legge, and other more traditional commentators and translators: There might be some kind of Victorian effect, or Buddhist effect in the case of the Chinese commentators (as I think Peony hints at in some of her comments in her own blog posts and comments), in our interpretations of ai as less than affective and more “high-minded.” But this only now occurred to me and I don’t have a very considered view about this.

    Maybe that will get us started and draw in some people who have wanted to comment but didn’t know just where in all the possible places to start.

  3. Thanks for the question and passages, Manyul. I thought I’d make a quick case for translating ai 愛 as “care.” Maybe the case is obvious, but here goes…

    At minimum, ai refers to some sort of pro-attitude, but beyond that it’s ambiguous in a few ways. First, as your Im1 implies, ai can take a wide range of objects, including such things as sheep and ceremonies. Second, one doesn’t need to reach high threshold of affection in order to ai someone or something. Third, in addition to capturing some kind of pro-attitude, it’s sometimes used to emphasize the way in which the object is treated. Manyul’s last passage (17.21) brings this out: what’s most salient about the fact that Zai Wo’s parents ai‘d him for his first three years isn’t that they felt a certain way for him during that time (presumably that feeling lasted longer than three years!), but that they took good care of him then, right when he needed them most. He owes them for those three years of intensive care-taking.

    This last point helps to explain why the pre-Qins were comfortable with the idea that people often ai certain animals. By this I think they usually mean that people treat those animals well–making sure they are well-fed when alive, killed humanely when butchered, etc. The Mengzi makes statements to this effect. In Van Norden’s translation of 7A45, where Mengzi says that the gentleman should “ai but not be benevolent toward” animals, Van Norden translates ai as “be sparing of.” This seems right to me. I think some minimal pro-attitude is supposed to be there, but that’s not what Mengzi means to emphasize.

    For these three reasons I think ai nicely maps onto the English word “care.” We care about both human and non-human things. We use it to characterize certain states of affection (“I care about Wang”) and also good treatment (“I cared for Wang in his old age”). Moreover, the first sense of “care” (as a form of affection) is the more basic one. “I care about Wang” doesn’t necessarily imply that I spend time seeing to his needs and interests, but “I cared for Wang in his old age” does seem to imply that I was motivated by at least some minimal concern for him. It’s possible that a heartless nurse could care for the elderly Wang without having any sense of concern for him, but it’s a little odd to put it that way, and we would normally mark it as a departure from the norm. I think ai makes affection more basic in the same way, but as in the statement “I cared for Wang in his old age” it’s often used to stress the good treatment rather than the affection.

  4. Peony says:

    Hi Manyul & Justin,

    I really enjoyed reading through all the examples– thank you for posting them! I, of course, defer to your expertise in all this as I really don’t have a strong enough background to comment with any authority. My only experience is with classical japanese (which is probably as far away from our times as it is faraway from pre-Qin times) but in the case of classical japanese, vocabulary was used in much less precise ways so that words were applied more widely. That is how I felt reading through all thees examples that 愛 has a much wider range of meaning that 愛 would in modern Chinese, for example. Don’t you think that is so?

    I am basing this purely on personal preference but I prefer “affection” to “care”– what do you think? Because care misses the possibility of 戀 (恋) whereas with affection you could say
    “I have affection for that man”
    “I have affection for the rites”
    “I have affection for sheep”

    Finally, because I think it is related to this, I re-uploaded my deleted post on analects 15.13 on 色。 It is a revised version 🙂


  5. Peony says:


    Care is really growing on me… after thinking more about it, it is a nice mapping. (I think I still prefer affection)….

  6. Hi Peony,

    Yeah, what I like about “care” is that it is sometimes used to indicate good or thoughtful treatment of someone, and not just positive feelings or attitudes about them. But I think “affection” is probably a good translation of in some cases, and I wouldn’t want to suggest that any one English term would work for in all contexts.

    Thanks for the response. I like your your blog entry on 色!

  7. By the way, in the evolution of the character , I think the shift toward “care about” and away from “treat kindly” must have taken place sometime between the Han and the Song. This might explain why it’s used only in the affective sense in classical Japanese.

    But even if was no longer used to stress kind treatment in the Song, the commentators were nevertheless aware of the shift. In his remarks on the passage where Mengzi says the gentleman ‘s animals 物 (7A45), Zhu Xi reads this as suggesting that gentleman “employs them with restraint” (用之有節).

    (I should add that Zhu Xi thinks 物 also refers to plants, which might be important.)

  8. That is, Zhu Xi thinks that Mengzi 7A45 uses to refer to plants (as well as animals). So on his reading, 7A45 states that the gentlemen is sparing of plants too. After all, they’re living creatures, and as such are entitled to our moral consideration. Typical post-Buddhist Confucian…

  9. Peony says:

    Hi Justin,

    I was fascinated by your comment that in pre-Qin times the word 愛 implies embodied action (ie, to treat with kindness). Sometime if you have the time, could you tell me more about that; as well as the shift in Song times? I feel an intuitive hesitation to the idea. And that is probably because my instinct (which is based again more on much later japanese concepts– not pre-Qin chinese so I admit I am in a very weak position) is more that while 愛 and 色 without a doubt imply treatment (or action) that it doesn’t necessarily have to be so (that is there is no semantic demand).

    Does that make sense? For example, in my 吾未见好德如好色者也 whether the man acts on 色 or just feels 色 would not change our definition or use of the vocabulary (word). This is not an argument but rather a question. Because based on your presentation of 愛 the embodied action ie _treatment_ is the basis of how you are defining the word. And this pretty much gets to the point of why I still prefer “affection” to “care” … since I just am not convinced, However, I am open to persuasion 🙂

    Manyul, by the way, left a nice comment at my place which I will be responding to shortly. Definitely take a look…

    Justin, did you look at the wiki article? There is a section on Chinese and Japanese concepts of love (modern perspective) which puzzled me.

  10. Hi Peony,

    Thanks. That’s helpful.

    while 愛 and 色 without a doubt imply treatment (or action) that it doesn’t necessarily have to be so (that is there is no semantic demand). For example, in my 吾未见好德如好色者也 whether the man acts on 色 or just feels 色 would not change our definition or use of the vocabulary (word).

    Interesting thought. If I understand you correctly, you think our disagreement is about whether 愛 merely implies that someone treats another kindly or whether we have to go all the way and say that “treats kindly” (or sparingly, or with care, etc.) is a legitimate translation of 愛. Is that right?

    Perhaps you could say a bit more about what warrants translating a particular term in a particular way. Unlike you, I’m not a professional translator of subtle literary works, so I’m inclined to trust your judgments about these things.

    But it still seems to me that we should set some parameters, in light of the textual evidence from pre-Qin times. First, I’m sticking to my guns and saying that in cases like 7A45, kind treatment is both (a) a clear implication of the use of 愛 (b) the point that 愛 was meant to emphasize–and emphasize more strongly than the mere feeling of affection (just like “care for” in “my work is to care for people at the nursing home”). The combination of (a) and (b) might not give us sufficient reason to translate the term as “treat kindly,” but it comes pretty close.

    My second point is in response to this:

    And that is probably because my instinct (which is based again more on much later japanese concepts

    Like you, I work a great deal on texts that use later iterations of classical Chinese. When it comes to pre-Qin terms, I really have to stop myself from relying too much on my usual instincts as a translator. Characters that have had relatively stable meanings over the past two thousand years–like qíng and zhōng–were very fluid in pre-Qin times, as a lot of the experts on the pre-Qin here can attest. So when it comes to pre-Qin texts, we might be probably better off checking our post-Warring States intuitions at the door and stick to the pre-Qin evidence. Sorry if you’ve heard of all of this before!

  11. Peony says:

    Hi Justin,

    Well, how the word was used in its cultural/historical context would make a difference in translation I think in choosing between “to care for” and “affection” (as “affection” to my mind feels like there is slightly less emphasis on action).

    I’m glad you are sticking to your guns, by the way! This topic is very interesting, isn’t it?

    I work for a philosopher at the University of Hiroshima whose research is in aesthetics and he is constantly struggling against Western notions of fine art which he feels are not appropriate to describing the traditional understanding of art in japan. If there is no mind-body duality, for example, art is something everyone does (not something to be objectively viewed. It is always embodied practice) I’ve written about this on my blog in connection to the heirloom jars from Borneo:

    Perhaps because of my work for him, I remain very interested in topics like you have brought up (ie, the way cultural context is essential for textual analysis). I could be wrong, but that seems to be a big part of Stephen’s really interesting post as well?

    And, I wonder if you think the pre-Qin had a similar understanding of 色, that is, it implies action. I just responded to a comment over at my place and mentioned an article I read about a woman who divorced her husband for “facebook sex”… I don’t know, when does a fantasy become grounds for divorce?? How would you tackle that one, I wonder (and why??)


    In any case, I do find myself persuaded to 愛 as “To care for” 🙂

  12. JCR says:

    Is there a larger question here generally: what is the difference between the role of love in ancient Chinese thought and ancient Greek thought? Francois Jullien makes the case somewhere (I’ve forgotten which essay) that one of the profound differences in the roots of the two philosophical traditions is the near absence of a sense of love — in either the romantic or caring sense — in Chines thought. (I’ll skip the semantics debate about what we mean by love in any language, but I suspect that’s at least partly relevant.) The comment in the initial post, that it’s hard to think of an instance of love as an essential element of a Chinese philosophical doctrine, struck me as worth addressing directly. Do others agree this is correct?

  13. Manyul Im says:

    Welcome JCR,

    I thought actually that Justin was trying to make the case for the presence of a sense of love in the caring sense; that might involve interpretation of Confucius’s teachings on a “Care Ethics” model, a la Feminist Ethics, at least in the central role that care plays through the concept of ren 仁, benevolence(?). And certainly we shouldn’t discount the essential role that 愛 plays in the Mohist doctrine of 兼愛”impartial love” (traditional), or better, “inclusive care.” Or perhaps you mean something more?


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