“Love” as the Key Word: New Sexual Morality and New Literature in the Late Qing and Early Republican Years (1900-1920)

Social Sciences in China

Vol. 35, No. 4, 2014


“Love” as the Key Word: New Sexual Morality and New Literature in the

Late Qing and Early Republican Years (1900-1920)



Yang Lianfen


Courtesy of translation, the word “love” (lian’ai 恋爱) entered the modern Chinese language in the early 20th century, leading to changes in the mode, experience, meaning and evaluation of “feelings between men and women” by virtue of this new nomenclature. The word entered public discourse and became the point of entry for new Chinese ethical construction, spawning a series of new moral propositions from the late Qing to the May

Fourth Movement together with corresponding works of new literature. The “free marriage” advocated in the late Qing confirmed the modern consciousness of marriage premised on love and determined primarily by the will of the parties themselves, initiating a new style of civilized marriage. In the early Republican period, the word “love” was temporarily stigmatized in the course of sinicization, with the result that it was generally avoided in romance fiction. However, the widespread cult of the “spiritual character of love” in novels of tragic love laid the foundation for the emergence of “the sanctity of love” in the May Fourth period. The theory of love constructed at this time under the influence of Western theories made a subtle distinction between the “freedom of love” and “free love,” reflecting the ideological divergence within the New Culture community. In terms of spatial imagery and descriptions of love, the pioneering creation of romantic literature during the May Fourth period deconstructed the patriarchal authority that suppressed individual freedom, undermining traditional morality and opening up new fields for literary expression. But since the one-dimensional pursuit of individual freedom also led to weaknesses such as superficial emotionalism, May Fourth romantic literature could not take the experiences and expression of love to a deeper level.