The word for love does not exist….

Love is probably the most abstract notion of them all, such an elusive concept. Nevertheless most languages have a word for it. Perhaps it is more like a rainbow of emotions like tenderness, need, pity, dependence…all bleeding into each other, emotions with various different, nuanced frequencies attached to them. Or maybe like sight and sound…simply a perception, a construct of the mind. Even so, we do assign a word to it and it means something to most of us.

So imagine my surprise when I read the following lines in Colin Thubron’s bestselling and extremely engrossing book – Shadow of the Silk Road:

It has been said that the Chinese do not love. Observers of their family hierarchies have written that the only true tenderness exists between mother and son. Others have insisted that even the word for love in Chinese does not exist. And it is true that neither the blanket ai nor the benevolent ren translates into any unconditional passion.

I didn’t turn the page for several minutes after I read that. I kept thinking about it and wondering about the absence of the word “love” from a language. What did it mean, if anything? Are people incapable of feeling love if they don’t have a word for it? Or is it possible that more than a billion people consider or perceive the blend of emotions known as love as something else?

What of the “only true tenderness” existing only between mother and son? What about mother and daughter or father and son or father and daughter, no signs of tenderness there?

This wasn’t the only passage in the book that stopped me in my tracks. There was one preceding this one that stunned me. In this passage Colin Thubron is talking to a father and daughter – Hu Ji and Mingzhao, both historians, specializing in the Tang and the Sung dynasties, respectively. Hu Ji talks about questioning history, rewriting it, replacing dogma with doubt. He relates a Tang dynasty story to Thubron:

…a garrison commander, besieged by rebels, found his six-hundred-strong force close to starvation. Instead of surrendering, he first killed his wife and fed her to his soldiers, then one by one killed the weaker men and fed them to the stronger. Finally his troops were reduced to a hundred. They were overwhelmed three days before relief came.

Hu Ji then says to Thubron:

And this has always been held up as glorious in our history – an example of perfect service to the state! So I’ve rewritten it in another spirit. How should it be judged?…You know in China we have no tradition of respect for human life. It’s simply not in our past…That is our problem: inhumanity.”

I can’t even begin to put in words the thoughts that the above passage and these lines inspired: “That is our problem: inhumanity.”

Leading up to the Beijing Olympics, China is constantly in the news. A prosperous China, a formidable market, a China that took the Olympic torch up to Mt Everest…China-Darfur…China-Tibet…China-Tiananmen massacre…all this and more doing rounds in the media, on the web, sweeping generalizations, accusations, diplomacy battles on one side and an ancient culture responsible for giving the world – paper, silk, the saddle and so much more – on the other…what is one to make of it all?

The world can only watch!


  1. And you just made it clear, why it is so important to know History- to know heroes and those who did unsung…Why the past – or rather how the past- predicts the future..

  2. So you have discovered Colin Thubron! The best travel writer today I had said, in my piece on travel literature..You must get every single one of his books!And I'm happy you wrote about him!

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