How Altruistic Are Chinese Attitudes in Love Relationships?

The concepts of altruism and altruistic love are well known to Western and Eastern scholars and the educated public. Ideas of selfless, altruistic love can be traced back to ancient times in many cultures of the world, specifically in Western and Eastern civilizations. These altruistic ideas were among the earliest in the cultural ethics of Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, Confucianism, Buddhism, Taoism, and Islam (see for review, Karandashev, 2022a).

It is apparent that the Christian teaching of agape love, which I presented elsewhere, is similar and comparable to the Confucian concept of altruistic love, presented in another article. Yet, they have some important differences.

What Is the Legacy of Confucian Teachings of Altruistic Love in Modern Asia?

The religious and philosophical teachings of Confucius (trad. 551–479 BCE) have served as the cultural basis for many Chinese values, ethics, and social and moral philosophy. Altruism was a central tenet of Confucian ethics, and his ethical teachings placed a considerable emphasis on concepts such as loving kindness and selfless love. As he once said,

“Do not do to others what you would not like to do to yourself.”

The Chinese word “ren” expresses one of the most significant cultural meanings of love. Confucius defined “ren” as the common Chinese word for “love,” “ai.” In many lexical contexts, it is translated more specifically as benevolent love, kindness, compassion, and altruism.

Different from the Christian concept of agape love, the Confucian concept of ren love reflected the Chinese hierarchical social structure of group relationships.

Selfless Giving in the Modern Understanding of Altruistic Love in China

In modern Chinese society and scholarship, the altruistic nature of love is expressed in selfless giving. In this regard, the Chinese understanding of altruistic love resembles the traditional Christian concept of agape love as being unselfish and undemanding. Both concepts include giving without expecting anything in return as one of their central emotions and actions (Chen & Li, 2007).

Sacrifices in the Modern Understanding of Altruistic Love in China

According to the traditional ideology of Confucianism, the commitment of an individual to the affectionate relationship of marital love implies sacrifices. It is applicable first to such a close relationship as the family.

In modern Chinese culture, people tend to exhibit the capacity and disposition to put their families’ harmony, cohesion, and prosperity ahead of their own personal interests, goals, and well-being. This is a cultural Chinese trait that goes back centuries.

For instance, Wang (1999) considered self-sacrifice and devotion as the primary components of family commitment. His research has shed light on the role of self-sacrifice in the Taiwanese culture of interpersonal relationships. The author provided convincing evidence supporting the high value of sacrifice in Taiwanese marriages. He revealed that even in today’s Taiwanese society, cultural norms anticipate that spouses will make sacrifices for one another. Results of the study showed that in most cases of marital relationships, partners are willing to sacrifice something if it helps improve the quality of their relationship or the health of their partner.

The Impact of Chinese Collectivism on People’s Willingness to Sacrifice in Marital Relationships

Depending on its individualistic and collectivistic values, a culture can affect a spouse’s willingness to make sacrifices within a marriage. The degree to which a culture places an emphasis on collectivism as opposed to individualism can have a direct impact on how men and women are willing to make sacrifices for one another in marriage.

In a collectivist Chinese society, societal beliefs can interfere with the individual rights of a spouse, such as a woman’s right to equality. This is why gender inequality is culturally acceptable. For men and women, such marital customs are acceptable for the sake of interdependence and relationship harmony. On the other hand, people from a culture that emphasizes individualism view such gender inequality as unacceptable. Their cultural beliefs about individual rights and independence may conflict with the potential need for self-sacrifice that marriage may necessitate. So, due to high values of autonomy and personal independence, it is challenging for men and women in individualistic cultures to maintain a balance between personal and family needs.