The allure of love transcends borders, languages, and cultures—a universal emotion that binds us all. While the recent Tanabata and Qixi festivals have illuminated love’s essence in Japan and China, we think this is a good time to explore the fascinating and multifaceted Chinese symbol for love (Wait! How about Japanese symbols for love? Well, we didn’t neglect them! Jump to the article about Japanese symbols here). Stay with us as we unravel the cultural insights encapsulated in these powerful symbols.
Chinese Word “爱”/ “愛”
In the realm of Chinese symbols for love, two characters are the most direct message: “爱” (Simplified Chinese) and “愛” (Traditional Chinese). The simplified version, “爱,” is more commonly used in Mainland China, whereas “愛” is prevalent in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau. At their core, both symbols signify the emotional connection that spans romantic, platonic, and familial love.
Some of the famous Chinese poems about love are:
As man and wife we ever unite;
We never doubt about our love.
Let us enjoy our fill tonight
As tender as a cooing dove!
— Su Wu
(Translation from haoshiwen.org)
Night moon weaves a curtain of quiet dreams,
Spring wind carries tenderness ten miles it seems.
— Qin Guan
Bright moon high above, no more leaning alone,
Wine enters sorrow’s gut, turning to wistful tears.
— Fan Zhongyan
A Pair of Butterflies
In Chinese culture, the image of a pair of butterflies is a profound symbol of love. Originating from philosophical foundations where ancient Daoist Zhuangzi dreamt of being a butterfly, it represents freedom and transformation. After that, the notion of freedom sets the stage for the enduring tale of “The Butterfly Lovers.”
Set during the Eastern Jin Dynasty, “The Butterfly Lovers” tale follows Zhu Yingtai, a young woman who disguises herself as a man to pursue an education (In ancient China, only men could go to schools). Along her journey, she encounters Liang Shanbo, a fellow scholar. Unaware of Zhu Yingtai’s true identity, Liang becomes a close friend of Zhu. The two share an intellectual and emotional bond.
As they study together over three years, their friendship deepens into love, albeit unconsciously. However, it is time for Zhu Yingtai to return home. Liang accompanies her part of the way. It’s only when Liang visits Zhu at her home that he learns the truth. By then, Zhu Yingtai is already arranged by her family to be married to another rich man.
Liang Shanbo is so sad that he falls ill and dies. On her wedding day, Zhu Yingtai’s bridal procession passes by Liang Shanbo’s grave. At that moment, a sudden wind prevents the procession from moving forward. Seizing the moment, Zhu Yingtai jumps down and joins Liang Shanbo in death. A pair of butterflies emerge from the tomb, fluttering away in eternal union.
This legend encapsulates various dimensions of love, from sacrificial devotion to the transcendence of societal norms and even mortality. The transformation into butterflies symbolizes the ultimate freedom and unity that the couple could not achieve in life. The tale has been adapted into operas, films, and songs, indicating its lasting impact on Chinese culture’s understanding of love.
In Chinese culture, the red bean symbolizes love and longing in a manner that transcends the merely sentimental. Initially popularized by the Tang dynasty poet Wang Wei in his poem “Xiangsi,” also known as “Yearning,” the red bean has taken on layered meanings over the centuries.
Red beans grow in the southern land,
Sprouting branches in the spring at hand.
Harvest them well, my wish for you;
They symbolize my yearning, forever true.
— Wang Wei
Interestingly, the poem that seems about romantic love was actually a tribute to Wang’s friend, Li Guinian, an accomplished musician of the Tang dynasty. It speaks volumes that Wang chose the red bean to encapsulate the depth of his friendship, thereby giving the symbol a broader application beyond just romantic love.
But why the friendship sign turns into a Chinese symbol for love? Well, the red bean has roots in folklore. One popular story tells of a devoted wife who cried so much that her tears and blood turned into red beans after her husband died in battle. Thus, red beans were thought to symbolize her eternal love and became known as “Xiangsi beans,” meaning “Yearning Beans” in Chinese.
Additionally, the bright red hue of red beans has made them popular for ornamental purposes in southern China. Whether it’s the love between couples, the bond between friends, or even the fidelity of a wife to her absent husband, the red bean encapsulates these intense emotions and finds its way into desserts and decoration.
Compared with the Chinese symbols above that are common stuff gifted with “love” meanings, Bingdi Lotus is seen as a special symbol because of its scarcity. Featuring two twin blossoms sharing a single stem, the Bingdi Lotus is a marvel of nature. The inability to artificially reproduce it further increases its preciousness.
Historically, the Bingdi Lotus has held a special place in love narratives. Its twin blooms symbolize unity, often used to represent the deep love between couples, as well as the strong bonds between siblings.
It is also seen as an omen of good fortune and divine favor. In the Qing dynasty, it is said that there were lots of Bingdi Lotus appearing after the ascension of Emperor Yongzheng. That was interpreted as a celestial sign of a prosperous reign. The painter Giuseppe Castiglione even immortalized these flowers in his painting named “Gathering of Auspicious Signs” as a gift for the Emperor.
Today, when a Bingdi Lotus blooms, as one did in Nanjing’s Xuanwu Lake in 2020, it becomes a sensation, drawing crowds eager to glimpse this living metaphor for love and unity.
If you put the Chinese name of Biyi Birds, 比翼鸟, into Google Translate, you will get “Lovebirds.” It is not the parrot name “Lovebird,” but a perfect demonstration of the legendary birds’ meaning in Chinese culture. Originating from the ancient book “The Classic of Mountains and Seas,” these mythical birds are characterized by their unique physical features: each has just one wing and one eye. The premise is poetic—these birds can only fly when a male and female come together, wing to wing. It’s as if nature itself decrees that these creatures are incomplete without their significant other.
The famous poet in the Tang dynasty, Bai Juyi, has a line, “In the sky, we’d be two birds flying wing to wing; on earth, two trees with branches intertwined.” This line was even seen as an ode to the legendary love story of Emperor Xuanzong and his consort Yang, adding a layer of historical romance to these mysterious birds.
Today, the Biyi Birds remain a potent icon in Chinese culture. From art and jewelry to literary works, it continues to be a significant Chinese symbol for couples’ love.
From timeless poetry to modern-day adaptations, these symbols have withstood the test of time. They remind us that love is a complex interplay of commitment, sacrifice, and unity. In essence, these symbols are universal codes that crack open the human heart’s mysteries. Understanding the depth of these symbols could be a game changer in appreciating not just Chinese culture, but also the global tapestry of love we all are a part of. It’s a lesson in love that’s as relevant today as it was centuries ago.
Thank you for joining us on this fascinating journey into the heart of Chinese symbols for love. If you want to learn more about Chinese traditions, welcome to our “Chinese Dress” channel. Feel free to leave a comment if you have any questions or ideas~ We are always here to exchange brilliant thoughts!