March 2023

Back to Issue 13

Emotional Curiosity

By Changming Yuan

Ming is definitely sure he has fallen in love with Hua, his very first love lost for nearly half a century, once again in their mythically entangled lives, at first sight during a recent encounter casually arranged by a common friend, at an age too old to enjoy the full dimensions of sexual love, more passionately than passion itself, though separated from her afar by the vast Pacific as well as by the vicious Pandemic, while he has been living quite happily with his beloved wife in Vancouver, the true earthly paradise for all Chinese diasporas as he sees it.  

Yes, he is more than sure of that; otherwise, he would not have written more than one hundred love poems (and got as many as half of them published) within a year or so, finished drafting the second half of his long memoire in Chinese and his first novel (a trilogy) in English respectively within three months, and begun to turn out short stories one after another since the outset of 2022, each inspired by and devoted to Hua; nor would he have been video-chatting eagerly with her for nearly two hours every morning as if to recharge his total selfhood with all the energy he needs for his creative spree on a daily basis, nor would he have dreamed about her, about himself and about them together every so often day and night; nor would he have been missing her so much so that he feels every synapse of his innermost being is connected directly to hers in almost every moment….

Of course, there are still many things he is not sure about; for example, what is it exactly special about her? Why does he find her so irresistible? When did she begin to re-develop a serious feeling for him? How much does she love him now? Does he love Hua and his wife at the same time, to the same extent, and/or in the same sense? Is his affection for Hua a “spiritual derailment,” a case of Platonic love or something really immoral? How should he control, if he could at all, his clandestine relationship with Hua? Perhaps he ought to make a confession about their intimacy to his wife? What if his wife finds it out for herself? But among a dozen more such questions, he is wondering, first and foremost, why on earth he has cherished such a long and strong affection for Hua. “Why do I love her so madly?” Put differently, “What emotional spell has she cast over my poor soul?” Without getting a satisfactory answer to this question, he knows he will never “die with his eyes completely closed,” just as the Chinese proverb goes.

After doing much thinking, he finds that the best answer he can come up with lies probably in a variety of things working together at the same time.  

1/ The First-Love Complex

He certainly remembers having a close connection with several girls in his early teens. For example, while in grade seven in Lotus Flower Village, he somehow struck up an intimate relationship with a tall, slim and pretty classmate named Zhou Yeqiong. He does not remember how it all began and ended, but for half a dozen times in that school year, he and she did spend some time privately after school. However, every time they joined each other on the bank of the river running along their village, they just kept sitting together for a while without doing anything besides listening to the reeds whistling in the wind, or watching the stars blinking in the sky. At that time, he felt more than satisfied with a tight and prolonged hug from the girl, and the idea of kissing or making love with her never crossed his mind.

About three years later, at an all-school meeting held in the big auditorium in the county town of Songzi on a mid-summer afternoon, Hua happened to come and sit right before him on the bare floor made of hard mud, just as karma would have it. He was then 15-year-old, while she, as he learned decades later, was only fourteen, one year before she had her first menstrual experience. “Our school does have a really pretty girl after all,” he thought aloud on spotting her. He was not sure if he developed a crush on her on the spot, nor did he have the slightest idea that she would function as the model of love or female attraction to him for the rest of his life, but he did feel something like sexual agitation for the first time in his life. Since then, he had become increasingly sensitive to female beauty. People often say all Chinese men have a serious and persistent First-Love Complex; is his lifelong emotional attachment to Hua an unavoidable result of this very first encounter? 

2/ The Love-at-First-Sight Complex

No matter what, it was that first sight of Hua so deeply impressed on his heart and soul that it laid the foundation for all his dreams and fantasies about sexual love before he himself became aware of it and, not surprisingly, every woman he was to develop a relationship with later on, including his wife, would prove to be a version of Hua, though to varying extents and with individual differences. No less important is the way his true feeling for any woman down the line would originate from his first sight as in the case of his relationship with Hua. For him, the first sight was no other than a mythical seed planted in the depth of his innermost being, which is bound to bloom at a later time.

In fact, he has fallen in love with Hua at first sight three times in his lifetime. If the first sight of her at the school meeting served to waken him up sexually, he began to believe they two were karmaed for each other when they happened to meet again over a year later in Mayuhe, where they were to stay together for two years. However, he had never had a chance to talk to or even see her, and had therefore almost completely forgotten her by then.

The third encounter took place on October 2, 2019 when he went to attend a reunification gathering among old schoolmates. The moment he saw Hua, he found her even more beautiful than over forty years before, and fell in love with her again right away. For reasons unknown to him, each time he saw her after a short or long separation, he found her even more attractive than the previous time. Was I born to love her at first sight, he often wonders. But why?

3/ The Native-Place Complex

Since ancient times, all Chinese are said to have cherished a particular feeling for the places where they were born and bred. No matter how far away or how long they are separated from their native villages or hometowns, they would mostly want to return to their “roots’ like fallen leaves, especially when they are old, either for the peace of their emotional beings or for the perfect taste of the local foods. But for many important reasons, Ming was not really emotionally attached to his native place; rather, he loathed it and was even not sure which his native place exactly was. Lotus Flower Village was the place where he lived for five years as a foster child, but it had given him only bad memories, whereas Songzi, his birthplace, was no better, with its climatic conditions being hell-like year round, its people mostly hypocritical, insincere, snobbish or vulgar though quite smart. When he grew up, he had another two reasons to detest his native place, be it Songzi or Lotus Flower Village: on the one hand, he could not pronounce a single English word there; on the other, he was unable to write a single line of poetry no matter how long he stayed there, though English and poetry were the two most essential elements in his adult life: the former is the language he has chosen to make a living with, the latter his only lifelong hobby.

However, simply because of Hua or, more exactly, because of his feeling for her, he has recently found Songzi much more loveable than he had realized. Love you, love your dog, he often says to her. Since she likes the small town very much, he has become nostalgic about it too, and all the more so now because it is the only place where he could hope to see and spend time privately with her, where he and she could eat what they both like most, such as salted diaozi fish, fried green chilly, xiangzi tofu, carp fish cakes and ciba paste.

Or, perhaps vice versa: it is precisely because he is so deeply attached to his native place without his knowing it that he finds Hua more attractive than any other women he has seen all over the world.

4/ The Mother Complex

Physically, Hua bears little resemblance to his mother, but they grew up in the same cultural-physical environment, follow the same local traditions, share the same customs and lifestyles. In particular, they speak the same Songzi dialect, his true mother tongue. So, whenever he hears Hua speaking, even if it’s only her breathing, he feels peaceful and comfortable enough like a happy infant listening to the heartbeats of its mother in her arms. 

At the subconscious level, simply because he has been living in the absence of love of any kind for too long since childhood, especially love from his parents throughout his formative years in Lotus Flower Village, and love form his wife who seems, alas, to have been born with frigidity and insensitivity, he desperately needs a personalized compensation of such tender feeling from a Songzi woman, who may or may not necessarily look or act like his mother.

5/ The zhiqing (Educated-Youth) Complex 

As a unique sociopolitical movement in modern Chinese history, “Up to the Hills and Down to the Countryside” occurred between 1956 and 1978. Like millions of other educated youths of the time, Ming and Hua were forced to answer Chairman Mao and the Party’s call to receive “re-education from the poor and lower-middle peasants” as soon as they graduated from high school. While slaving together in Mayuhe, the forest farm located right on the southern bank of the Yangtze River, they shared not only the same physical but the same psychological hardships as well between 1974 and 1977. For one thing, they felt hopeless and futureless because they were expected to make a living, get married and spend the rest of their lives on the impoverished farm. If they had hoped to leave the country permanently, they would have had to battle against one another to obtain the recommendations from the local Party branch, cadres and peasants alike. While such chances were very slim, the most effective way to win was to become a Party member by outperforming all others in terms of “proletarian political consciousness” and “actual working performance.” But without influential social connections, no one could get enough recommendations to “return to the city” by attending a university or getting a government job. This being so, every youth station where educated youngsters like Ming and Hua were collectively receiving their re-education from the locals became not only a laboring camp, but also a miniature of the Colosseum. With the local folks as the audience, every zhiqingmust fight to their best ability like a gladiator, whose gladius was no other than their own willpower, determination or physical endurance.


It was true that Ming and Hua competed with each other as with every other zhiqing on an individual basis; it was also true that he never confessed his love for her, nor did she show her true feeling, if any, for him or anybody else, but they did try to help and protect each other in an implicit manner. For example, as the leader of the youth station, he once disclosed the reasons why the local political authority would not easily grant her a Party membership. Fortunately, both of them survived the fights and succeeded in making their ways out of the country: while he was recommended to attend a nationally prestigious university in Shanghai, she got enough votes to go to a college in Wuhan.


As adolescents sharing the same deeply felt hardships, Ming and Hua have undoubtedly developed a special bond between themselves as zhiqing in Mayuhe, which is becoming closer and tighter as they engage in deeper communication. Now, with all the hardships faded into the white pages of time, they only remember what was sweet about the old days when they fought shoulder-to-shoulder for their futures like two comrades-in-arms having chemistry with each other in a real battlefield. And it is definitely this zhiqing complex that has intensified his affection for Hua to a significant degree. Indeed, back in Mayuhe, Ming had to hide his affection for her even from himself to avoid jeopardizing his future. He knew it too well then that if the Party branch and locals had found him indulging in a romantic relationship or “petty bourgeois sentiments” rather than fully devoted to “revolutionary production,” they would have thwarted all his efforts to leave the country. Before his reencounter with Hua in 2019, he did make some attempts to get information about her whereabouts, but somehow without any success. As a result, they remained totally lost to each other for as long as forty-two years. Now becoming reconnected finally, he just could no longer restrain himself from releasing all the emotional intensities he had accumulated over the years.

As Hua once pointed it out to him, “Your current feelings for me results from your zhiqingcomplex, I am afraid.” Sure, at least partly!        

6/ The Misconception-in-Love Complex

Unlike de Clérambault’s Syndrome, which is medically referred to as a kind of delusional disorder, what Chinese describes as zizuoduoqing (“自作多情”) is a quite normal psychological tendency to over-estimate one’s importance in a relationship. As such, it is not a morbid state of mind, but an emotional inclination, which seems to be much more common among the sensitive, the self-centered, the self-confident and/or the narcissistic than among people with other characteristic features. As Ming himself has admitted many times, he is particularly sensitive in emotional matters. For example, when Hua gave him a tuner in Mayuhe in the summer of 1975 (just to help him learn to play the erhu as she explained decades later), he over-interpreted her gesture and treasured the device as a token of love from her. The reason for this, as he sees it now, must have been underlined by a close interrelationship between his own deep feeling for her and his strong (mis)belief that she loved him as well. When Hua asked him to return it sometime in the following year, he thought she had found a new sweetheart, who he suspected was Pan Lihao, his major rival at the youth station. Until they found the truth eventually with the help of a mutual friend during the Chinese Spring Festival in 2022, he had remained unaware that a part of him had been living heavily on the delusion all the time.

Since then, he has been trying hard to find a cultural equivalent in English to describe such delusional indulgence, but surprisingly, no native speakers or writers of English or online source could offer him a set phrase, and the closest word he has dug up seems to be “erotomania,” which, like “de Clérambault’s Syndrome,” is far from an accurate description. After consulting several exceptionally talented translators in addition to some bi-linguists of highest caliber, he realized there is no such equivalent in English at all, and the best translations they could render is “delusional fancy as someone’s love interest,” “emotionally self-flattering” and “misconception in love,” depending upon the specific context. They say “benign erotomania” might convey the basic meaning more accurately, but it sounds quite weird to people with little knowledge about the psychiatric condition. And this linguacultural difference keeps him wondering: how come such emotional tendency is so common among Chinese but not among English speakers? 

Thinking along this line, he wonders if his affection for Hua may well have been an unconscious projection of his own delusional fancy as her love interest, or may it not?  

7/ The Retirement Complex

Both in their mid-sixties now, Ming and Hua are living a very happy retired life on opposite sides of the world. Though they have been enjoying a good and stable relationship with their spouses, they are acutely aware of their other halves being their closest relatives rather than true soulmates. Of course, they are fully prepared and actually content to live as they have always been doing so until their last breaths and have no intention to usher in any dramatic change to the final years of their lives, but Ming tells Hua aloud that “we old people are still as capable of and as entitled to love as the young!” He has repeatedly emphasized that love cannot merely keep people young in their hearts, but also enable them to wear their years better and live a healthier life. Hua agrees with almost everything he has to say about their secret relationship, but she just cannot forget the cruel fact that they are really too old to love each other like the young. As a well-respected grandma, she hates herself becoming a laughingstock of her family, friends and old acquaintances in any sense; nor could she really bear to make her proud husband a poor cuckold. For her, spiritual derailment is excusable; web affair is okay; platonic love is worthy experiencing; even a kiss or hug is acceptable, but no fancy stuff, no “breast-playing,” no lovemaking, while sex, especially penetration, is already out of question anyway.  

However, as Hua struggles to hold herself back in the development of their relationship, he finds her all the more attractive. From their daily video-chats, he has noticed, to his happy surprise, that she has little grey hair, her face shows no wrinkle, her skin looks no less sleek, smooth or fair, and her body remains as shapely as a young model; in other words, besides having a sunny personality and a good sense of humor, she has been wearing her years so well that she still boasts all the physical features of a gracious 38-year-old lady rather than an old vulgar Chinese dama with two grandchildren. Most astonishingly, she functions perfectly well even in a sexual sense though her menstruation ceased more than 15 years ago. During a recent dirty talk, he has learned she sometimes experiences orgasms as if in a wet dream. “You are such a living Xishi in my eyes,” he often tells her. “A woman out of a million, a real stunner!” 

But would she be ready to have sex with him when they meet again? He has told her many times that he is too old to satisfy her even if she would. Such being the case, how far should he go along with her then? Must he put out his own passion before it becomes a forest fire?

“I am really afraid,” Hua has reiterated. “How would people look at me? A really bad woman!”

“But why should we care about what others may have to say? Why care about all the rest of the world?” He keeps asking her back. “How many more years or even months can we expect to live? Why not love while we still fortunately can?”

Probably you are right! Hua sometimes agrees.


While biding their time to join each other in body as in spirit, Ming just cannot stop searching for the ultimate truth about why he loves her in such a morbid manner, but the more he tries, the more he becomes confused and confounded. Perhaps he is either a unique victim fated to suffer from the Hua-Complex, or a common guy who has simply been in desperate need of love since childhood? Or, in a larger sense, is it all because he is living an aesthetic rather than an ethical life as Breton has defined the terms?

He is never sure, nor does anyone really care.