Too Much Love can Kill You: Shen Fu’s The Old Man of the Moon

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Marital vows state:
“…to have and to hold, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to love and cherish, till death do us part….”

Between couples this is the promise, the expectation and the ideal. Our society celebrates couples who love each other through it all. We love it when we hear stories of couples who stood beside each other through the years and living up to the vows spoken on their wedding day. We think of this as the measure of marital bliss. In Shen Fu’s The Old Man of the Moon, however, he warns against this.

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“I would advise all the husbands and wives in the world not to hate one another, certainly, but also not to love too deeply. As it is said, ‘An affectionate couple cannot grow old together.’ My example should serve as a warning to others.”

Shen Fu and Yun loved each other. They ate together, cared for each other, loyal to each and enjoyed each other’s company. Shen Fu enjoyed imparting knowledge to his wife, knowledge that was only offered to males. He would take no concubines. She died in his arms. The whole story spoke of that strong love and affection they shared between each other no matter the criticism. It was, definitely, intense and undying. Yet, his whole point was to dissuade his readers from following his footsteps. Not quite the romantic.

Upon finishing the book, I wasn’t sure I agreed. While the couple’s decision weren’t necessarily always practical, I wasn’t sure if the warning the author imparted addressed the root of their problem. Can too much love be a bad thing? Was it too much love in the first place?

Context becomes important in this as this book was written in China in 1809. The belief when it came to marriage then, involved little romantic love, but greater filial duty. According to Stephanie Coontz in hert book Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage:

In China, excessive love between husband and wife was seen as a threat to the solidarity of the extended family. Parents could force a son to divorce his wife if her behavior or work habits didn’t please them, whether or not he loved her…If a son’s romantic attachment to his wife rivaled his parents’ claims on the couple’s time and labor, the parents might even send her back to her parents. (p. 16)

Chinese commentators on marriage discourage a wife from confiding in her husband or telling him about her day. A good wife did not bother her husband with news of her own activities and feelings but treated him ‘like a guest’ no matter how long they had been married. A husband who demonstrated open affection for his wife, even at home, was seen as having a weak character…In China it was said that ‘you have only one family, but you can always get another wife.’…In Confucian philosophy, the two strongest relationships in family life are between father and son and between elder brother and younger brother, not between husband and wife. (p. 21)

Contrary to these, Shen Fu and Yun’s union overflowed with the sense of what could be an ideal modern western marriage. Shen Fu writes:

Yun’s habit and tastes were the same as mine. She understood what my eyes said, and the language of my brows. She did everything according to my expression, and everything she did as I wished it.

Unfortunately, their love made him homesick fast that his education was compromised. His prospects to get a good position in government was similarly compromised. And as would fate have them believe, their lack of fortune in life they attribute to the love they felt deeply for each other.

“[Yun Says] I have been happy as your wife these twenty-three years…In the midst of life, I have been just like an Immortal. But a true Immortal must go through many incarnations before reaching enlightenment. Who could dare hope to become an Immortal in your lifetime. In our eagerness for immortality, we have only incurred the wrath of the Creator, and brought on troubles with our passion. Because you have loved me too much, I have a short life!”

In the Philippines parents would warn their children about too much love, as well. We had a saying that goes like “love cannot feed you.” Illogical, impractical and impulsive love is something that is look down at. As romantic as it may be and as strong as feelings are, contrary to the song ‘all you need is love,’ love is not enough.

While big romantic gestures and soulmate-ish exchanges make for wonderful swoon worthy stories, Shen-Fu believes that as beautiful as true love is, it cannot be enough. The practical needs to be addressed. We can never be too drunk that we may forget that we need to eat and live in this world.

What do you think? Can too much love kill you?

Task # 19: A book originally published in another language

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