By Ting Guo*

“The true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love”—indeed, as Che Guevara most famously put it, love is a powerful language for not only revolutions, but also politics. Love has been a powerful mechanism in shaping Chinese modernity. Rather than studying love in the private realm such as romance, relationship, and family, in my forthcoming book Politics of Love, I study love as a public and political discourse, and examine how the concept of love has been introduced, adapted and engineered for the building and rebuilding of a modern nation by looking into the different adaptations and usages of ai (love) by political leaders, in order to reveal the versatile nature of love as a critical mechanism within modern Chinese politics, informed by both secularism and religion. 

Political Religion in the Postsecular Age

The study of postsecularism has been following a chronological order as the social phenomenon of religious resurgence that takes place after secularism. This book argues for a new framework of postsecularism as the political disturbance of our secular condition from a global perspective by critically investigating four scenarios of political religion that challenge the secularism thesis. 

Italian historian Emilio Gentile famously observed that in modern politics, it is possible for secular political entities to become objects of faith, love, and loyalty. Love, in particular, is a powerful emotion in which bottom-up agency and top-down power can converge, even as political players seek to manipulate and monopolise its expression. 

At the same time, modern secular governance has contributed to the exacerbation of religious tension in postcolonial areas, hardening interfaith boundaries and polarising religious differences, as Saba Mahmood most famously pointed out. In addition to exacerbating religious tensions, the prevalence of secularism as a form of modernity or modern governance also makes it convenient for “secular”, post-socialist authoritarian regimes such as the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to further regulate religious freedom and religious expressions. The secular, in this sense, is a historical product with specific epistemological, political and moral entailments including the modern state’s relationship to, and regulation of, religion and the set of concepts, norms, sensibilities, dispositions that characterise secular societies and subjectivities. Modern secularism, therefore, entails fundamental shifts in conceptions of self, time, space, ethics, and morality, as well as a reorganisation of social, political, and religious life. 

Love as a Political Discourse in Four Scenarios

I begin with late imperial China when love began to emerge as a political discourse for the building of a new nation as well as for the spontaneous expressions of new sense of belonging and subjectivity. Rather than charting a genealogy of love in general, I focus on the specific ways in which ai is adopted as a political discourse in four chosen phases or scenarios of China’s modernisation, namely bo’ai (universal love) and the political theology of love in the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) as well as the Republic of China (1912-1949) that set the course for modern China, re’ai (ardent love) and the political religion of love as the epitome of political affect in Mao’s China, the familial nationalism of love in the renewal of personal cult and charismatic authority in Xi Jinping’s China, and finally, the discourse of motherly love, postcoloniality, and parental governance of Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s most controversial Chief Executive since the Handover in 1997.

In the first chapter, I introduce a genealogy of love as a political discourse, including aiqing (romantic love) and aiguo (patriotism) in relation to China’s transition into a modern nation-state. In Chapter Two, I then chart the course more specifically of how the key political leaders of modern China, including the Nationalist Party (KMT)’s Sun Yat-sen and Li Dazhao (1888-1927) and Chen Duxiu (1879-1942), the founders of the CCP who introduced communism into China, shared common ideals as they adapted the language of love in terms of bo’ai for their political campaigns and ideologies. I argue that bo’ai, an intuitively Christian concept that nonetheless has its roots in Soviet radicalism, had not only informed the founder of the Republican China and KMT leader Sun Yat-sen’s Three Principles of the People, but also shaped the ways in which the founders of the CCP, the opposing party of the KMT, characterised the concept of communism as they introduced it from Soviet Russia to China. Although Sun Yat-sen’s bo’ai appears to be an adaptation of Christian vocabulary, its meaning, later development, and application throughout the revolutionary course of China from 1912 onwards had more to do with the socialist sense of universalism and radical affect. Despite the fact that the CCP and KMT would eventually enter a ten-year-long civil war that preceded the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, during the early twentieth century their paths crossed within the same political territory of universal love, bo’ai, which I term as a kind of “political theology of love”, to refer to the theological framework Sun is known for and the common assumptions about the ways in which he characterise his politics.

It is often debated whether or the extent to which when the CCP took power during the Maoist revolutions, love became diminished as to discuss any aspect of personal life, romantic relationships, or sex became a taboo. However, love also became a key political language to shape patriotic devotions and even transform it into a personal cult in Maoist China. In Chapter Three, I show that the political language and theatrical representations of re’ai in Mao’s era inherited radicalism as well as popular religions to mobilise the masses and consolidate power, and into what I refer to as the “political religion of love”, to refer to the theatrical and rhetorical aspects of Mao cult.

Chapter Four is dedicated to the political discourse of love in contemporary China under the Xi Jinping administration. In China today, family love has been elevated to a propaganda level in order to encourage and reassure people’s devotion to the regime and maintain social stability. At the same time, we see the return of charismatic authority in China in the era of digital culture, as images that portray President Xi Jinping and his wife Peng Liyuan as a modern loving couple become widely circulated in state propaganda and social media. Underneath this highly political image of a loving, modern-looking couple, is a deeply conservative agenda. In the light of an ensuing gender gap and the rise of feminist movements, the new concept of “love”—a loving domestic relationship and family life as the foundation for social harmony, the love and devotion for one’s own family and national strength—is in reality a makeover for the shrinking space for civil participation, gender equality, and individual freedoms. This kind of love is termed as the “familial nationalism of love” in this book.

Women are often subject to mobilisations or even repressions in patriarchal societies, and in Chapter Five I seek the ways in which female leaders and activists transform or respond to the social and political circumstances around them in terms of political discourses. Responding to the 2019 pro-democracy protests, for instance, Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam employed the discourse of motherly love to justify her political stances. It has been noted that casting citizens as children and leaders as benevolent parents charged with disciplining them is a distinctively PRC metaphor with Confucian justifications. Scholars such as Charles Armstrong (2005) and LMH Ling (1994) have further discussed the ways in which familism constitutes a kind of political religion in socialist regimes in East Asia—China and North Korea—as familial nationalism replaces the abstract language of Marxism-Leninism with a more easily understandable and identifiable language of family connection, love, and obligation. In particular, as the CCP continues to use state violence as a method of conflict control in post-Handover Hong Kong, the Confucian script of parental governance remains the core feature of political interaction. It casts political relations as Confucian family relations, thereby constructing political actors as either filial dependents or benevolent but firm fumu guan (parent-officials). Lam’s take on the fumu guan position is further complicated by the fact that she is the first female leader to assume this role in modern China, while Xi Jinping is the first leader in post-socialist China to emphasise Confucianism and traditional values. This chapter will tease out this complex story by investigating the background of such parental governance in the PRC, its gendered aspects, the ways in which it has been applied in contemporary politics, and the ways in which Lam, a Catholic, a female leader, and a proxy parent-governor in Hong Kong, re-appropriates this political discourse of love and parental governance.

In short, in scrutinising how love as an affective concept has been introduced, adapted, and engineered for the building and rebuilding of a modern nation, I reveal the versatile nature of love as critical mechanism for modern politics and for individuals to understand, and interpret their political experiences. In unveiling the postsecular ideology in the project of China’s modernity through the political discourses of love, I further propose a postsecular framework through which secularism could be more productively studied as social formation of emotional regimes.

* GUO Ting is currently based at the University of Hong Kong, focusing on (post)secularism and political religion, including issues of gender, science, and technology. She gained her PhD in Religious Studies from the University of Edinburgh and was research fellow at Oxford and Purdue Universities before Hong Kong. She is writing a book on love as a political discourse in modern China.