Tian (甜) is a term used to describe the sweetness of romantic relationships or the cute intimacy between couples. Throughout history, exploring media influences and linguistic roots has always helped people in the present to better understand the context of the social space. In the current digital era, the market is saturated by tian (甜) romance dramas and this market is likely only going to continue to expand. Knowing that there is this ever-growing popularity related to tian (甜) content and media, there is a lot we can learn from digging deep into the audiences attraction to such media. By examining the influence of tian (甜) and how it evolves into different variations in media and society, we can uncover the dynamics and social ideologies of Chinese people in a specific period of time while developing a deeper understanding for contemporary society.
The Genesis of 甜
The association of tian (甜) as a sensory taste and as an endearing, affectionate term to describe romantic relationships has long existed in Chinese popular culture, making it difficult to trace the exact point of genesis of the keyword. One iconic piece of popular culture that can be traced back to is Teresa Teng’s 1979 pop song 甜蜜蜜, often translated into English as Sweet Like Honey. Below is an excerpt of the lyrics from the very memorable hook of the song:
甜蜜蜜 Sweet as honey / So sweetly
你笑得甜蜜蜜 Your smile is as sweet as honey / You smile so sweetly
好像花儿开在春风里 Just like flowers blooming in the spring breeze
开在春风里 Blooming in the spring breeze
Besides song lyrics in pop music, the pleasing and delightful taste of sweets is commonly used to describe romance in dramas since the relationships showcased share those same qualities. The shift in relational meaning is in part due to the Hallyu wave, also known as the Korean Wave influence and the booming Korean music and drama industry. Since the notable release of the Korean drama My Love from the Star in late 2013, China has been swept into the K-drama fever along with many other countries. Since the success from the drama, there has been a significant increase of Chinese dramas which recognizes the audiences' attraction to the qualities of tian (甜) and features sweet romantic relationships. Dramas like Boss & Me 杉杉来了 in 2014, Love O2O 微微一笑很倾城 in 2016 and A Love so Beautiful 致我们单纯的小美好 in 2017 are prime examples as they all created buzz on social media platforms in China and amassed millions of views on online streaming platforms.
Etymology and Dictionary Meanings
Dictionary Meaning of 甜
The word sweet, or written as 甜 (pronounced as tián) using Chinese characters, can be used to describe something as pertaining to the taste of sugar or honey, as opposed to bitterness. Its extended meanings also include beauty, joy, and happiness; tián can be used to describe anything that evokes a feeling of “pleasantness”. In classical Chinese writing, 甜 is mainly used as an adjective, but can also combine with other characters to form nouns such as 甜瓜 (tián guā).
Etymology of 甜
Chinese characters (漢字, pronounced "hanzi") are one of the earliest writing systems to appear in the world. Its first known emergence can date as far back as five thousand years ago when they were first drawn as pictograms. Since then, traditional Chinese characters have evolved over the last couple of millennials, adopting many different scripts and styles. Tian was first seen on the seal script (篆書), which was adopted from the Zhou Dynasty script, and dates back to the 1st millennium BC. The structure of tian is composed of two radicals: the left side “shé” (舌), which means “tongue”, and the right side “gān” (甘), which means “sweet”. Hence, the direct translation of tian can be regarded as “sweetness from the tongue” or “the tongue is the organ that recognizes sweetness” .
甜 in Chinese Popular Culture: Multiple Meanings and Usages
Usage in online discussion forums, media, and the popular press
Aside from the explicit dictionary usage of tian (甜) to describe the pleasant sensation of something, the term has also been adapted into everyday conversations in the Chinese popular culture to describe a characteristic of an individual that is very cute or a couple that is very intimate. The adoption of this new context and implicit meaning is commonly seen in online discussion forums about romantic dramas, such as the popular Chinese drama Love O2O 微微一笑很倾城. The term, tianchong (甜宠), has been making a lot more appearances on online forums to describe heterosexual relationship-based dramas that depict the female character as being "spoiled rotten" by the male love interest.
In addition, the media has also recently taken on the term "高甜" or "high sweetness" to describe intimate moments that often evoke feelings associated with quickened heartbeats and the bursting of the viewers' heart. Though this term is commonly applied to cliché scenes that usually involve the male character showing their affections of love through cute actions such as caressing the female's cheek, picking something out of their hair, holding hands, etc., it has also recently been adapted into another increasingly popular sub-genre of romantic dramas that focus on homosexual relationships (boys' love and girls' love). This spark in popularity has lead to many eye-catching article and video headings that highlight the couples' undeniable "cuteness" in specific romantic scenes, or the overall mood of the entire drama altogether. Gaotian (高甜) has become an important search keyword for those who are looking for dramas that will melt their heart.
Though both characters mean sweet, there is a slight distinction. Tian (甜) can be thought of as sweetness in terms of sugar level. Something may contain more or less sugar, resulting in different degrees of sweetness. Gan is slightly more complicated and presents the subtlety of sweetness. It describes the texture of the sweet taste and the change in sweetness. For example in the Chinese art of tea, describing a tea as tian (甜) is an insult which implies there has been artificially added sweeteners. Gantian on the other hand points to the natural sweetness in the tea leaves (tea can be bitter but have a gantian aftertaste).
Chong (宠), meaning to indulge or to spoil. Chong alone usually refers to parents overindulging in their children, for example, by providing the children with an abundance of toys. When connected with tian (甜), the term is almost exclusively used in a romantic context. Tianchong refers to gestures or thoughts (usually from a male to the female) meant to baby one’s partner in an act of love. Common acts of chong in mainland fictions and dramas include caring for the girl when she is sick, holding an umbrella for the girl when raining, etc. Tianchong can also refer to a subgenre of Chinese literature, film, and drama, which is comparable to the Western romcom.
- Gaotian (高甜), meaning high in sweetness. Describes a scene that is extremely romantic and filled with cute interactions.
- Fatang (发糖), meaning to give out candy. This is used to refer to specific actions or scenes that show the loving relationship between two people. It originates from the Chinese tradition of preparing candy for guests during weddings.
- CP, coming from the english word “couple”. Connotes a relationship that is more than friends but less than a formalized relationship.
- Xiu enai (秀恩爱), meaning to show love. Describes when a couple show PDA (public displays of affection), causing a feeling of saltiness in singletons.
Sha (傻) means naive, bai (白) means white or pale, and tian (甜) means sweet. This describes females with a likeable personality. Girls who embody shabaitian are cute and do not scheme constantly. They need not be hot nor sexy, but are pale in skin tone and pleasing to the eye. Shabaitian usually ignite the desire to protect in males. It is important for girls who are described as shabaitian to have a soft character. Those who are strong and independent are not usually associated with this description but instead adopts a cool character (for example 飒).
Tianyan miyu (甜言蜜语)
Tianyan miyu is an idiom that describes words that are as sweet as honey. This has similar connotations to the english phrase “sweet talk”, explaining overly positive words used with the intent of making someone happy. This idiom has a negative undertone in its modern usage, usually describing irresponsible males trying to sweet talk their way out of trouble with their significant other. Many use the idiom to warn females against overly sweet words spoken by males especially during a relationship in its early stages.
Suantian kula (酸甜苦辣)
Suantian kula, meaning sour, sweet, bitter, and spicy. These four tastes are usually regarded as the most basic of tastes, but modern uses may include the additional taste of saltiness using suantian kulaxian (酸甜苦辣咸, vs. the global five basic tastes of sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami). Suantian kula is usually used in the context of describing experiences, expressing that life is filled with different “flavours”. This points to the Chinese traditional ideology that no life is consistently smooth, highlighting the importance of hard work as shown by the closely related idiom xianku houtian (先苦后甜, meaning one must experience bitterness before encouraging sweetness).
In Chinese, tian (甜) is used to describe couples, candy and human characteristics as cute and sweet. Some even view the term as synonymous to ke ai (可爱), which describes ‘cute’ in Chinese. Similarly, terms in Korean and Japanese are also used in a similar manner. In Korean, although dalda 달다 has its usage in describing sweetness, it is more so to mean taste. A variation of the word, daldalhae 달달해, can be used to describe couples the way tian (甜) does. The more specific term is dalkomhada 달콤하다, which deviates from the way tian (甜) can be used interchangeably in describing sweet taste and cuteness. Dalkomhada 달콤하다 has a connotation of a physically cute and petite charm. The Japanese term kawaii is similar in the sense of describing cuteness rather than sweetness. Kawaii is also more so used to describe aesthetic cuteness as seen in its Japanese Kanji writing 可愛い, which share the same characters as ke ai (可爱) in Chinese. Overall, the English usage of “sweet” is more similar to the versatile usage of tian (甜), as both are used to describe a brand range of concepts other than sugar. On the other hand, the Korean and Japanese counterpart terms focus on the taste and have different terms to describe sweetness in a relationship.
Meanings in context
Across almost every context, tian (甜) is an ideal that people strive for. Even for those who dislike sugar as a taste, a sweet life is something that few can resist. Tian (甜) can refer to a specific situation or simply mean something pleasant. It teaches people to reach towards whatever is pleasant in their values, but also cautions that reaching this state involves a difficult journey. In relationships specifically, tian (甜) points to a companionship that is more so filled with passion instead of conflict and misunderstandings. With divorce rates skyrocketing in many urban countries, tian (甜) relationships as depicted in fictions and other forms of entertainment can act as an imaginary solution to the stresses of finding Mrs. Right / Mr. Right, yet this does not face the societal problem directly and instead acts as a form of avoidance. On the other hand, being overly tian (甜) is a warning sign that instead may show insincerity and dishonesty. Society condemns those (usually men) who take advantage of people’s fantasy-like hopes and conform their speech on the surface while performing actions that are the opposite. This overall sets a tone for how ideal relationships should be like, creating a loose script for citizens to follow.
Transference of 甜 to other countries
The character, tian (甜), is not exclusive to the Chinese language. The Japanese writing system (Kanji) and traditional Korean writing system (Hanja) both adopted traditional Chinese characters during the 4th and 5th century through the spread of Buddhism. In Korea, the introduction of Chinese characters into the Korean language was from both Buddhism and a Chinese text called the Thousand Character Classic, which was used to teach Hanja to the elites . The direct translation of 甜 remains consistent (to taste of sugar or honey) in both Hanja and Kanji, though “sweet” is more commonly written as just 甘. In Hanja, 甘 is pronounced as “gam”, whereas in Japanese, the combination of two writing systems (Kanji and Hiragana) are utilized in order to produce the word, 甘い (pronounced as “amai”); both the Korean and Japanese variations are considered to be equivalent to 甜.
Social, Cultural, and Political Implications
A common reason people state for being drawn towards sweet fictions and dramas include escape from every-day life. As one netizen points out, “life is already filled with bitterness, if I don’t watch anything sweet, how will I pull through?” Another individual claims that if there are no sweet fictions or dramas to support her, she will no longer believe in true love. This points to the common problem of the high stress level in modern society. The market continues to become more saturated with youth romances and other tian (甜) dramas to help Chinese audiences destress. From another angle, the increasing media featuring tian (甜) qualities can be understood as a way for female audiences in particular to escape from mundane life and satisfy their wish to be validated and nurtured. It is also subconsciously reaffirming the patriarchal society and only offering a temporary utopia for women.
A common theme that appears in tian (甜) fictions and dramas is the act of services in a heterosexual relationship from the male towards the female. The female character is almost always the recipient of loving actions and thoughts. This contributes to the reason why female audiences and readers are especially susceptible to this genre, as they are able to vicariously experience the ideal romance. Tianchong (甜宠) may be expressing the wish to be cared for, loved, and validated in a reciprocal way. As seen in the chong actions of men, protection is provided in a romanticized way, such as blocking the heroine from harm, eliminating obstacles in the way of the heroine’s success, and always having appropriate protection against the weather. The female characters are able to live in a state of less worry, receiving not only fatherly protection but also motherly care. There is an expectation that women should receive care while men give care. Women may also project their aspirations onto the heroine and experience a loving relationship with virtually no flaws. The male ideal of gaofushuai (高富帅) is prevalent in many storylines, highlighting the importance of height, wealth, and physical appearance in attracting female attention. This additionally points to the rise of materialism in the PRC, emphasizing the role of money in acquiring social dominance.
Even in situations where the female character engages in spoiling actions towards the male, these actions usually highly conform with the traditional female stereotypes, such as making a meal or giving love letters. This is able to reinforce the basis of the patriarchal society and reaffirm gender roles. In the bulk of tianchong subgenre fictions and dramas, the male has a high status in society compared to the female, be it in terms of job prospects (highly acclaimed in the field) or familial relations (inheritor of family company). Females are almost always more submissive, working either independently in more creative jobs or within the workplace of the male, usually as a subordinate (ex. secretary). A popular phrase is “woman, you have attracted my attention,” which places the male as the more controlling party in a relationship. This reaffirms the hierarchy that males are more powerful and intelligent, able to reach a higher position than females could ever attain. This poses a contradiction— if males are constantly more dominant, how do the writers, directors, and producers retain the popular female readership and viewership? To combat this problem, males are often depicted as seemingly “incomplete,” needing the love of a woman, perhaps to solve childhood traumas. This is pacifying for women as it creates the illusion of importance in society, which is important in maintaining interest. The tianchong subgenre targets girls from late adolescence to early 30’s, which corresponds to the age range that society expects women to be looking for suitable men. Feministic ideas from the West continue to influence China, therefore a sweet fantasy may simultaneously retain female attention while still strongly holding on to traditional gender role expectations. Although tian (甜) is not explicitly associated with a particular gender, it implicitly becomes a female-oriented word to many. This conveys the message that males can become successful regardless of whether or not they have a female love interest, while females must become attached to a powerful male in order to become successful herself. This ultimately reflects the deep-rooted gender inequality in the PRC, which is also evident in the skewed sex ratio favouring males.
Psychological Study Related to 甜
A psychological study that relates to the character tian (甜) was conducted by Dongning Ren et al., which focuses on how the character “sweet,” defined as sensations of taste, acts as a manipulation for romantic perceptions of a non-established relationship. Ren et al. analyzed the relationship between a sweet taste and the concept of love within the more uncertain relationships rather than established ones.
In the first parts of the study, participants were either given or not given a sweet tasting food item. Special attention was given to the participants’ moods in order to study how taste experiences can affect perceptions by altering one’s general mood. The results support the idea that sweetness does affect people’s mood and increases its positivity thinking towards a relationship. Participants who have experienced a sweet taste in the experiments tended to have a more positive view on a hypothetical relationship compared to the people who experienced a non-sweet taste. However, the result cannot be applied to people who are currently in an established relationship. This may contribute to why the word tian (甜) is used to describe ideal relationships, as this hypothetical scenario creates a sense of hope especially in women.
In another part of the study, the aim was to evaluate deeper understandings by expanding the research and asking the participants to think of a target person that they might potentially date. The possibility of having positive effects not only on the evaluations of a hypothetical relationship but also on romantic interest in a potential partner was evaluated based on both sweet and non-sweet taste experience. Unfortunately, the experiment failed to demonstrate that the sweet taste experience creates a positive effect when participants have a romantic interest in a potential partner. This may indicate that although the sweet taste can increase anticipation towards a perfect man, it is perhaps only applicable in imaginary situations. It seems people understand the clear distinction between fiction and reality, therefore remaining cautious towards real-life partner options regardless of experiencing a sweet taste.
In conclusion, the study provides evidence supporting the relationship between the sweet taste experience and the concept of love within more uncertain relationships rather than established ones. Sweet taste experiences can evoke prosocial self-perceptions and behaviour intentions. Therefore, sweet taste can lighten up an individual’s mood and create a psychological experience of thinking positively towards a potential romantic relationship.
Tian (甜) in modern usage paints a picture of an ideal relationship where men protect women and support them through their careers. This is largely influenced by Korean dramas, leading to a booming market of youth romance dramas and the tianchong subgenre. Fictions and dramas filled with cute, romantic interactions may serve as an escape from the pressures of everyday life as well as an avoidance of facing the expectations of a relationship from society. Women especially are able to fantasize a world in which they are cared for, living vicariously through the life of the female lead. However, in tian (甜) fictions and dramas, women are often depicted in a state of passiveness while men usually hold control and power not only in society, but over women as well. This domination is hidden in the form of expressing love and providing protection, which effectively placates women into the illusion of control and importance. This ultimately maintains the patriarchal society, as women are satisfied with their perceived independence while in reality, the fictions and dramas almost always tie women’s success to men.
By reinforcing the patriarchal hierarchy, the social dominance of men is perpetuated. As the tianchong (甜宠) subgenre is targeted towards women, it is interesting to consider the impact on men. A common trope for men in tian (甜) fictions and drama describes a young, hot CEO with little facial emotions, only willing to show his vulnerabilities to his one true love. This connects to the traditional point of view that men must be strong and hide emotional weaknesses. Additionally, the men in fictions and dramas are tall, handsome, wealthy, intelligent, and have little flaws. Women are all described as beautiful, yet in comparison may have more shortcomings such as struggling in school (especially in STEM subjects) or coming from a poor background. This may unconsciously elevate the relationship expectations for women to beautify themselves. Men, on the other hand, face greater pressures to own cars and properties while simultaneously improving their appearance and portfolios. Further symptomatic readings of the impact of such fictions and dramas on men specifically is recommended.
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