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Ancient Love Tokens

99 iPhones are a terrible love token. Take a cue from ancient Romeos for a touch of class


Ancient Love Tokens

99 iPhones are a terrible love token. Take a cue from ancient Romeos for a touch of class


People in love always give gifts to each other. Flowers, chocolate jewelry… these things, however, are fairly cliche.

More creative kids have tried using 99 iphones or a bouquet made of meat as presents, with predictably terrible results. Instead, they could have taken tips from some ancient suitors who defied the strict controls placed on social life to deliver presents to the object of their affection.

Most of the gifts seemed humble, even boring, but contained within them were symbolic meanings of their love (and let’s face it, “smuggling” and “ostentatious” are two things that are pretty challenging to mix.


Ok, so these, admittedly, were for cheapskates, but a tasty piece of fruit is still quite nice. They were endowed with extra meaning thanks to the Shijing, or the Book of Songs, the oldest existing collection of Chinese poetry. A famous piece in the Shijing titled Gift states that a romance began after a girl gave fruit to a young man and the man gave her jade and jewels in return. Shijing was traditionally said to have been compiled by Confucius, and all the scholars studied and memorized this book, because Confucius even said “If you do not study the Book of Songs, you will not be eloquent (不学诗,无以言).” Because of the popularity of Shijing, sending fruits as a symbol of love became a custom. Here is the poem:

A quince thou givest to me;

I have a gem for thee.

Not as requital I give,

But a token of eternal love.


A quince thou givest to me;

I have a jade for thee.

Not as requital I give,

But a token of eternal love.


A plum thou givest to me;

I have a jewel for thee.

Not as requital I give,

But a token of eternal love. 




Jade pendant

Now you’re talking! Jade was also mentioned in the poem above. This stone was endowed with many special meanings: Because a high-quality jade has a hard texture, smooth surface and clear color, it was usually connected with the character of junzi, referring to men of perfect virtue. As a saying goes, “A modest humble junzi is as gentle as jade (谦谦君子,温润如玉)”. Adult men usually wore a jade pendant with them. It was said that “a junzi never takes off his jade for no reason ( 君子无故,玉不去身)”.  No man would give their jade to others casually, unless they had a faith that this woman was his true love. Women of course needed to pay back this gift. They usually made beautiful lanyards with silk threads for their lovers, to tie their jade pendants to their waistband.


Ancient people often wore a perfume sachet with them, kind of a small token of potpourri. According to the Book of Rites, in the pre-Qin era, when young people went to see parents or other elders, they needed to wear a sachet to show their respect. Gradually, it became an indispensable accessory. Because it’s something people always put close to their body, it represents intimacy. It was rare to receive a sachet from a buddy friend, especially when it was just taken off from the inside pocket of their clothes. A fancy sachet usually took complicated needlework, so if men received sachets from their lovers, the moment they saw the sewing and embroidery, they would know how much effort it took.

Red beans

It’s better than it sounds. No, really. In China, the red bean has another name, love pea, or 相思豆. 豆 means bean, but 相思 is a Chinese word that contains a lot of meanings: lovesickness, yearning, infatuation and remembrance. It is said that long long ago, when a man went to war, his wife stood under a tree every day, looking forward to his return. The woman missed her husband so much that she cried every day. After her tears dried up, blood came out from her eyes. When those blood beads dropped onto the earth, a sprout appeared there. And when it grew into a big tree, it was covered with red beans, which just looked like the blood teardrops.

Wang Wei, a famous poet in the Tang Dynasty wrote a famous poem about the red beans, which made it more well-known as a symbol for deep love. A rough translation of the poem might be as follows:

The red bean grows in southern lands.
With spring its slender tendrils twine.
Gather for me some more, I pray,
Of fond remembrance is the sign.



So, if you receive a string of red beans, it means someone is missing you.


Handkerchiefs were another popular option. After having a good time together, people were always reluctant to say goodbye. In most cases,  they would shed tears silently. At that time, they took out their handkerchiefs, wiped each other’s tears, and left them with each other. Because handkerchiefs were usually made up of silk threads (丝), which has the same pronunciation with 思( lovesickness). A folk song written by Feng Menglong explained why handkerchiefs could express one’s feelings:

I don’t write songs or poems,

Just send you a handkerchief with all my love;

Please look at the handkerchief carefully,

It is all made of threads (a pun for lovesickness). 






In bygone eras, hair had special significance and some would only cut it on special occasions, like weddings. When On the wedding night, the newlyweds’ hair would be tied together, so the husband and wife during their first marriage was also called a “hair-tied couple (结发夫妻)”. When people wish a couple a long life together, they will use the idiom “白头偕老”, literally meaning “become grey-haired together”. So, based on all of these, cutting off a wisp of hair and sending it to someone really meant something, just like a solemn oath. Even between lovers, hair was much more than just a regular gift. Sometimes it was even given as a farewell memento, or put in a sachet.


For similar reasons to hair, combs were a popular option. On the “The Night of Sevens”, also known as the “Chinese Valentine’s Day”, (the seventh of July according to the Chinese lunar calendar), people would send a comb to their lovers. According to the traditional customs, before a woman got married, her family would comb her hair, wishing her a long happy marriage. So buy your girlfriend a lovely comb on Chinese Valentine’s Day, she will love it.

Photo by Bryan Schneider from Pexels

Cover image from tieba.baidu.com