Value of true romance in Love Stairs story

Couple's devotion sparks debate on what they can teach today's China fixated by material wealth

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 November, 2012, 6:42am

The intense coverage of an elderly Chongqing woman's funeral and the local government's plan to cash in on her extraordinary love story has become an allegory about true love and the growing cynicism about relationships on the mainland.

More than 200 family, friends and fans turned out to pay their respects as Xu Chaoqing, an otherwise humble farmer from Gaotan village in Jiangjin district, was laid to rest, the Chongqing Evening News said.

The interest in Xu's memorial service stemmed from her role in one of China's most famous modern tales of love and devotion, the story of Chongqing's "Love Stairs".

It began some 50 years ago, when Xu, then about 30 years old, fell hopelessly in love with a man from her village named Liu Guojiang. But Xu was a widow and expected not to remarry. Liu was 10 years her junior and expected not to love an older woman. Faced with disapproval from their village, they married and fled to a nearby mountain, where they spent the next few decades living a reclusive life in a modest shack they built.

Xu rarely left the house, but, when she did, she found the trip arduous. To make it easier on his wife, Liu began building a stone staircase to the 1,500-metre summit - 6,000 steps in all.

The staircase and the love story that led to its creation remained largely unknown until 2001, when, according to mainland media, tourists stumbled upon them and shared their story with the world. The Love Stairs and the house at the top soon became a symbol of a couple's devotion and a destination for lovers.

The simple, yet loving bond between Xu and Liu inspired works, including the 2010 Canto-pop hit Love Stairs by Hong Kong boy band C AllStar and last year's film Noble Love.

Xu left the mountain and moved in with her son after Liu died in 2007 at the age of 72. Her death on October 30 brought numerous tributes, including one anonymous youth who, according to the Chongqing Evening News, paid more than 20,000 yuan (HK$24,600) to have 10,000 white roses scattered up the staircase for the funeral.

Xu's death has not only revived interest in the Love Stairs story, but kindled a more far-reaching debate about what it can teach modern China, with its increasing focus on wealth.

In a Tuesday commentary in The Beijing News said the story was one of great importance given the disillusionment about love, as the number of divorces, extramarital affairs and financially motivated relationships rise. "It could force many men to ask themselves if they could spend their whole life to build a staircase for the love of their lives," it said. "And it could also prompt women to ponder if it's what they've been longing for: a true love that cannot be measured by [the size] of a house, the price of a car is or the amount of money [a man has]."

The local government, meanwhile, has seen a marketing opportunity, much to the chagrin of romantics. The Jiangjin district government plans to spend 2.6 billion yuan (HK$3.2 billion) on Love Stairs tourism initiatives, including a museum and efforts to conserve the couple's home and the famous staircase.

The China Youth Daily said such a plan was an insult to the couple's love because publicity was the last thing they had wanted in life. Chinese Tourism Academy analyst Ma Xiaolong said in the paper on Thursday that the project was financially questionable.

"It's OK if local governments and the tourism bureau secure private developers to do the job," Ma said. "But if such projects are to be covered by the local government budget, the public needs an explanation that a feasibility study has been properly done and that the public would benefit."

But the Global Times, a tabloid affiliated with the People's Daily, argued that, if executed properly, there was nothing wrong with trying to promote a story of true love, especially if doing so would benefit the local economy.