Document Type

Dissertation

Date of Degree

Spring 2015

Degree Name

PhD (Doctor of Philosophy)

Degree In

Communication Studies

First Advisor

John Durham Peters

Second Advisor

Steve Duck

Abstract

This dissertation provides a comparative study of letters and digital media as infrastructures of modern Chinese romance. It examines young Chinese lovers’ experiences with digital media in comparison with their forebears’ experiences with love letters in order to understand how the increased ease of communication shapes Chinese romantic relating. Based on historical documents and in-depth interviews, this dissertation argues that the Internet and mobile technology augment Chinese lovers’ capacities to contact each other over distance, to express emotions that are restrained by conventions, and to create private alcoves in public places. These augmented capacities alter various boundaries in and around romantic relationship and intensify Chinese lovers’ negotiation between individuality and relationship, between disclosure and concealment, and between the public and private realms of life.

Specifically, young Chinese lovers are better able to maintain a continual sense of togetherness but have more difficulty protecting personal boundaries and being alone. They find it easier to articulate feelings that are untoward in face-to-face speech, but they also find it harder to prove the sincerity of love in text and to avoid confrontation in impulsive message exchange. They have more access to a private space, albeit virtual, and more chances to publicize their romantic lives, but by doing so they also contribute to diminished sociality in offline public spaces and have to rely on the kindness of strangers for privacy more than ever before. For young Chinese lovers, digital media promise the freedoms that are regulated and controlled by social institutions in their offline worlds, but seeking these freedoms via digital media poses chges to their relationships with themselves, with each other, and with the larger social and public worlds they live in.

These chges for romantic relating, as this dissertation argues, manifest the problems of the physical and the material while digital media facilitate spiritual contact over distance. The boundaries of personal accessibility are rooted in the limitation of human attention and ultimately in human mortality; the problem of sincerity in verbalized love lies in the difficulty of invoking deeds as the culturally preferred signifier of love; private nooks in public spaces are problematic both because bodily presence in physical locales entails expectations of sociality and because information storage in virtual venues requires a material apparatus that is beyond the control of individuals. As digital media reduce physical distance as the obstacle to lovers’ spiritual contact, they also intensify the tension between the spiritual and the physical aspects of communication and relationships.

Overall, this dissertation provides a tripartite approach to the study of mediation and sociality based on three dimensions of communication: contact, content, and context. It emphasizes the importance of examining the ways in which communication media enable individuals to connect with each other, to express themselves, and to privatize or publicize their relationships. This approach provides a holistic understanding of how media shape modern sociality and how that mediation contributes to the shift of social boundaries and changes in social etiquette. In addition, this study enriches the current understanding of emerging media, particularly personal communication technologies (PCTs), as a social-technological combination, and proposes the study of the combination in plural and contradictory forms. Methodologically, it suggests the significance of studying both the symbolic and material aspects of mediated communication and of examining various modes, modalities, and genres of mediated communication as the locale where the material channels of media and the symbolic meanings of interaction intersect.

Public Abstract

This dissertation examines young Chinese lovers’ experiences with digital media in comparison with their forebears’ experiences with love letters in order to understand how the increased ease of contact shapes Chinese romantic experience. Based on historical documents of love letters and in-depth interviews with young Chinese lovers, this dissertation argues that digital media enhance lovers’ capacity to connect with each other over distance, to express emotions that are restrained by conventions, and to create private nooks in public places. These enhanced capacities push various personal and social boundaries and intensify young Chinese lovers’ negotiation between individuality and relationship, between disclosure and concealment, and between the public and private aspects of life. With digital media, maintaining a continual sense of togetherness is easier, but being alone is more difficult. Text messaging of various kinds makes it easy to express affections and discordances that are difficult to express face-to-face, but it is also hard to prove the sincerity of love through text messaging, and impulsive message exchange may accelerate conflicts. With digital media, young Chinese couples can create virtual private spaces that are not available offline, but in doing so they may also isolate themselves from offline social spaces and leave intimate records in online venues, which causes privacy concerns. These contradictions pose challenges to young Chinese lovers’ relationships with themselves, with each other, and with the larger social and public worlds they live in.

Keywords

publicabstract, China, Digital media, Letter, Love, Modernity, Sociality

Pages

xiii, 265 pages

Bibliography

Includes bibliographical references (pages 249-265).

Copyright

Copyright 2015 Hua Su

Included in

Communication Commons

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