Peking — The Marxist Frederick Engels has been brought into a hot controversy over love and marriage, a subject of consuming interest to young people throughout China.
In her novel ''Seeking,'' published by an obscure magazine in Yunnan province last July, the young writer Yu Luojin quoted Engels in defense of her thesis that ''a marriage without love is immoral.''
Now, the leading newspaper in China's capital, the Peking Daily, has roundly censured Miss Yu - though not by name - for having used Engels out of context in order to ''turn the rotten ideology and moral concept of the capitalist class into a Marxist-Leninist weapon.''
One of the targets of the current campaign against so-called mental pollution is the idea that there can be such a thing as true love between two individuals apart from any constraints of society. A generation starved of real love during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) has been searching widely both in their own experience and in Chinese and Western philosophy and literature for a satisfying definition of love, and of the meaning of life.
Miss Yu is herself a cause celebre in China. Sister of Yu Luoke, one of countless intellectuals executed during the Cultural Revolution, the twice-divorced Miss Yu says she found real happiness only in her third marriage.
''Seeking,'' which tells of the trials leading to this marriage, is the final novel of an autobiographical trilogy. The previous installment, ''Tales of Spring,'' was published in 1982 and has been translated into European languages. It was controversial enough that the issue of Huacheng, the magazine which ran it, was banned.
Hence Miss Yu had difficulty getting any nationwide magazine to take the last novel. But the Yunnan magazine accepted it and apparently had an immense commercial success, reportedly selling some 300,000 copies.
What particularly riles Wang Xiuhua, author of the Peking Daily's critique, is Miss Yu's use of the revered Engels in her defense. In her novel, Miss Yu quotes a judge as saying ''Engels said 'a marriage without love is the most immoral (of marriages).' The basis of judging a divorce is the rupture of feeling.''
According to the Peking Daily, this takes Engels completely out of context. The newspaper then goes into a long comparison of the difference between love and marriage in a capitalist society and that in a socialist (i.e. communist) society.
In the former, marriage is supposed to depend on the free will of the individuals concerned.
In fact, however, because of the existence of private property and of exploited classes, all sorts of economic considerations enter in - inheritance, jobs, etc. Marriage is not truly free.
Only in communist society, when exploitation has ended and so has private property, can two individuals think of love as the only governing factor in marriage.
Ah, but there is a catch.
Socialist society - such as China is today - is a ''low stage of communist society, and there remain in it many old wounds. In order to truly realize love as the basis of marriage, we must greatly develop our economy, ceaselessly raise the ideological and moral level of people, educate people in marriage problems, consciously prevent the invasion of the rotten thoughts of feudalism and capitalism, and promote the communist spirit.''
This is just the kind of earnest jargon that completely turns off so many young people in China today. Whether or not they approve Miss Yu's particular approach to the problem, their hunger for a simple, uncomplicated definition of love and their sense of frustration over being individuals hemmed in by society, remains.
Many of them ask: ''Who can satisfy this hunger?''