It could have been any other pile of clothing — pastel linen blouses, jeans with a flower pattern embroidered on the side, a silk robe in peacock blue, and more. But they were my the clothes of my sister-in-law, Da Sao, married to my husband’s eldest brother. And my Chinese mother-in-law was anxious to clear them away.
“Look at all of these clothes,” she said, lifting up a shirt and then the jeans, sighing. “She buys them on a whim, wears them once, and then brings them over here — and never wears them again.” Then, smiling towards me, she added, “you should wear them.”
It was a lonely pile of clothes, desperate to be worn. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that this was more than just housekeeping — because Da Sao was becoming infamous during our dinnertime conversations.
One day, my inlaws chastised Da Sao for enrolling her son, Kaiqi, in too many afterschool activities. Another day, they declared her too lazy, spending too much time on the computer. On another, they decided her cooking wasn’t up to snuff. I couldn’t help but notice that, even as both in-laws spoke, my Chinese mother-in-law supported the brunt of these indictments.
Da Sao is no saint — but not once did my inlaws suggest that Da Ge, her husband, did anything wrong (Da Ge, according to my husband John, is an uninvolved father who has also exacerbated his son’s behavior problems). Clearly, this was a troubling Chinese mother-in-law, daughter-in-law relationship.
But it’s not just Da Sao. For thousands of years, daughters-in-law have dreaded their Chinese mothers-in-law. Why?
Because the son’s mother has more power and status in the family. According to Confucian principles of filial piety, sons — not daughters — are the only ones obligated to serve and care for their birth parents in their old age. As a result, they are golden to the family (think insurance, before social security and pensions existed) and preferred over daughters.
On the other hand, daughters were tossed away in marriage to a new family, the husband’s, and must transfer their filial piety to the in-laws. In a new home — bound by duty to the in-laws first, and the husband second — daughters-in-law have little status, and were even thought of as slaves to some families (notice that the character for slave, 奴, includes the character for woman, 女).
Some of the tension in this relationship is inherited from the days when women in China really did marry OUT of their families and into their husband’s family — a girl might never see her own family ever again! At the same time, even though she had married into this new family, she would likely still be considered an outsider. As sort of “low woman on the totem pole” in her new family, one of her main jobs would be to serve her mother-in-law and make her happy. The Chinese mother-in-law (at least in ages past) had a reputation for being pretty demanding and difficult to please — after all, she had once been low woman on the totem pole as well, and had risen through the ranks to become mother, mother-in-law, and hopefully, grandmother. It seems this could all get pretty political, with both mother-in-law and daughter-in-law triangulating and manipulating to keep son/husband in their corner.
Village Life in China: a study in sociology — published in 1899 — is proof this problem has a long history:
The fact that Chinese girls are married so young, and that they have not been taught those lessons of self-control which it is so important for them to learn, suffices to demonstrate the absolute necessity for the existence of the Chinese mother-in-law in the family….
A great deal is heard of the tyranny and cruelty of these mothers-in-law, and there is firm basis of fact for all that is so often said upon that point. But it must at the same time be borne in mind that without her the Chinese family would go to utter ruin. The father-in-law is not only unfitted to take the control which belongs to his wife, even were he at home all the time which would seldom be the case, but propriety forbids him to do any such thing, even were he able. In families where a mother-in-law is lacking, there are likely to be much greater evils than the worst mother-in-law. Abuse of the daughter-in-law is so common a circumstance, that unless it be especially flagrant, it attracts very little attention.
The Chinese-mother-in-law, daughter-in-law tension even makes for great film drama, as described in this review of the 1990 film Song of the Exile:
The film depicts Hue’s grandmother as a traditional chauvinist Chinese mother-in-law who polices patriarchal loyalties in the conjugal home. While living in the in-laws’ Chinese household, Hueying’s mother, the Japanese outsider, suffers in silence while playing the role of the traditional daughter-in-law until her resentment brews against her own daughter, Hueying.
Of course, not all daughters-in-law must endure silent rejection, abuse or worse at the hands of their Chinese mothers-in-law. If anything, the decline of arranged marriages — which were always more of a benefit to the son than the daughter — has elicited a collective sigh of relief among young, marriageable women in China. Choosing your own husband does offer the prospect of more conjugal bliss — and thus more happiness, mitigating the in-law relationship. And nowadays, in-laws often have their own home. Though mother-in-law may stay with you to help raise the grandchild, she’s not a permanent member of the house.
Still, even among today’s married women in China, Chinese mothers-in-law aren’t unlike Chinese deities: something to revere and fear.
The looming prospect of a live-in mother-in-law was enough to break a relationship, in the case of my friend, Peter Pi. During Chinese New Year earlier this year, Peter told his girlfriend his mother would eventually move in with them, if they ever married. Peter had good reasons for it — she lives in poverty in Southern Henan Province; and since he’s the oldest son, he feels an obligation to care for her. Unfortunately, the girl broke things off immediately. “She worries very much for the mother-in-law relationship,” admitted Peter, with some chagrin. (Fortunately, they mended the relationship later this year, but only because Peter persistently called her.)
Some daughters-in-law fret over their behavior in front of the Chinese mother-in-law — because violating the hierarchy of traditional Confucian filial piety means trouble. Consider this example in the same post cited above, from China Live Hope:
The classmate asked her boyfriend to get her a drink of water, and the boyfriend (foolish boy) asked his mother to get him a drink of water (intending to give it to his girlfriend)….
First, the girlfriend made a big mistake in front of her potential-future-mother-in-law by not showing her boyfriend the respect he deserves. Taking into account that this mother has sacrificed many hours cooking, cleaning, and otherwise looking out for and taking care of her son, a request like this on the behalf of the girlfriend makes it seem like she’s not the kind of girl who will take very good care of him. Add into the mix that it’s apparently not uncommon for some Chinese mother-in-laws feel that their son’s wife/girlfriend has “stolen away their precious son” (yes, my teacher really said that), and the future potential mother-in-law becomes aghast that this son-stealer, this interloper is not only too lazy to get her own water, but also expects the precious treasure of a son to serve her.
Secondly, the boyfriend made a REALLY big mistake by passing the request on to his mother. In effect, he turned the “natural order” of things (daughter-in-law serves mother-in-law) completely on its head, and basically asked his mother to serve his potential future wife.
Yet, it’s tough to honor and obey your Chinese mother-in-law, when you know her actions have consequences. That’s the quandry of my 31-year-old friend Chen, distressed by her mother-in-law’s indulgent parenting towards her three-year-old son, Xiao Mai. For example, her mother-in-law chases Xiao Mai around the house with a spoon of food, instead of demanding he sit at the table and feed himself. But she and her husband, as full-time teachers in high school (the most demanding teaching jobs, given that their students are staring down the Gaokao, or college extrance exam), exclusively rely on her for child care, just as many families do. It’s also a duty often reserved for the son’s mother. Chen couldn’t criticize her — she would be labeled ungrateful, demanding…maybe even unfilial. So, she stifles the urge to say anything at all — reluctantly watching her son, under the mother’s care, become a little emperor, with a temper.
Sometimes, it’s not the mother-in-law’s actions that are the problem — but the suggestions. Imagine my surprise, the morning after my wedding ceremony, when my mother-in-law sat me down for the reproduction talk. “Don’t forget to have kids early,” she said, with a slight smile. Great idea in practice — but not if your daughter-in-law (me!) is the only family breadwinner back in the US, helping her husband do the impossible of getting into a super-competitive Ph.D. program — all with paltry catastrophic health insurance that doesn’t cover maternity. So, I told her we needed to wait. Her answer? “How about you have the child, and let me raise it until it’s three years old?” Even today, every time I return home childless, I feel her desire for more grandchildren weighing on me like an unwieldy Chinese lantern tied to my back.
Still, Chinese mother-in-law-daughter-in-law relationships aren’t always an authoritarian affair. Sometimes, the dialogue is reciprocal, the feelings mutual, and the result a smile.
Over the years, I’ve come to love my mother-in-law because she cares for me — from always making sure there are vegetarian dishes at dinner, to bringing me medicine when I get the flu. And I care for her too, from giving her vitamins for high blood pressure, to helping her persuade my father-in-law not to buy into expensive scams.
So later this summer, after discussing the behavior problems of Kaiqi, their grandchild, my husband and I suggested that coddling the child — as she and my father-in-law did — played a role. And that Da Ge, the uninvolved father, was also to blame, just as much as Da Sao. Well, this Chinese mother-in-law did the impossible — she agreed.
My father-in-law, however, did not…which is another troubling relationship, for another day.
What has been your experience with Chinese mothers-in-law? Are they absolute queens in the house? A trusted family collaborator? Or somewhere in between? If you’re a daughter-in-law with a Chinese-mother-in-law — or know one — I’d love to hear from you.