The longer we spent with Teacher, the more she worked to make us proper Chinese daughters-in-law. When Beatrice announced her engagement to a Taiwanese businessman and Miss Yan told Teacher she would be going back to Thailand to get married, our Chinese daughter-in-law training went into high gear. Most of every class was spent discussing families and marriage.
The first theme was that arranged marriages were good because they were not based on hormones. Teacher went to great lengths to demonstrate that the Western fixation on romance does not lead to a stable family life. She was very anti-divorce, especially when there are children involved. (This may have been due in part to her experience growing up in her aunt’s home.) She said that in an arranged marriage, the parents used rational thought, life experience, and deep knowledge of their children to find spouses and households who were true matches for their children’s temperaments. Even though there was no love at the beginning, because the matches were well-thought out, the relationships blossomed and deepened over time, making them more stable. One of Teacher’s favorite maxims was, “Love in a relationship must be nurtured.” She exhorted us to get beyond our hormones when picking a mate by looking for someone who had similar background and interests, and then she told us that we needed to work for our entire life at nurturing our marriage. I have to say that after listening to this speech at least once a week for more than a year, my thinking about marriage changed.
In addition to the “pick your mate well, so you do not need a divorce” speech, Teacher taught us about how to live in a multi-generational household. The first rule of a Chinese family is to know your position. If you are the eldest, you have more say in what the family does, but you also have more responsibility to make things go right. As a Chinese daughter-in-law, you gain your position from your husband’s birth order. If you marry an eldest son, your words will carry much weight with your in-laws, but you will also be expected to help with all the younger siblings. If you marry a second or third son (but not the youngest), your position will depend more on how competent your husband is at his work. If you marry the youngest son, resign yourself to not having any say in the running of the family, but you can also be assured that no one will expect you to bear much responsibility for anyone but your own children.
In the past, women in Chinese families gained status by the number of sons they bore. This still holds true to some extent, but younger generations, who have studied biology, now know that this is not the woman’s responsibility, so the onus of not bearing sons is waning to some extent. Because traditional Chinese worship their ancestors through the paternal line, a man needs a son to feed his ghost and to carry on the family line. If the first wife does not produce a son, it is still not uncommon for the man to try with someone else. Since Sun Yat-Sen’s revolution and the abolition of polygamy, this means that some Chinese men divorce their wives for failing to give them a son.
In addition to bearing sons, women in Chinese families gain status by their sufferings for the family. The Chinese have a saying that a woman is “pressure-cooked into a mother-in-law.” It refers to the process that when a woman marries into the family, the other women haze her until she learns her place. The hazing stops when she bears a son and / or makes a significant contribution to the family’s fortunes. As long as her mother-in-law is alive, this hazing can start up again at any time. If a woman has borne a son, but fails to contribute anything more to the general well-being of the family, the hazing will start again to train her to be a good matriarch. A woman without a son, who nevertheless has been loyal to and suffered for her husband’s family, is frequently accorded much honor, and her words hold much weight. The Chinese are a very practical society, and they honor good results. The hazing is for the most part verbal, although I know one woman who married into a very rich Chinese family in the Philippines in 1984. She ate and worked with the servants until she had given birth to a son. Then she was allowed to eat with her mother-in-law and other sisters-in-law. Once she was in that circle, her worth to the family was gauged by how well she trained her son and supported her husband in his business. The men of the family always ate at a separate table from the women.
Many multi-generational families engage in one business. Joshua’s third maternal uncle had five sons who all worked in his business making banisters. When they married, the daughters-in-law quit their outside jobs and worked with their husbands in the family business. The whole family lived together in one household until all five sons were married and had children. At their height, there were twenty-one people in three generations under one roof. The daughters-in-law rotated cooking and cleaning chores by the week. Joshua’s uncle controlled all the money and gave each of his progeny an allowance based on their needs. My father-in-law felt this was foolish in modern society because Joshua’s cousins never learned how to manage money when they were young. After the fifth son had children and the father had retired, they all split into five small households. The parents would rotate eating with each son’s household for a week. Some sons have done well managing on their own; others have had trouble adjusting to bearing so much responsibility.
The final point our teacher made about Chinese marriage is that the woman joins the man’s family, leaving her own. Whatever you were in your birth family no longer exists; if you “marry a dog, you follow a dog, marry a chicken, you follow a chicken.” Daughters are called “money-losing items” because parents raise them to contribute to someone else’s business. When a daughter marries, her parents throw a bowl of water after the car driving her away to show that she has been washed from the family. Her first priority is now her husband’s family. The married daughter who cares for her own parents over her in-laws is asking for more hazing until she learns her place. When traditional Chinese women expressed their loyalty to their husbands they would say: “I am your family member in life and your household’s ghost in death.”