Friday, April 10, 2009

The Power of Traditional Chinese Women

After reading the last post, many people are probably wondering what I was thinking marrying into a traditional Chinese family. Teacher did not just stop with teaching us the expectations; she also trained us how to work the system. She believed that woman’s lib was crazy because a successful traditional Chinese woman has more power and an easier life than a so-called liberated woman. One of her mantras was: “Men and women are different.” Men are pushier, stronger physically, more impetuous, and less perceptive than women. In Teacher’s mind, women should be the puppet masters behind the men, shielding themselves behind a hunk of protective male flesh, appearing soft and delicate, but having innards of steel. Another of her favorite idioms was “steel within softness.” A successful woman, in Teacher’s eyes, was soft outwardly, but tough as nails on the inside.

Women in Chinese history are a conundrum. There are proverbs about how “virtuous women are illiterate,” but many women were educated at home. Confucian teachings also insist that sons put their mothers on a pedestal and respect them to the uttermost. Even the emperors did not dare to directly contradict their mothers, lest the heavens wreak havoc on the nation for their lack of filial piety. Throughout Chinese history, Dowager Empresses were frequently the power behind the throne, sometimes for the good as in the case of the grandmother of Kangxi and sometimes for evil as in the case of the last Dowager Empress. Even among the populace, the matriarchs played a huge role in greater family fortunes by the way they steered the household.

These sentiments about mothers still run deep. One of my mother-in-law’s brothers proudly told people that if his wife did not treat his mother right, he would divorce her for a better woman because a man can have many wives but only one mother. Once a woman becomes a mother, she is accorded a different status by society at large. There are awards on Mother’s Day for top mother in the town, the county, the country. Widowed mothers, who do not remarry, are especially honored, if they stay with their husband’s parents raising their children.

Like most Chinese, Teacher believed that strong households make society strong, and strong societies make the world strong and peaceful. She believed that families in which both parents work outside the home produce children of weak character, who are poorly educated. She felt that it was an honor for women to pour their beings into their children, producing a happy, healthy, well-trained crop for the future of the family, the country, and the world. Since being a mother was such a high, noble calling, she could not understand why so many Westernized, modern women would ignore their children and go out to compete with men in the world of work. This meant the children were neglected and grew up to be problems to society; the men felt threatened and disrupted family harmony; in the end, society and the world were in chaos.

Teacher pointed out that since most Chinese families owned family businesses, being a stay-at-home mother did not preclude one from working. An ideal Chinese wife ran the household, raised the kids, comforted her husband, and helped with the family business. She was the hub around which all the wheels of the family spun. Since she was the center, she was truly the one in control, although she never let it be obvious to outsiders. Teacher always told us that behind every successful man there is a wise woman. Sometimes I think she considered men to be a necessary but inferior breed. Her recipe for handling men seemed to entail treating them like overgrown children. Since they were prone to brute force, one did not antagonize them but used feminine whiles to get one’s way.

Teacher used two of her neighbor families when she was a junior high student in Taiwan to illustrate her arguments for choosing to be a model Chinese woman for the sake of personal, familial, and societal well-being. Mrs. A was a modern woman. When the family arrived in Taiwan from mainland China, everyone was poor, so Mrs. A went out and got a job apart from her husband. She never had energy to cook or check her children’s homework. Her children were latchkey children; they came home, ate some instant noodles, and then ran off to play. They made the wrong friends and one of the sons became a thief when he could not pass the entrance exam for high school. Mr. A blamed Mrs. A for neglecting the children. They had frequent arguments that were so loud the entire neighborhood was party to their disputes. Eventually, Mr. A stopped coming home and shacked up on the other side of town with a mistress. And then the daughter moved in with her father and the mistress. Mrs. A continued at her job, coming home to spend her evenings alone in her house. One day she became ill, but no one was home, so no one knew. By the time the neighbors figured out that they had not seen her for a day or so, she was delirious with fever. She never fully recovered and had to go into a sanitarium because no one in her family wanted to care for her. Mrs. B, on the other hand, believed that she only had these few years to make a difference in her children’s lives. She tilled a garden patch on some vacant land near the end of the street and sold fresh vegetables to the neighbors. She was always at home with a snack for her children when they got home from school. She was educated herself, and her children always had their homework done on time and were well-prepared for their tests. They all went to good high schools and prestigious universities. Mr. B started his own business, and Mrs. B helped him by doing the books at night while the children were doing their homework. Mr. B always came home to a hot meal, and they saved much money by not eating instant noodles or restaurant food. Even though, Family B did not have as much money in the first year or two after coming to Taiwan, they built a solid foundation in all areas of their lives. By the time the children were college-age, Mr. B’s business was well-established, so the B’s could afford the tuition. At this time, Mrs. B took a part-time job doing something that she enjoyed, but she was still always home before Mr. B and her children, so the family could eat dinner together. In their old age, Mr. and Mrs. B’s children were happy to care for them, and they had happy relationships with their many grandchildren. Their children all had successful careers that they attributed to the fact that Mrs. B had wisely chosen to work from home and make sure the family hung together. The children did everything in their power to make Mrs. B’s retirement a happy one, including sending her on sightseeing trips around the world, buying expensive clothes for her, and giving her whatever she wanted. Teacher would always end these lectures by telling us: “If you are going to have babies, you must raise them well; only then can you have the satisfaction of knowing that you have done a noble work which has helped your family and society.”


Linda McLaughlin said...

I can't argue with most of what Teacher said, though I've known more than one neurotic/wastrel who came out of a "traditional" family. My dad's mom was very old-fashioned but also very strong willed. My mom always referred to her as "the iron fist in the velvet glove". I was always glad my mom was at home when I got out of school. She'd been a latchkey kid during the 1930's and didn't want that for me, too.

Teresa said...

Yeah. What she said made a lot of sense, as you know from the way I raised my kids, Linda. Sorry to take so long to respond to your comment. It has been a long week.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this article... Today I was feeling badly about being a traditional woman. I am at home with my children and try to do all I can to have a happy homelife, I expecially liked the gardening section, while I do not sell the food from our garden, my children and I do grow it together and my eldest is beginning to learn how to can food. Mrs. A sounds very selfish, I was her a few years ago... That is until I listened to my inner most self and found I need to be Mrs. B, in today's society that is hard. Today I needed to be uplifted in my role. Thank you for helping a stranger. You've inspired me...

murat11 said...

A good antidote to my puffed up feminism over the previous post. Having our son has been the most radical event in our lives. Everything changed in light of thinking about the possible impacts on him. In our googly-eyed pregnancy days, we assumed "x" number of months with him at home and then back to work for both of us, etc., etc. "X" number of months turned into 6 years for Tina (I was home with both of them for the first two years), as we both felt the importance of our being there with him in his life. Financially, we've taken a big hit in our commitment to being there for him, but the "lost" money pales in relation to our love for him. I'm happy that my teaching schedule gives us the summers off together, and Tina's therapy practice affords her a great deal of flexibility in being available to him around school events, etc.

Teresa said...

Murat: I applaud you and your wife for dividing the duties and spending quality time with your son. I think that for children, the best thing parents can do is spend time with them. "Things" just cannot replace the security that comes from spending time with your parents. I did internalize this and spent many excellent years with my children. They are out and on their own, I have no regrets about their upbringing, and I did have my children all early enough so that I am now enjoying getting more education and preparing for a second career. I followed the Chinese pattern of having my own businesses on the side while I was focusing on the kids, so I did have a lot of variety in my life.

I probably will not be the typical Chinese grandparent, but I think my husband will retire from his construction business early and play the doting grandfather, so we will keep the bases covered.