As I made more friends in my status of Chinese daughter-in-law, I began to learn the real situation of my female friends’ home lives. In the Chinese culture, a person is not truly considered grown up until after he or she is married. For a woman this means that prior to marriage, no married woman will discuss sex, marital problems, or any other difficulties at home with you. Once you are married, you are ushered into what can probably best be called the “suffering sisterhood.” I have to say that many marriages are happy. When I lived with the families in Taipei, they did not seem to be any more or less unhappy than solid American marriages. But when I moved out of Taipei, into a more rural setting, where most women were living with their in-laws like I was, I quickly learned that I had married into a remarkable family. Many of the tales that I heard were shocking. They were recounted to me by co-workers, relatives, and friends. As I repeat them, I am not going to mention the sources of the stories because they were told in the confidence of the women’s circles in the kitchens at family dinners or in the teachers’ lounges or over lunch or tea with friends. These stories were never meant for general consumption and certainly were not to be told in front of men.
A common theme was male infidelity. China did not make concubinage illegal until after 1949, so men in the 1980s frequently felt entitled to the enjoyment of more than one woman. Although they were limited to one legal wife, men with enough money often set up a concubine in a nearby house and supported two households. A man who could afford this kind of arrangement was thought to have “great face.” Men expected that according to the rules of concubinage under the imperial laws, their main wives should allow any children born to the concubines to be registered as legitimate on the man’s household register as adopted children of the main wife. Many of my friends and relatives in this kind of situation got into huge fights with their husbands and in-laws for insisting on adhering to modern law and refusing to register the concubine’s kids. Of course, the real victims of these struggles were the concubine’s children because they would have to take their mothers’ surnames and be registered without a father. They would be looked down on at school and would suffer teasing and bullying for being illegitimate. A few of my friends eventually gave in and let their husbands register children born outside the home, mainly because they felt sorry for the children. This kind of problem was particularly common among women who had failed to produce one or more sons to carry on the family lineage. When it was a matter of carrying on the family name, the parents-in-law would usually support their son in having an outside woman because according to Confucian logic, the greatest sin is dying without a son to carry on your line.
Another common problem was an over-demanding mother-in-law or a mother-in-law who was so tied to her son that she could not bear to see him married to another woman. I had one friend whose mother-in-law drove her out of the house with a broom every month or so because she got jealous of the time her son was spending with his wife and child. Other women had problems with mothers-in-law who would insist on taking most of the month’s grocery money to the mah-jongg tables and losing the household’s food allowance. The daughter-in-law was expected to obey the mother-in-law and frequently could not come out and directly say that there was no meat for dinner because Mama had lost the money gambling. Mama would often blame the poor meals on the daughter-in-law, and it wasn’t until the gambling addiction went beyond grocery money and Mama was asking all her sons and her husband for money every couple of days that the truth would come out. Until the men discovered the truth for themselves, the daughter-in-law was in a very tight spot because she seemed to be wasting family resources, but if she openly blamed her mother-in-law, her husband and father-in-law would be obligated to take Mama’s side against her.
Another problem was wife beating. Most business deals were made over banquets in which large quantities of alcohol were consumed. The men would come home drunk, and if the woman looked at her husband the wrong way, she could be brutally beaten. There were laws on the books against wife beating, but most people did not use the court system. There was a distrust of the government and a lack of faith in the legal system. Plus the woman needed her own money to hire a lawyer. What usually happened after a particularly brutal beating was that the wife would have her own parents and brothers pick her up at the hospital emergency room. She would go home to recuperate, and her father and brothers would renegotiate the terms for her continued presence in her married family. I do not know what the divorce laws are like now, but in those days, a woman who got divorced walked away with her jewelry and clothing. The children stayed with their father’s family to carry on the family line. Many of my friends would have left their husbands in a heartbeat, regardless of the money, but they did not want to be cut off from their children, and they were afraid that the children might be harmed by vindictive grandmothers or step-mothers in the absence of their birth mother.
The harmony of a multi-generational household depended a lot on the father-in-law. If the father-in-law was reasonable and kept the mother-in-law from abusing her position, life was usually pretty good for the daughters-in-law. If the father-in-law was dead or hen-pecked, the mothers-in-law could terrorize anyone they chose. Some mothers-in-law recognized the need for family harmony and did their best to create harmony among all the women in the home. Many were bitter about what they had suffered as young women and decided that their daughters-in-law presented the opportunity for them to get their revenge. When a mother-in-law was a bully, the siblings of the husband would frequently join their mother in persecuting the poor wife. Sometimes the siblings would even steal anything of value that was not hidden and locked away.
In the 1980s there was not much the women could do. They would get together in the sisterhood at work or among their natal relatives and air their grievances. Women would share stories of tricks for keeping husbands faithful or gaining the respect of parents-in-law. One of my favorite stories was about the woman who shadowed her husband to his trysting place with his mistress, waited until both had removed their pants, and then rushed in and began spanking them with a bamboo carrying pole. Word got around that the wife was not someone to be trifled with, and her husband was unable to ever find another mistress.
I think a large part of the problem was the rapid change in societal customs and values with modernization and the influence of Western movies and television. For thousands of years, China was an agrarian society with nearly self-sufficient household units. Confucianism set up the parameters for household members to know their place in the household and what they should do to contribute to the survival of the family. Individual achievement was not as important as the family. With the advent of industrialization and the introduction of Western values, the individual became important, but no one knew how to be an individual. The old rules don’t work, and the translation of Western values has come through skewed. Being an individual has come to mean being selfish. When everyone in the household just thinks of himself or herself, the whole Confucian system breaks down. I was fortunate that my in-laws had such a high level of traditional integrity and sensibility. I don’t know what I would have done with some of the mothers-in-law of women that I knew. They were truly living in a nightmare.