In earlier posts, I mentioned that filial piety is huge in Chinese culture. If you watch Chinese soap operas, you can see a recurring theme of an elderly parent, usually a mother, becoming ill with distress when a son is unfilial. If the son fails to mend his ways at the first sign of his parent’s illness, and especially if the parent dies as a result of becoming ill from his lack of piety, the son gets branded as bu xiao or unfilial by society. Such a label is something my friends from Taiwan and China fear because it means a total loss of credibility in the community. In imperial China, even the emperors had to avoid having a reputation of being unfilial because it could mean that they would lose the “mandate of Heaven,” making them vulnerable to a coup.
I also mentioned that Ma told stories about filial piety to her children as a way of encouraging them to be assiduous in their filial piety towards her. One of her favorite stories, especially for her sons, was the story of Youngest Maternal Uncle standing up to his elder sisters-in-law to protect his mother:
After the Maternal Uncles had divided up the family assets and were all living in separate households, Grandma Chu was supposed to travel from household to household, living with each son and daughter-in-law for two weeks at a time. Each son had a room in his home for Grandma Chu, and while Grandma Chu was living in a household, the daughter-in-law had to cook special foods to manage Grandma Chu’s diabetes. This was a chore because Grandma Chu had to eat six small meals per day, and she could not eat sweets or dishes cooked with sugar. Several of the Maternal Uncle’s Wives worked outside the home, and they could not always meet Grandma Chu’s needs. Her diabetes was worsening, but nothing she said was sinking in with her sons and daughters-in-law. Once, after receiving news that her diabetes was worsening at a doctor’s appointment, the Maternal Uncles held a family council about Grandma Chu’s health. They and their wives were arguing and bickering because no one wanted to be taxed with taking off two weeks from work every other month to cook for Grandma Chu. Grandma Chu was distressed to the point of tears, and Youngest Maternal Uncle stood up and said to his elder brothers and sisters-in-law: “Wives can be changed like clothes, but I only have one mother. If you do not care enough for our mother to give her a pleasant life in her old age, then I will take her into my home and order my wife to not work so that she can devote herself to caring for our mother. You can pay me a certain amount every month for the support of our mother. If my wife won’t do this, I will divorce her and find a wife who will care properly for my mother.” That stopped the bickering. Youngest Maternal Uncle’s Wife was amenable to caring for Grandma Chu full-time, and the other Maternal Uncles were happy to pay a small sum every month towards their mother’s care. Grandma Chu was overjoyed being allowed to stay in one home where someone would take care of her special diet. The legend of Youngest Maternal Uncle’s filial piety became part of the Liu family lore, as one of Ma’s oft-repeated stories.
Over the past month I have laid a theoretical and descriptive foundation about the workings of Chinese families, and now I would like to return to the thread of my own story and describe what happened at my own grandmother’s funeral. If you remember, I went off on this tangent about masculinity and the battle between the sexes, leaving myself and the girls on a trans-Pacific airplane flight rushing home to the US to attend my paternal grandmother’s funeral, after having seen Elder Sister safely through her ordeal in the hospital in Taiwan. The girls and I landed safely in Seattle and met Yuni and my dad in the airport. Yuni’s plane from California had gotten in a hour or so before ours did. We went home, and a few days later, we attended the funeral. The girls had plenty of appropriate clothes, since we had been to so many funerals over the course of that year. Everything went well until the family dinner after all the funeral proceedings were over.
By this time, Yuni’s English was quite good; he felt especially comfortable talking with children. My uncle’s three children are not too much older than my own children, and Yuni sat among the six of them as self-proclaimed “king of the kids.” He kept them quiet and well-behaved while the rest of the adults discussed family matters that were not as interesting to him. Since it was a funeral feast, and since my grandmother had been good to him, Yuni began questioning my cousins about their last moments with Grammie. He did this in a manner reminiscent of what his family had done after the deaths of Grandma Chu and Eldest Brother-in-Law. He was beginning the creation of Grammie’s hagiography. I was involved in the discussion with the adults, so I do not quite know what he said when he asked his questions, but he suddenly became very perturbed. When the meal was over, he demanded that I talk to my cousins about the last time they had seen Grammie. Their story was that they had visited her on Christmas Day and she was happy talking to them. Then my dad had come in with his girl friend, and she had turned her face to the wall, refusing to speak. The next thing they knew she was dead.
I asked their mother about this, and my aunt said that Grammie’s health had not been good prior to Christmas. My uncle’s family had been with her in her room at the convalescent home for 30 minutes before my dad and his girl friend arrived. Grammie spoke with everyone for another 20 minutes or so, and then she had felt so tired that she rolled over to take a nap. My uncle’s family left at that point for Christmas lunch with other relatives, and they were so busy with holiday festivities that did not get a chance to visit her again. Grammie passed away two or three days after Christmas, and health care professionals believed it was because she had seen her family, she had been ailing for some time, and her death was the result of normal post-holiday let down often seen among the elderly. I translated this to Yuni, but he would not accept it. Just as his youngest cousin’s story of the men in white was proof that Grandma Chu had gone to heaven, so also my young cousins’ version of Grammie’s death was to him the most truthful and unbiased account of the situation.
And from my cousins’ story, Yuni came up with this very Chinese interpretation of what had happened at Christmas: Grammie had really liked my father’s second wife because she was quite good at caring for elderly people. Grammie was sad because my father was divorcing his second wife, depriving his mother of her accustomed caretaker. While Yuni had huge problems with men having mistresses, especially after the situation at Eldest Brother-in-Law’s funeral in Taiwan, he claimed to make no judgment in this instance about the fact of my father's divorce. However, he believed that my dad should have settled his divorce by buying Wife Number Two a house near Grammie's nursing home and paying her handsomely to continue caring for his mother until her death, and then beyond as a way of thanking her for her service to his parents. Yuni felt that in the matter of his divorce, my dad was completely ignoring his mother’s wishes with respect to her choice of care-taker. To be a truly good and filial son, my dad should have chosen his wife to suit his mother, as in the legend of Youngest Maternal Uncle. In Yuni’s view, Grammie had turned her face to the wall on Christmas because she had been deprived of spending the holiday with Wife Number Two, and therefore, she had died of a broken heart. Ergo, my father is an unfilial son.
Yuni and I were carrying on this conversation in rapid Mandarin Chinese at the edge of the private dining room where we had had the funeral dinner, and so of course, my family didn’t know what was going on. Yuni and I argued about this in the car on the way home, but anything I said was to no avail. In the end, Yuni’s reading of the situation fit the typical Chinese soap opera plot lines and his family legends too well for him to accept any other possible explanation. And so, in his eyes, my father was branded as the worst kind of unfilial son—the kind who aggravates his mother to death.