Moving Mothers

The two Chinese fables, ‘the Mother of Meng-k’o” and “A Male Mencius’ Mother” both depict traditional, proper examples of motherhood in action, despite their obvious differences.

Both stories comment on the mother’s choice to move for her son’s sake. Meng Mu moves from a house near a graveyard to one near a marketplace to finally a home near a school, which is determined to be suitable for her child. Ruinang moves from a place where the “Southern Mode” is prominent to a home where her child gets a dead-end job to a location where she is finally able to closely monitor her studies. The similarity between movements invites a glimpse into traditional Chinese morals – homosexuality is equivalent to playing in a graveyard, which symbolizes death, just as homosexuality represents the end of paternal lineage, one of the worst possible failures of duty for a Chinese man.

The two stories also, through comparison, provide insight into what being a traditionally Chinese  “mother” means. In “the Mother of Meng-k’o,” Meng Mu guides her son through multiple periods of his life – childhood, marriage, and manhood, indicating that motherhood is a constant presence and a life-long, subsuming role. As the mother helps her son transition into a male, she simultaneously instructs him that her role is to defer to him willingly.

Just because it is a role does not mean it had to be taken on through biological means, however. In “A Male Mencious’ Mother,” even though Ruinang isn’t actually biologically female or related to Chengxian, he still performs the role of mother properly and honorably, and is therefore considered one. Relating the fable back to Butler’s concept of performativity, when Ruinang changes his name from “lang” to “niang,” “he” is narrated as a “she,” a mother for the next couple of pages. By taking on the role of mother and performing her duties admirably – putting her stepchild first, acting chaste, and in his best interests – Chengxian respects Ruinang by burying him with Jifang and never letting on about the secret. Even though the story is, ultimately, a warning against the “Southern Mode,” the title is “A Male Menicus’s Mother Raises Her Son Properly By Moving House Three Times,” even though the motherhood portion of the story takes up a total of five pages. Ruinang, despite being a non-traditional mother, still performs the role of mother honorably and is considered to be a mother. Likewise, Meng Mu’s identity is given no attention – her life seems to start with her son’s. Both stories suggest that the mother’s identity and backstory is irrelevant to her capacity to adequately perform her – or his – role as a mother.

After reading and comparing these two renditions of what constitutes traditional Chinese motherhood, I was left wondering – why are there such glaring differences in the story? Why does “A Male Mencius’ Mother” not raise or include the backstory of homosexuality? How or why did the story get reappropriated?  By doing so, I think the story serves as a warning against homosexuality and not as a guide for motherhood, but the title still indicates that the focus is on motherhood.

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One thought on “Moving Mothers

  1. I think you began to answer your own question: what is the purpose of the glaring differences between stories? Or to focus the question a little more, why did Li Yu title his story about motherhood but then write about homosexuality? I agree that “A Male Mencius’s Mother” serves as a warning against homosexuality; I think Li Yu tries to show that despite Ruiniang’s best efforts at motherhood – she is, after all, compared to Mencius’s mother who represents the model of motherhood (39, O’Hara) – because s/he as well as Jifang are in a homosexual relationship, they become ‘illegitimate’ and capable of being erased from ‘legitimate’ history. They can only be present in history as a parable for the ‘improper’ way of living.

    “Xu Jifang was the No. 1 romantic among devotees of the Southern Mode and You Ruilang the No. 1 chaste wife among the catamites. By rights they ought to have enjoyed eternal fame [like the real Meng Mu]. But when people today read their story, they will put their hands over their months and laugh, as if ridiculing them. Why should that be?
    “The reason is that this practice is not one of those universal principles created by Heaven and Earth but an unnatural development by certain ancients who travelled the deviant path. When the practice is carried to extremes, therefore, it conflicts with ethical relations.” (133)

    In other words, since Li Yu seems to place importance to the idea that keeping within the norm allows one the potential for being memorialized, it follows that he would criticize homosexuality for breaking this order. If one follows one’s duties, spanning to proper gender roles for sexes, only then can one achieve eminence. Which, I suppose, makes sense since Confucianism is all about maintaining proper and harmonious relationships.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is that the importance of the ‘motherhood’ theme for Li Yu, is that it allows him to use it as a device in which he can argue, “Look, Ruiniang has become the epitome of motherhood, but because he performing an improper role for his gender, he cannot be recognized as someone to emulate or esteem.”

    Sidenote: I also thought the translated title itself was confusing too, a male (Mencius’s) mother or a (male Mencius’s) mother? I don’t know if this tripped you up, but I definitely came into the reading expecting the latter and was super confused by the gay romance aspect. I just checked it with the original Chinese, “Male Mengmu,” so it’s definitely the former…

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