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.