Stories about Motherhood

Both of the readings for tomorrow’s class were really interesting. Individually I think each story was strongly connected to, and made significant claims about motherhood. However, I’m having some difficulties thinking about these stories in relation to one another.

I think the story “The Mother of Meng K’o of Tsou” from The Position of Women in Early China is perhaps a more straightforward story than the selection from Li Yu’s Silent Operas. “The Mother of Meng K’o of Tsou” very clearly seems to portray a traditional and ideal version of motherhood. It neatly sums up the roles and duties of a proper mother. Particularly, this story highlights three key characteristics of good mothers—a concern for the environment your child is raised in, a duty to provide instruction to your child, and sacrifice.

The story of “The Mother of Meng K’o of Tsou” begins with the anecdotes of Meng Mu moving three times to ensure that her son is raised in the proper environment. She surrounds him in an educational environment and thus he becomes a scholar. Additionally, the story also focuses on moments in which Meng Mu instructs her son in the proper way to behave. For example, on page 41 she states, “It is proper etiquette that when one is about to enter a door to ask who is within and thus one attains to proper respect.” On page 40, Meng Mu imparts some wisdom onto her son about his education by stating that his aloofness towards his studies is the same as her cutting away the strings of her loom. Finally, as the fable closes Meng-Mu directly explains the role of a woman and her duty to follow the instruction of her son when he is full-grown. In this way the story also suggests that mothers also must make sacrifices for their children.

Although, the story of Meng Mu is interesting I think it’s particularly intriguing when you consider it alongside the story “A Male Mencius’s Mother Raises Her Son Properly By Moving Hosue Three Times”. Firstly, I’m intrigued by the fact that this story is also considered so centrally focused on mothers. A large portion of the story is focused on the relationship of Ruilang and Jifang and the appropriateness of their interactions. In fact Chengxian is only briefly mentioned before he is sent away only to return as a main figure in the story around page 127.

However, the title alone suggests that the story is largely to do with mothers. The title could revolve around the love between Ruilang and Jigang but instead it focuses on mothers and specifically references back to the story “The Mother of Meng K’o of Tsou”.  In addition, to the allusion within the title “A Male Mencius’s Mother…” shares several other elements with “The Mother of…” that draw parallels between the mothers within the story. Ruilang also moves twice to properly raise Chengxian as Meng-Mu did to raise her son. It is also necessary for Ruilang to make sacrifices for her son—dressing as a woman, leaving her home although she does not like to do so. Finally, in the end it’s clear that Chengxian regales Ruilang as a true mother.

After all this has been said I’m a bit confused about the intentions of “A Male Mencius’s…” Are we supposed to see that motherhood is in fact a collection of actions, and characteristics and not to do with biology? In fact Ruilang almost seamlessly takes on the role of a woman and a mother? If so this seems to be a rather flexible definition of motherhood, and even womanhood, considering the very strict definitions of approved relationships that are presented early in the story and again in it’s closing.

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6 thoughts on “Stories about Motherhood

  1. I agree that biology is somewhat disregarded in the role of wife and mother in this particular story, although there’s probably something to be said for Ruilang’s eventual physical transformation with the vagina-like scar and his renaming. I think this story presents a unique perspective on typically gendered roles like wife and mother, but I also read it as saying that motherhood is about actions, not biology (particularly because Ruilang has no blood relation to the child).

  2. I think that while you’re right in saying that it is a flexible definition of motherhood it seems like almost anyone – even those who wouldn’t traditionally be considered mothers – can take on the role, it still is, in fact, a role, and within its definition as a role, it is a very rigidly defined one. There is a clear delineation between what a “good” and a “bad” mother is in the two stories. Motherhood is about actions and the role that one undertakes to perform those actions.

  3. I think you’re both right. The story does assert that motherhood is about actions not biology. I also think your right Julianna in saying that there is a very distinct definition of motherhood. I think I was wrong in saying this was loose just because biology is not that important to the definition. Both stories I think describe the proper way for mothers to act.

    I wonder what you think of the fact though that in the story biology is so easily disregarded in terms of motherhood but is not so easily disregarded when considering “normal/appropriate” relationships. The narrator in the end admits that the story could be seen as a story of love and devotion but that it gets ridiculed because homosexual relationships aren’t natural. So I think it’s a bit conflicted that in one definition biology isn’t important but in the other it is. I’m surprised that heterosexual relationships are considered “natural” yet this same prejudice or idea isn’t also held for the idea that females are naturally mothers. Thoughts?

    • That is an interesting point. I recall in the beginning that the basis of a heterosexual relationship being “normal” and “what the Creator intended” is indeed the fact that “the surplus element should supplement the deficient one” (i.e. biology).

      I think Ruiniang is accepted very easily as a mother because she has performed all of the actions expected of and typical of a mother. By adopting this identity through her behavior (and appearances as well), it is easy to think of him as a mother. Ruiniang doesn’t need to have actually birthed a child for the same reason that surrogate mothers or mothers of adopted children are accepted in society.

      However, a homosexual relationship could never imitate a heterosexual one through behavior or appearances precisely because of the biological differences between a homosexual and heterosexual relationship.

      • re: last paragraph
        I think this story challenges the notion that homosexual relationships cannot approximate heterosexual relationships. Ruilang/Ruiniang is a very devoted partner and parent and definitely serves a subservient role and is bought for a type of marriage, taking a traditionally female role and referred to as a wife even before castration. That s/he moved three times to protect Chengxian parallels the actions of “The Mother of Meng k’o Tsou” account, suggesting that s/he is a “good” mother. However, the narrator does state that “Xu Jifang was the No.1 romantic among devotees of the Southern Mode and You Ruilang the No.1 chaste wife among catamites (133). Though the narrator stresses that this relationship is “unnatural” and Chengxian does suffer in his social relations and job placement, in part, because of his distress about the reality of Jifang and Ruilang/Ruiniang’s relationship, this does seem to describe “real love,” even if it is noted as an outlier amongst same -sex relationships. How are we to read this? Does the narrator suggest that love and family can transcend what was intended by Heaven? Is this just a cautionary tale?

  4. In considering the role of motherhood in these two pieces, I think it’s also interesting to think about the role of fathers, and whether or not that has anything to do with biology. In both pieces, fathers seem to be haunted by death: Meng-tzu’s father died when Meng-tzu was young, and Ruiliang’s father keeps the coffins of his wife and concubine at home while he himself is weak and dying. Both Ruiliang (as Ruiniang) and Meng Mu work tirelessly to keep their sons out of harm’s way (“moving house three times”). While Ruiliang’s father, too, warns him against the advances of older men, in the end, he forfeits his son to Jifang’s money and advances, albeit to fund the funerals of his wife, concubine, and himself.

    However, looking at the relationship between Ruiliang, Jifang and Jifang’s first wife, there occurs a destabilization of the roles of biological mothers and fathers. No one who really rears Chengxian is actually biologically related to him. While under the care of Jifang’s first wife, he is raised by a wet nurse, and after the death of Jifang, he is raised by Ruiliang. Yet both of these people contribute to the role of mothers in Chengxian’s life. Indeed, Ruiliang, especially, displays the filial piety Meng Mu mentions in “The Mother of Meng K’o of Tsou” as central to the duty of a mother (42) in being obedient to both husband and son.

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