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Bitter Rivalries - Behind The Facade Of The Harmonious Chinese Family

In the Chinese-speaking world, traditional values play a central role in public discourse and education. The governments in mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore promote concepts of filial piety and social propriety, which they regard as natural, pragmatic and lofty principles. Many citizens, too, are proud of such values and define them, more or less consciously, as important elements of their own individual identity. 

According to Zhang Lihua, a resident scholar at the prestigious Carnegie–Tsinghua Center for Global Policy and a professor at the Department of International Relations at Tsinghua University, “[t]he traditional cultural values that influence the psyche of the Chinese people are harmony, benevolence, righteousness, courtesy, wisdom, honesty, loyalty, and filial piety. Of these, the core value is harmony,” which means “proper and balanced coordination between things”.

Confucian ideals were belittled and denigrated in China under Mao Zedong (for example during the "Criticise Lin, Criticise Confucius" campaign). The reform and opening-up policies initiated by Deng Xiaoping in the 1970s ushered in an era not only of modernisation, but also of re-evaluation of the old Chinese culture and ethics. The Communist state now seeks to incorporate Confucian values into its official ideology (Confucius is quoted 31 times in Xi Jinping's book The Governance of China). 

“Given China's brilliant, longstanding culture, Chinese have adopted many fine traditions,” writes the government-sponsored website Women of China. “Family traditions, which embody families' established moral standards and ways of life, are part of Chinese people's fine traditions.”

But are these traditions as noble and pure as the official discourse assumes? 

I shall argue that neither in theory nor in practice was the traditional Chinese family ever a universal model of virtue. Chinese-speaking societies often avoid to mention polygamy, concubinage, arranged marriages, women’s low status and foot-binding, which were important aspects of China’s old family ideology. This collective amnesia is but a way to idealise the past. 

One aspect of the old Chinese family which the official discourse rarely pays attention to is the fact that men could have more than one wife as well as concubines, as long as they had the financial means to support them. 

While such practices have been abolished by law, they still exist unofficially, thriving under the surface of family harmony and happiness.

Conformity to social roles and hierarchies – euphemistically called “harmony” – is supposed to guarantee that everyone internalises “proper” moral values and fulfils the expectations of society. The truth is that the rigidity of the Chinese social fabric creates deep conflicts, tensions and power struggles. 

The following two examples illustrate how social roles, hierarchies and individual ambition may lead to bitter antagonism and, ultimately, even to extreme actions. The first story is taken from a recent newspaper article published on Xinwen Chenbao. The second story is an excerpt from the late-Ming novel The Golden Lotus

The Enraged Xiaosan

At a friend’s party, Mr. Gong met a young woman surnamed Wu. Not long afterwards, they started a relationship and moved in together. Mr. Gong told her that he already had a wife, and Wu replied that she did not mind. It was a clear deal. Wu agreed to be his xiaosan, i.e. his mistress. Mr. Gong paid her a monthly allowance of 20,000 renminbi (around US$3,222) for her “expenses”. Their relationship lasted for four years. 

When Mr. Gong’s wife found out about his extramarital affair, he promised that he would break up with his mistress. In order to do so, however, he had to pay his xiaosan a “break-up fee”. Such fees, as well as monthly allowances, are proofs of the business-like nature of extramarital affairs in China. Although they are obviously not universal, these extramarital unions are common enough to have generated a set of unofficial laws followed by the parties involved.

Mr. Gong agreed to pay his mistress a “break-up fee” of 100,000 renminbi. Wu was content with the sum, until she discovered that Mr. Gong had a “little fourth”, that is, a second mistress. Wu also found out that her own “break-up fee” was only half of that of the other mistress. This sent Wu into a rage.

She bought a tank of gasoline and went to Mr. Gong’s house. As soon as he opened the door, he was doused in gasoline and set on fire by his ex-mistress. Over 50% of Mr. Gong’s body was burnt. As the fire got out of control, Wu, too, sustained serious burns.

A court in Songjiang District convicted Wu of arson and sentenced her to ten years in prison. Between January 2014 and July 2015, 3 of the 6 cases of arson heard by the court originated from love disputes. 

The Golden Lotus

Ximen is a powerful merchant. A lecherous and ambitious man, he has six wives, who are jealous of each other and are constantly engaged in power plays to gain their master’s favour. When his sixth wife, Mistress Ping, gives birth to a son, he showers her with love and affection. In the following passage, the novel’s protagonist, the beautiful but ruthless Golden Lotus, carries out a scheme to harm her rival.  

Presently the wailing of a child was heard from the bedchamber, and then Mother Kai appeared in the doorway, announcing, with a portentous expression: "A little boy has arrived. Just inform the master of the house; he ought to pay handsomely for the glad tidings!" Ximen, to whom Moon Lady [Ximen’s first wife] brought the joyful news, quickly washed his hands and fell upon his knees, expressing his thanks to Heaven, Earth, and his ancestors by an extravagant offering of incense, while he prayed that they would bless an protect mother and child, bath and swaddling-bands. 

There was only one person who did not join in the general rejoicings. Golden Lotus, on hearing that a man-child was born, had flung herself upon her bed, and wept bitterly ...

Golden Lotus, sitting in her pavilion, suffered more and more, as day followed day, from the chilling solitude that now brooded over the kingfisher-pattern pillows, and between the lotus embroidered hangings of her couch. These days, whenever he came home, which was seldom, he rarely paid a visit to her pavilion, but staggered or ran to the nursery in Mistress Ping's quarters to see how his beloved man-child was getting along. And so, knowing nothing of his other activities, Golden Lotus developed a terrible brooding hatred for his child. Besides, her body was aching for a child of her own …
17th century illustration of The Golden Lotus (source: Wikipedia)

Golden Lotus kept in her pavilion a large and handsome ram cat [called] Snow-lion … Every day he had an abundant meal, not of bad stockfish, but of fresh meat. It was no wonder that he became fatter and more vigorous every day, and his white fur was so thick and so long that one could have hidden a hen's egg in it. Recently Gold Lotus had been teaching him to scramble for bits of meat wrapped in a red cloth, and to extract the toothsome contents from its silken wrapping with his claws.

One day Mistress Ping laid her child, wrapped in his little red silk dress, on a low divan on the open verandah of her pavilion, leaving him in the charge of the maid Pear Blossom. She herself had left the pavilion for the great house, and the nurse, Zhu Yi, was seated in the adjoining room, eating her dinner. In an unguarded moment, when the maid Pear Blossom had just turned her back, and had begun a little chat with the nurse through the partition, Sister Fifth's [=Golden Lotus’] white cat suddenly appeared on the rail of the verandah. When he saw the child lying before him in his red silk dress, the cat may well have taken him for a large piece of meat wrapped in red cloth. In short, he sprang upon the divan with one mighty leap, and as his mistress had long trained him to do, he began vigorously to work at the bundle with his claws, scratching and scrabbling in order to tear the cover from its soft contents. 

In a few moments the whole of the poor child's body was covered with bleeding scratches. Rushing onto the verandah as they heard his pitiful cries of distress, the nurse joined the maid, and gazed with horror upon the injuries which had been afflicted. The poor little creature was crying no longer. He lay there mute, his silken dress half torn from his body, his tiny arms and legs shaken by convulsive spasms, his eyes turned fixedly upward so that only the whites were visible.

In the meantime Moon Lady had arrived. When she understood what had been happening she sent for Golden Lotus. The nurse and the maid insisted it was Sister Fifth's white cat which had attacked the child. Golden Lotus, being questioned, placidly inquired: "Who insists that it was my Snow-lion?" Moon Lady pointed to the nurse and the maid. "They can both swear witness to it." "Now look at those two lying wenches!" said Golden Lotus coolly. "At the time my Snow-lion was lying quietly on my bed." Moon Lady did not know what to think. "How could the Fifth's cat have got in here at all?" she asked, turning to the two witnesses. "He has often jumped into the verandah before," replied Pear Blossom. "Then why did he never touch the child before?" said Gold Lotus, triumphantly. "You see by that how ridiculous your assertions are." And she angrily turned her back and retired to her pavilion. 

Worthy reader, this was, of course, a secret blow of Gold Lotus'. With increasing fury she had been forced to realise how Ximen, for the sake of the child, favoured the Sixth in a hundred ways, and if she expressed a desire for anything he gave her ten times what she asked. Golden Lotus was convinced that it was only on account of the child that Ximen preferred her rival, and that he would favour her if the child were no longer there. It must therefore be removed. The training of her cat had been a coldly calculated scheme. The child, who was timid by nature, was to be frightened to death by the beast.

(The Golden Lotus, excerpt adapted from Clement Egerton's translation)

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