Archive for April, 2008

In-laws

Wednesday, April 30th, 2008

Well, as soon as I talk about “brothers are like one’s own limbs”, I am presented with that cynical Chinese saying: “Brothers are like one’s limbs; spouses are like mere clothes ( 兄弟如手足,夫妇如衣服).” Yes, I’ve heard it before, from mistaken Chinese women criticizing traditional Chinese culture.

Why, that saying is downright untrue: traditional Chinese culture never denigrates the relationship between husband and wife to be mere clothes! At every wedding, the traditional Chinese wish is “to grow old with white hair together, to forever unite the hearts as one ( 白头皆老,永结同心).” So what are these people talking about?

Well, actually, they then say, the problem is that with the advocacy of family closeness in traditional Chinese culture, while the men have deep feelings for even their brothers there are no comparable feelings for the wives. This, it is said, proves that women must always engage in a bitter rivalry with their husbands’ relatives for affection and devotion. It’s either the wife or the in-laws, there’s no having both.

Ah, so that’s the problem! Tsk, tsk, tsk, when looked at from the viewpoint of traditional, Confucian ideology, how foolish for a woman to set herself up against her own in-laws! It is very foolish to view relations among people as a zero-sum game: if one loves his brothers the more, one must love his wife the less, and vice versa. Only fools live their lives as zero-sum games. No, the matter should be viewed this way instead: how much better for one’s husband if he has not only his wife’s love, but also that of his brothers!

True, true, back in the old days some (not all!) in-laws had been bad to the wives. But that happened not when the core Confucian principles were being followed, it happened when they were being violated! It is in accordance with the core Confucian principles for husband and wife to love each other deeply; it is a deviancy from the same principles for husbands to have “no feelings” for their wives.

From the point of view of the core Confucian principle of Cardinal Obligations being supreme, there is no conflict of interest between a wife and her in-laws. Her husband owes her the obligation of building a life together, just as she owes him the same obligation in return. He and his brothers mutually owe each other the obligation of mutual help and mutual support, and that can only be in line with the wife’s interest of building a good life together with her husband! The fact is that, far from having a fundamental conflict of interest, a woman and her in-laws have a fundamental convergence of interest. That’s why both the negative saying about in-laws and the negative attitude towards in-laws, as foolish as both are cynical, should be completely discarded.

Feng Xin-ming


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Siblings are Like One’s Own Limbs

Sunday, April 27th, 2008

“Brothers are like one’s own limbs” (兄弟如手足) is an old Chinese saying that all kids brought up in the traditional Chinese way know by heart. Of course, nowadays, the sexes having to be explicitly mentioned equally in our speech, we would have to say “siblings are like one’s own limbs” since just saying “brothers” is no longer considered to also include the feminine equivalent, i.e. sisters. At any rate, kids brought up the traditional Chinese way know the saying by heart because everyone who is an elder to them, as well as all the culture around them, i.e. parents, grandparents, teachers, relatives, textbooks, books for children, magazines for children, and so forth, drill the saying into the kids over and over. All around the kids the prevailing, traditional Chinese culture emphasizes that siblings must love each other, stick by each other, help each other, and work together with each other their entire lives.

Children brought up the traditional Chinese way are told the story of the king who summoned all his sons, the seven princes. He gave each prince one arrow to break, which was done easily. Then he gave each seven arrows bundled together to break, which none could do. “Ah,” the king said, “Each one of you by yourself can be broken easily, but if you all unite and pull together, you will never be broken.”

Kids raised in the traditional Chinese way know that they are lucky to have siblings and know to treasure and value siblings. Whether they actually always do it or not, kids raised in the traditional Chinese way know that the older siblings are supposed to help and guide the younger ones, and that the younger siblings are supposed to be respectful to the older ones. They know that siblings should not fight, that it is wrong to fight, and that it is very shameful for siblings to fight.

Never, never do they hear from their elders or from school that it’s natural for siblings to engage in hostilities or even to physically fight because it’s “sibling rivalry”! Never, never is fighting among siblings tolerated with mere annoyance or even condoned with a chuckle. If it comes to light that siblings have been fighting, there is always reprimand. Unlike today’s parents who rely on their natural maternal or paternal instinct, which favors the younger child, and thus always scold the older child for not having been accommodating enough to the younger one no matter how unreasonable, for kids raised in the traditional Chinese way the younger one is always in the wrong to have hit the older one for the younger one is to treat the older sibling with respect.

Yes, kids raised the traditional Chinese way know they are to treat, whether they always practice it or not, siblings like one’s own limbs.

By the way, that wasn’t so long ago: I was a child in Asia in the early sixties and I was engulfed in that traditional Chinese culture. I guess it simply disappeared during the seventies.

Feng Xin-ming


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