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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