It is not uncommon for Chinese men to be asked, ostensibly in jest: “If your mother and wife both fell into deep water, whom would you save first?” Like in many countries, clashes between women and their mothers-in-law are a fact of life in Chinese households, not to mention the subject of many popular onscreen storylines.
The relationship has long been fraught. In traditional Chinese marriages, sons brought wives into the family home, and daughters were married off to live in their husbands’ households. All women were expected to share the household chores, and the husband’s mother traditionally wielded absolute power over her daughter-in-law.
The relationship between mothers and their daughters-in-law grew out of patriarchal family structures in which men were the core of the family, and women dependent upon them. But as social and family structures have evolved, the balance of power has begun to flow toward the younger generation, and children have gradually come to wield more power than their parents.
This shift is reversing the dynamics between mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law, particularly in the Chinese countryside. To a great extent, this is due to migration from rural to urban areas. Today, young rural couples frequently leave their villages in search of work, leaving behind their parents and children. Large families spend much less time living together, reducing the chance of conflict. Population shifts most keenly affect this relationship in terms of family living situations, child-rearing responsibilities, and elderly care arrangements.
In traditional families, patrilocal living arrangements — where women were expected to live with their husbands’ families — were the norm. Even if they settled in their own homes, young couples usually continued to reside in the same village as the man’s parents, in a pattern that still qualified as patrilocal.
The greatest change to marital living situations has been the erosion of this system. The rural population drain has had a major impact on such arrangements; although women still move to their husbands’ villages, young couples now spend the majority of their time working away from the family home. More and more couples rent urban or semi-urban apartments near where they work and try to buy property in the city as soon as they have the financial means. This has left mothers and their daughters-in-law with plenty of space between them.
In a patriarchal family system, children are usually seen as part of the male family line, with responsibility for child care falling to the mother and paternal grandmother. But as young rural mothers often move to cities for work and see their kids just a few times a year, they generally have more amicable relationships with their mothers-in-law. Typically, the younger woman appreciates the work her husband’s mother puts into raising her children, and is also more willing to help her mother-in-law financially. In addition, mothers-in-law tend to think their daughters-in-law work hard in the city to benefit the whole family, and perhaps make more effort to be polite and friendly in the short periods of time the two spend together.
While Chinese family structures traditionally placed high value on filial piety — the duty to obey your parents and care for them in old age — today the concept is in decline. Shrinking rural populations have created families of individuals and left the young unable — and sometimes unwilling — to care for the old. No longer is it always expected that dutiful sons will eventually set up their own households and bring their elderly parents to live under their wives’ care.
Today, older family members must fend for themselves. As long they are still capable of working, the elderly support themselves and try to minimize the burdens they pose to their children by tending their fields or doing odd jobs. Only after they are no longer capable of working do they rely on their children, but even then, some choose alternative sources of support, including their daughters or assisted living facilities.
Underlying the shifting relationship between mothers and their daughters-in-law is the way in which the family as an institution is changing. New approaches to living arrangements, child-rearing, and elderly care have all had a direct impact on the distance between the two, their family life, and their relationship. Their current estrangement is reflective of a basic reality: Families in which one party dominates while the other is subordinate are gradually giving way to more equitable structures.
This equality has not just manifested in the husband-wife relationship, but between mothers and their daughters-in-law as well. Their relationship is no longer defined by the dominance of one over the other, but rather by mutual assistance and cooperation in isolation from one another. Grandmothers help raise their grandchildren, while their daughters-in-law provide for them in their old age. The rest of the time, the two live independently of each other.
In the future, greater equality between mothers and daughters-in-law will become the norm. But while the estrangement brought about by population shifts suggest the two sides are both becoming more independent and equal, from the perspective of gender relations, the implications are far more complex. On one hand, the work of raising children continues to be predominantly the responsibility of women. Intergenerational power shifts have not dramatically increased the power of women within the family unit.
But on the other hand, women — especially young women — are starting to play a bigger role in the economic life of their families. This has led to a corresponding increase in their influence over family affairs. New living arrangements currently serve as a symbol of women’s power. In the future, as such arrangements become mainstream, fathers may take a more active role in raising children, children may cease to be viewed solely as a continuation of the male line, and the distinctions between maternal and paternal grandparents may begin to fade.
Translator: Kilian O’Donnell; editors: Lu Hua and Matthew Walsh.
(Header image: A bride serves tea to her mother-in-law during a wedding ceremony in Xiangyang, Hubei province, Oct. 20, 2013. Li Fuhua/IC)