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CONSTRUCTED EMOTIONS: THE BOND BETWEEN MOTHERS AND SONS IN LATE IMPERIAL CHINA* Hsiung Ping-chen The relationship between mothers and sons has attracted much scholarly interest from historians, as well as from social scientists and psychologists, especially since Sigmund Freud put forth his theory of the Oedipus complex. This article will examine mother-son relations in the Ming-Ch'ing household, as well as the environment that nurtured this relationship, the particular expectations Chinese mothers came to have of sons, and the more general implications this bond had for gender issues in Ming-Ch'ing society as a whole. Sociologists and anthropologists studying Chinese families in modern times have observed that a woman in China needs to have sons to secure her position in the family and in society.1 Margery Wolf has explained the particular importance of the mother-son bond (clearly more important than father-son relations on a personal level) through her concept of the "uterine family."2 According to Wolf, women's futures depend on the quality of their relations with their sons, for on these relations lie the mother's single hope for old-age care. Ensuring that this relationship works to the precise effect the mother wishes requires continuous effort—a deliberate process of identity building and emotional construction. It is useful, therefore, to draw upon historical records to investigate the emotional contours of the mother-son bond and how mothers achieved this particular style of relationship. If possible, moreover, such a process ought to be examined not only from the point of view of the mothers, who actively constructed these emotions and this relationship, but also that of the sons, who bore the stamp of this construction throughout their subsequent lives. * I would like to thank the anonymous readers for their useful critiques of this essay. Professors Chang P'eng-yuan, Chang Yu-fa, Patricia Ebrey, Harold Kahn, Susan Mann, Susan Naquin, and Ann Waltner also offered valuable comments at various stages. Charlotte Fürth, James Lee, and Bill Rowe provided expert editorial advice. 1SCe, for instance, Johnson 1975. 2WoIf 1972:32-41, 156-64. Late Imperial China Vol. 15, No. 1 (June 1994): 87-117 87 88Hsiung Ping-chen The main sources employed here are data culled from over eight hundred nien-p'u (chronological biographies) from the Ming-Ch'ing period, supplemented by personal letters, memorial essays, and autobiographical accounts. The compilers of better nien-p 'u, as we know, often made free use of any bits of material they could lay their hands on to reconstruct events as they took place in the life of their subject (p'u-chu). A wide array of poems, family letters, and entries from personal diaries could therefore find their way into the nien-p'u in direct quotation form, giving the product something of an autobiographical quality. In addition, by the Ch'ing period, self-compiled nien-p'u (tzu-ting nien-p'u) had become an increasingly popular genre, with all the advantages and flaws of such literature in any historical culture. In these accounts, mothers in late imperial China were depicted, not unlike those in traditional societies elsewhere, as a symbol of virtue and suffering. No one could have known this better than her own children. Her sons witnessed her daily toil, as did her daughters, and were in a special position to show their sympathy and gratitude as well as to redress her grievances with their own success. The Confucian moral code of filial piety enabled, and in fact required, sons in late imperial China to remember their mother's dedication and misfortune in both emotional and practical ways. Thus, the generally intimate and mutually-reliant mother-son bond took on especially powerful dimensions within the context of the specific construction of gender and familial roles in Ming-Ch'ing China. The situation in late imperial China was further complicated by the fact that the person a boy considered to be his "mother" did not refer exclusively to his biological mother. In the case of a child born to a secondary wife or a concubine, his formal or official mother, called ti-mu, was actually his father's first principal...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-3257
Print ISSN
0884-3236
Pages
pp. 87-117
Launched on MUSE
2011-07-06
Open Access
No
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