Episode 53: In-law Conflicts — part 1

Click here to listen

The love between a mother and her child especially her son is special. According to the book art of loving by Erich Fromm, “In the ideal case, mother’s love does not try to prevent the child from growing up, does not try to put a premium on helplessness. Mother should have faith in life, hence not be overanxious, and thus not infect the child with her anxiety. Part of her life should be the wish that the child become independent and eventually separate from her.” This is a philosophical and psychological topic. Today we are going to talk about a love tragedy caused by deformed maternal love.

The story is originally a poem from Northern and Southern dynasties 南北朝, which is between the year 420 ~ 589. The name of the story is called the peafowls to the southeast fly 孔雀东 南飞and along with the anther story Mulan, which is well-known in the west because of Disney, are the two most important Yuefu 乐府poem. Yuefu poem is a type of Chinese poem composed in a folk song style. It is also the longest narrative Yuefu poem with more than 1700 characters.


The name of the poem comes from the first sentence :

Southeast the love-lorn peacock flies. Alack,

At every mile she falters and looks back!

This beginning already set the sad tone of the whole poem.

The main characters of the story are the married couple– the wife Lanzhi Liu 刘兰 芝and the husband Zhongqin Jiao 焦仲卿. In the traditional Chinese households, the married couple usually lived with the husband’s parents even the whole family sometimes. It is still pretty common today for one reason the real estate can be really expensive in the cities, for another reason, it is children’s responsibilities to take care of their parents in the traditional value of Confucianism. This causes conflicts between the in-laws especially between the wife and her mother in law. There is a Chinese saying that, the daughter in law finally becomes the mother in law after years 媳妇 熬成婆to describe this unsolved problem throughout one thousand of years of Confucianism history.

The story happened in Han dynasty 汉朝. In the poem, it says Lanzhi learned how to weave, embroider, sew when she was a kid. She could play lute, which is a kind of string musical instrument and she knew classics, prose and verse. So she was an excellent female by the standards for women in the ancient China. She married to Zhongqin at the age of 17, which was typical at that time in China. Zhongqin worked as an official in the government far away from home. Lanzhi lived with her mother in law at home. She weaved from the dawn to the midnight and did what she could at the households. Still, she was berated for the poor work by her mother in law. She told her husband that ,”if I failed to serve your mother well like what she thinks, she should just let me go home. ” Zhongqin loved his wife and also very respectful to his mom. He went to talk with his mom and said,”marrying Lanzhi was more than I deserved. As man and wife we love each other and only death shall separate us. Lanzhi did her best. Why do you treat her with unkindness?” You can imagine what a mom would feel when her son tried to against her for another woman even it was his wife. “You foolish! Your wife lacks graces. She is too self-willed. The sight of her offends my eyes. A proper wife I have in mind for you. Her name is Luofu 罗敷, a beautiful and smart lady who is a perfect match for you. Now listen! You must let your wife Lanzhi go away. Don’t you dare let her stay. ” I know it sounds weird. Parents did have a great impact on their children’s marriage even after getting married in ancient China.The younger generations have to obey the older generations. If the husband decided to divorce, the wife had nothing to say.

Zhongqin kelt down and said with determination, “if you cast out Lanzhi, I wouldn’t marry anybody else.” At this the mother’s fury knew no bounds, she ranted “is reverence for aged parents dead? Defend a wife and disobey a mother’s wish? She is just a stranger in the house I can’t bear now.” Zhongqin didn’t want to argue more with his mother and went his way out. What could he do? He did’t want to hurt either his wife or his mom. In tears, Zhongqin sought Lanzhi. He confessed his love would never change, “but it’s best for you to go back home for now. When my work is done, I will return and bring you back. Forgive me now.” The next morning, Lanzhi put on her embroidered silk skirt, silk sliders, braided her hair with jeweler. A peerless beauty did she look. To Zhongqin’s mother, she bade farewell and said,”I am of humble origin. Stupid and shallow. A improper mate for any noble heir. Yet you have treated me with kindliness and I am shameful not serving you well. Forgive me I cannot serve you more.”

With tears and a heavy heart, she took her seat in the cart. Zhongqin was riding a horse at front. At the crossing when four roads met, Zhongqin got off the horse and went inside the cart. Seating side by side, he whispered,”my love shall last to all eternity! I will come back as soon as my work is done. Let not your heart be sore!” Lanzhi was moved, “if you cannot bear to give me up, then come before it is too late. Be your love strong, enduring as the rocks. Be mine resistant as the creeping vine! My brother, the tyrant of the household is what I fear. He would not treat me with kindness.” In sorrow, the loving couple parted.


What happened next? We will continue in our next episode.


Art of loving by Erich Fromm

孔雀东 南飞The peafowls to the southeast fly

乐府诗 Yuefu poem

2 thoughts on “Episode 53: In-law Conflicts — part 1

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s