Published online by Cambridge University Press: 14 April 2022
Before they were grandmothers women were mothers-in-law. Until recently they played a major role in the arrangement of their sons’ marriages. Young brides moved into their families, the start of one of the most toxic family relationships. They looked eagerly for signs of pregnancy. If this did not come about they prayed for one, even taking their daughters-in-law to a shrine of Guanyin, the goddess who ‘sends sons’. Son-preference was embedded. Today her shrine on Putuo Island is one of the major pilgrimage sites in China.
Once a pregnancy was established the grandmother-to-be put the mother-to-be on a strict regime. The older women supervised the birth and the month-long sequestration of the new mother, and fed her special foods to encourage the flow of rich milk. The grandmother took control of the infant, tending to it ceaselessly. Babies were held constantly, and even slept with their grandmothers. The aim was to make the baby happy, placid and adorable.
These traditions have weakened but not disappeared. The dominance of the mother-in-law is weaker – and paternal grandmothers coexist with maternal ones. Baby worship continues.