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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.
As I wrote about Chinese grandmothers I though much about my own grandmothers and about my grandchildren. In between was my mother, possibly the best grandmother ever. I saw the similarities and dissimilarities between my family and other families, in China and other countries. This chapter provides examples of both.
Most of all I saw the pleasures of being a grandmother, the joy given by grandchildren. The key role of grandmothers, to give love and care to her grandchildren, is universal – as are the rewards.
The practice of leaving infants and children to the care of their grandmothers has a long history. Separation could be the result of parental death or inadequacy, or an outcome of war or political turbulence. Separation could be related to a father being away to work in another part of China or abroad. The Communist Party’s victory in 1949 precipitated a mass flight from the Mainland to Taiwan; soldiers had to abandon their families. In the Mao Era millions of young people had to leave home. Some were assigned to jobs; some were sent to the borderlands or to labour camps. Their children were left with their grandmothers.
As modern educational opportunities grew, young men, some already married, left home to study in universities or abroad. In the Reform Era hundredsof thosuands have gone abroad to study, many leaving small children behind them. From the 1980s on millions of young peasants have left home to work in factories and in construction. As before, the grandmother accepted without question the obligation to care for her grandchildren, perhaps for years on end.
Orphans were adopted within the family. Impersonal adoption was almost unknown until the One Child policy came in to force (1980s). After that numbers of baby girls were given up for adoption, many in the West.
Grandfathers took great pride in their grandchildren and in the continuation of the family line, but they contributed far less to their families than did their wives. As they aged they moved into a pleasant, quiescent stage of life. There were/are many gentle, calming pursuits to pass the time: keeping songbirds, practising taiji, doing calligraphy, writing poetry. Old men spent time in the company of other old men, often in teahouses or parks. Their remaining family responsibilities were agreeable. The literate ones taught their grandchildren calligraphy. They were responsible for the complex practices of choosing the grandchildren’s names. They passed on family history and lore.
Affluent men could practice polygamy. A woman could only marry once, but her husband could take as many concubines as he wanted – and could afford. He might have children who were younger than his oldest grandchildren. Polygamous families were usually full of conflict, far from the men’s ideal. Formal polygamy is now outlawed, though the practice of keeping a ‘little wife’, in a separate establishment, is not.
Grandmothers found/find many ways of making old age enjoyable. They grow scented, flowering plants, indoors and outdoors. They sew and knit. Shopping tests their wits – in the past dealing with street hawkers and market stalls, now online. Home entertainment included playing musical instruments and games of skill, chief amongst them mahjong. Entertainment has expended dramatically in the Reform Era, in the home (television, streaming) and outside; public parks have become places for the ederly to dance, sing and play games.
Gossip was once a mainstay of the life of old women, within the home and in the neighbourhood. In the Mao Era old women were enlisted to watch out for politically incorrect behaviour and to enforce new rules. The advent of modern communications has reduced in-person gossip, but it still has uses, not least in the search for suitable matches for grandchildren.
In the Reform Era the horizons of old people have expanded. They can travel, embark on new careers; those widowed can remarry. Their grandchildren remain the centre of their lives, even if some of the behaviour of modern youth is incomprehensible.
Old age often arrived long after women became grandmothers. In traditional China the elderly were entitled to a golden old age; loving care was repayment for the great efforts they had made in their youth and middle age. Old people should bask in respect and whatever comforts the family could provide. The ideal died in the Mao Era, when the stress was on youth, revolting against the old world and its living representatives, old people.
Respect for age has been revived in the Reform Era. Young people are obliged by customs and by law to support their elders. With limited pensions and health care, plus rising life expectancy, this may be a burden for the young. The number of young people started to shrink with the introduction of the One Child per Family policy in the 1980s. The 4–2–1 syndrome emerged: two parents with one child supporting four grandparents. An extreme form is 8–4–2–1, with the addition of great-grandparents. Recently the Chinese government has recognised the problem and encourages couples to have two or three children.
Theformal traditional culture was the province of men. Grandmothers, many of them illiterate until recently, did not partcipate in this culture. Theirs was the rich popular culture of stories and legends, which they transmitted to their grandchildren as they cared for them, talked to them and entertained them.
Theirs was also the world of religion, spirits and ghosts. They prayed for their treasures at temples and shrines, they found ways to protect them from malevolent spirits. They were the trasmitters of an immense informal, oral culture. Much of this culture survived Maoist attacks on religion and superstition; grandmothers were unwitting agents of subversion. The old popular culture has rebounded strongly in the Reform Era.
Many grandmothers practised informal medicine, as midwives and healers. Traditional Chinese medicine was the province of men.
A child’s first language was and often still is a dialect, learnt from grandmothers. Standard language came later, at school. Many children became bilingual, in standard Chinese and a dialect. If the dialect carried prestige (Beijing or Shanghai) then being bilingual was an advantage in later life.
The future of the old is a matter of concern for Chinese families and for the government. Increasing life expectancy, a dearth of good pensions and the expense of health care mean that old people may be a drain on their families’ resources. While still fit, grandmothers are a great benefit to their families, but when they become frail they may be a burden. As their lives lengthen they are supported by fewer descendants than would have been the case in earlier times. The desire for longevity, even immortality, is deeply rooted in Chinese culture. Diet, medication, gentle exercise, prayer are all means to achieve longevity. There is a growing ‘silver market’ in China, to provide for the ederly, but retirement homes are not popular with old people and reflect poorly on a family.
COVID-19 has had a disastrous impact on the elderly in many countries. The impact in China is not known, though the virus seems to have done less damage in its country of origin than elsewhere.
Death has traditionally been regarded in China as something to be prepared for, not as something to be feared, a taboo subject. As age came on grandmothers prepared for their end. If the family did not have a graveyard they arranged a grave site. They had a coffin made, of the most expensive wood they could afford. They ordered a set of grave clothes. The set aside money for the funeral. The division of property was done by customs; wills were not legal documents but moral exhortations to descedents.
In the Mao Era most of these practices were considered feudal and outlawed, in favour of cremation without ceremony. In the Reform Era many have come back, though cremation is encouraged. The dead live on. In the past they joined the ancestors. Now the focus is on commemorating individuals. At the Qingming Festival families remember the dead and provide them with paper replicas of what they may need in the afterlife.
In a breach with tradition, neither of China’s twentieth-century leaders has been buried. Mao Zedong lies in the centre of Tiananmen Square. Chiang Kai-shek is in a coffin in Taoyuan (Taiwan), waiting to be buried in his home town.
Grandmothers were household managers. They assigned household duties to their daughters, daughters-in-law and, in wealthier households, servants. They supervised food prepartion for daily meals, and for storerooms. They directed the handcraft work that made households self-sufficient in clothing, bedding and shoes, and taught the younger women handcraft skills. In many parts of China handcrafted goods were produced in the home for the market, including for export. The sales brought in income for the family.
Grandmothers marshalled the preparations for family festivals, notably marriages, and for the many festivals that punctuated the year, most importantly the New Year, which demanded the attendance of the whole family. Grandmothers supervised the preparation of food, clothing and ritual items, for an occasion that cemented the family together. Family celebrations went into abeyance from 1937, through twelve years of war and during the Mao Era. They are now back in full force. Hundreds of millions go home in the run-up to the New Year. For labour migrants the two-week holiday is the only time they spend at home with their children.