China's In-Law Wars Hammer On

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By Adam Minter

At 6 a.m. last Wednesday, residents rushed out of a Shanghai housing compound and discovered the bloody aftermath of the latest episode in what may be China’s most ancient and intractable conflict: the war between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law.

In this case, the carnage was particularly ferocious. Two women, a 60-year-old mother-in-law, and her five-month pregnant daughter-in-law, left a trail of blood from the building to their respective ambulances. The supposed cause of the bloodshed became an immediate Internet sensation:

[They] pounded each other with hammers, resulting in serious injuries and hospitalization for both parties, each uncompromisingly sticking to her own version of events, causing endless distress for the son and husband in question, Mr. Chen.

At the hospital, administrators allowed television cameras to film the battered faces and bodies of the injured women as they mumbled their grievances. From her stretcher, the daughter-in-law insisted that her mother-in-law had used her hammer on herself before turning on her pregnant in-law. The mother-in-law, meanwhile, recited a litany of claims against her daughter–in-law, the most serious of which is that she wasn't filial -– that is, that she failed to show the respect due an elder relative.

None of this -– except the extremity of the violence -– comes as a surprise to most Chinese. Online, the topic of mother-daughter-in-law conflicts is omnipresent, appearing incessantly on advice forums, blogs and microblogs, and is developed at great length on sitcoms and dramas. Take, for example, this characteristic Twitter post on the Sina Weibo microblog:

It’s the middle of the night and a husband and wife are arguing. The husband shouts three times: because she is my mother, because she is my mother, because she is my mother. The mother-daughter-in-law relationship is, for the Chinese people, a 5,000 year old eternally beautiful landscape!

A pessimistic view of mother/daughter-in-law relations doesn't belong exclusively to insomniacs and Internet addicts. In the aftermath of what China’s netizens were calling the “Mother-Daughter Hammer War,” Spicy Love Doctor Wu Di, a popular relationship counselor, columnist and microblogger, was interviewed by the Sina Women’s Channel (a well-trafficked page and microblog owned by the portal). His conclusions were bleak:

Wu Di believes that "mother-and-daughter-in-law discord" is not a new topic of conversation, but rather stories of it date back as far as China’s ancient times. A woman forces her son and daughter-in-law to divorce, causing the married couple's tragic separation. The idea of "mother-and-daughter-in-law as natural enemies" was, at an earlier time, already a universal way of thinking.

Historically, when a young woman goes to live with her husband’s family, she’s expected to maintain her own family name. However, far from being a signifier of independence, the maintenance of that identity was (and perhaps is), a signifier of outsider status, even after children are born. Likewise, a maternal grandmother is commonly referred to as the "outside grandmother." A daughter-in-law’s place (and that of her family) is never certain, and traditionally second-class.

As an outsider, the daughter-in-law is expected to provide grandchildren, demonstrate filial respect and serve the mother-in-law. Chinese literature is filled with examples of how to do this, as is contemporary Chinese media. For example, in 2011, several Chinese media outlets ran a hagiographic piece on an 80-year-old widowed daughter-in-law who had devoted the (presumably) last years of her life to serving her mother-in-law. “Although Tao is now 80 years old, in order to give her mother-in-law a better life she continues to work in the fields, and collects used goods to sell every day,” the English-language China Daily wrote approvingly.

China’s rapid economic and social development over the last decade has put under stress what was once the well-defined, traditional status of mothers-in-law. Ironically, many of those stresses have to do with the rising status of women in contemporary China. No longer is a young woman expected to go and live in her in-law’s home; rather, she’s capable of having her own career, as well as a period of social development independent of her husband and his family. That’s a striking contrast to the generations of women who came of age before China’s gradual economic and social opening in the 1980s, and an occasional cause of conflict.

However, in the popular imagination, those who belong to the post-1980s generation are known as much for being spoiled and selfish as they are for being independent. In large part, this is the result of China’s so-called one-child policy, and the advantages and pressures that a nation of only-children produces.

On May 22, Graceful Girls, a popular Sina Weibo account with more than 581,000 followers, posted a concise parable that summarizes these tensions. It’s been retweeted more than 9,000 times in the last five weeks:

A mother-in-law said to her neighbor: "My daughter-in-law eats a lot but never works, sleeps until noon, and doesn’t do any housework, asks my son to bring things into her room for her to eat, and it really is too much." Her neighbor asks: "How is your daughter doing, her married life is going well?" The mother-in-law replies: "Yes it is, she lives a happy and blessed life, her new family treats her very well, she doesn’t need to do housework, travels during the holidays, she can sleep until noon, and her husband cooks and brings her food."

Last week, Chinese media reported that the country’s divorce rate rose 7.3 percent in 2011. No statistics were provided on why the rate rose, but in recent years several studies have alluded to extramarital affairs as the primary cause. Anecdotes relayed by state-owned media, among other places, aim to show that poor mother-daughter-in-law relations are among the top causes.

For example, last week, the party mouthpiece People’s Daily republished a February article from a small, regional paper that condemned “spoiled” members of the post-80s generation (with divorce rates that range as high as 40 percent) for the breakdown in traditional values –- and thus soaring rates of broken marriages. The original headline, as published in the Xi’an Evening News, summarizes the argument: “The Primary Cause of Divorce in the post-80s Generation: mentally immature, irresponsible, and lacking in patience.”

Yet, this isn't the point of view that enjoys widest currency on China’s microblogs, particularly since the Hammer War:

Wu Di believes that it is a dereliction of duty by a husband if a daughter-in-law who is aware of her mother-in-law's resentment towards herself has to live with that same mother-in-law after marriage. In this case, the husband could be said to be "stupid and cowardly trash," a man who cannot take action, a man who has no position nor capability.

So who should be blamed for the Hammer War? The best source for information on any household scandal is a nosy neighbor, and they didn't disappoint:

In the neighbor’s eyes, the mother-in-law’s temper is admittedly no good, but they claim the daughter-in-law’s is worse. Neighbors say that before the son’s romance, only mother and son lived in that residence. The daughter-in-law moved in not long after she started dating the son, and the incessant arguing soon began. Earlier this year, when the son married the woman now his wife, his mother failed to attend the wedding.

Yet others pointed to another culprit:

Neighbors believe that the responsibility for these course of events lies with Mr. Chen, as he had, before marriage, blindly allowed his girlfriend, now wife, to be rude to his mother.

(Adam Minter, the Shanghai correspondent for the World View blog, is writing a book on the global recycling industry. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the author of this blog post: Adam Minter at

-0- Jun/28/2012 20:30 GMT