Hi friends! I’m glad to welcome back Ekaterine Xia to ALBTALBS! She’s going to be out APAHM hero this year, and has written other really thoughtful posts before, which I hope you’ll check out of you missed them. (Lime, WTF are all those letters and what do they mean? SAPAHM = Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Heritage Month!) So without further ado… another incredible post by Ekaterine!
On the Portrayal of Mothers … and Confucius!
I have mommy issues.
Specifically, I have issues with how mothers are portrayed in fiction, particularly science fiction and fantasy.
Even within Romancelandia, SFFR has a lot of mommy issues. Contemporary does much better, and I have to ask if it’s because contemporary wasn’t influenced by men and their favorite tropes in the same way science fiction and fantasy romance was.
It took me a long time to put that niggling unease into concrete examples, but once you start the list, things start to look pretty bad really quickly.
Why is it that so often mothers are killed for emotional impact? (Bambi)
Why is it that so often There Can Only Be One? Whether it’s “there can only be one miraculous child after which the kickass mother cannot bear any more children” or “this kickass woman is, for some reason (cough. Misogyny. cough) unable to have children” or “the kickass heroine is going to die after laboring to bring her child into the world”. Bonus awful points if the now orphaned child is a daughter. (This is never explicitly laid out in Disney movies, but note how often the Disney princess is an only child)
Why is it that almost all step-mothers are horror-shows, to the point where step-mother is a shorthand for “abusive”? (Cinderella, obvs)
Why is it that so often when mothers in SFF aren’t dead or missing, they’re benevolently neglectful, Not There For Some Really Good Made-up Reason, or oblivious to what’s going on? (Sleeping Beauty, Lion King, Buffy)
This unfortunate trend tends to interface really poorly with the stereotypes of Asian parents.
Suddenly, not only do you have to contend with dead mothers, absent mothers, but outright problematic mothers. I say problematic, but let’s be honest, what I mean in some cases is abusive.
Here I’m just going to come out and admit I have a fraught relationship with my mother and so it’s taken me a lot of time to notice and address mommy issues in fiction.
Particularly my own.
Somehow, despite my best efforts and wanting to write and read sweet fluffy parent-child relationships, my heroines often end up in different worlds from their mothers. Literally.
Note, I am sat in the common room of our apartment complex as I write this because my mother had another huge blowup at me, so I get it.
I really do.
My mother is abusive and my father either doesn’t get it or thinks it’s easier to keep the peace by agreeing with her and it all falls so neatly into the stereotypes.
Write what you know, right?
Write within accepted world-building canon, right?
It would be so easy to talk about tiger mothers and how Confucius screwed us all up and keep the narratives of “oh, Chinese parents are just strict-leaning-toward-abusive” going.
But let’s not.
Or rather, I’ve been moving tentatively towards not in my own writing, now that I’m aware of some of the hidden currents.
Not to say that other writers, particularly fellow diaspora writers, should not write according to what moves them, but now that I’ve noticed, I want to consciously work against the tropes instead of strengthening the dominant threads.
Besides, if we’re not talking personal stories, a lot of what fuels the tropes simply isn’t true, or is distorted truth that needs more teasing apart.
For one, although Confucius wasn’t above reproach despite being called the patron saint of all teachers, he is also the victim of all those “Confucius said”s.
“When the ruler calls for the death of his ministers, his ministers have no choice but to accept death. When a father desires the death of his son, his son must die.” (君要臣死，臣不得不死)
That is commonly attributed to Confucius, as a sort of “look how backwards and awful Chinese society is, that the most respected philosopher would say such a thing and be venerated for it” gotcha.
Confucius never said such a thing.
Fact is, Confucius was always in favor of firing the boss that you didn’t or couldn’t respect.
Confucius said that a ruler must act as befits a ruler; his ministers must act as befits being subordinate; a father must act as befits a father; and finally, that son must act as a son should.
Only when those in power act as they should, do as they ought, then one can expect those beneath them to perform their duties.
Confucius also said, “when a ruler is righteous, his people do not require orders to act as they ought; when a ruler is not righteous, then even though he orders his people, they will not obey”.
That’s idealism, clearly, as we can see from how politics play out, but point is, Confucius was apparently never about blind obedience to authority.
For two, sure, there are a lot of tiger moms out there, but it’s worth looking at why because the literature doesn’t support the extent of tiger mothering that goes on. (we can talk about why it’s always tiger moms rather than tiger parents later, I suppose.)
First, the literature.
Mengzi’s mother moved three times, from a place near the cemetery to a house near the market, finally to a home near the school. She did this because as a child, Mengzi would imitate what people were doing, y’know, as kids do. And she thought that perhaps it wasn’t the greatest for her child to be playing at funeral services or imitating the butcher at work. Eventually, he settled down and started being more interested in learning when they moved near a school. That didn’t last, however. When he played hooky from school one day, she cut the bolt of cloth she was weaving right down the middle, telling an appalled mini-Mengzi that education required dedication.
This story in the Trimetric Classic appears before “to rear without educating is the fault of the father; to be lax in teaching is the laziness of the teacher”. (養不教父之過；教不嚴師之惰) And that in turn, comes before “jade is nothing without shaping”. （玉不琢不成器）
Clearly, the ideal was to have a firm but gentle hand when educating kids.
And here we move into the why.
I have suspicions about Taiwan and martial law, about imperialism and colonialism, about China and the Cultural Revolution, but let’s just look at the question of what it takes to survive and thrive as an immigrant.
My parents actually weren’t super strict about academics and extracurriculars, but even so, I heard a lot about how necessary it was to excel.
Because there were no safety nets. There were no other options. It was do or die for them and that sort of survivalist mindset gets pushed on further than it needs to.
It’s complicated by mental health issues on both sides of my family, so I’m agnostic about how being ground into the dirt necessarily produces harsh parenting, just saying that it’s a major factor. Lime mentioned that there’s PTSD and bad coping mechanisms and unacknowledged trauma and yes, all of that.
Not to justify anything, mind. More of a note to address the complexities more thoroughly instead of resorting to cookie-cutter awfulness if I write such characters.
But all that aside, I feel very strongly that it’s time to do something different for a change.
I’m ready to move on from the established narratives of being the struggling immigrants, the long-suffering downtrodden, the constant look towards the West for enlightenment.
(How Journey to the West used to refer to India and then referred to Europe/America is a whole other blog post.)
I want to write (and read!) about accomplished, joyful mothers and loving fathers.
I want to see a China that is not hidebound, misogynistic, and auto-assumed to be more backwards than everyone else.
I want to see all the stories of women warriors, poet-kings, and all the complicated luxurious glory that could be found in a few millennia of history. Poetry! Pottery! Weaving! Painting! Complicated rituals that have meaning and carry stories!
Maybe there’s a common narrative that threads through all the stories of my family, but now that I have seen it, I can cut it short and weave something different.
I know where I come from and what sort of soil grew the (bitter?) fruit that spawned me, but part of writing SFFR for me is imagining a different world where we can all be better than what came before.
Just as I choose to write stories where my characters find solutions and happy endings instead of enduring dystopias and worrying about annihilation, I also choose to imagine moving past generational trauma to reach for what Confucius held up as an ideal.
I don’t know that I’ll ever have children and so much of it is because of my parents, but I like to think that if I ever do, the act of imagining loving, supportive, non-judgmental parents and fleshing them out in my fiction is the first step in cutting the threads of what awful came before.
Thread by thread, inch by inch. Eventually, I can weave something new and beautiful out of the same silk that so many women before me have spun.
Ahahaha omfg. :X I’d forgotten a) Classical Chinese and b) you know, how Confucius was so … Confucius. Also… yeah – sooooo many issues here. LET’S DISCUSS IN THE COMMENTS! 😛