Have you ever sucked or chewed on raw sugarcane before? I have. My auntie grew sugarcane on her small plot of land and I loved walking to the top of the hill to find her. Through my eyes as a child, sugarcanes were gigantic plants that were stretching to the sky. My auntie would cut off the sugarcane segments and removed the husks for me to suck the juice out of the sugarcane stalks, in her crazy wild land with chickens and ducks. I would walk home with a few stalks of sugarcane on my shoulders. Sucking and chewing on the sugarcane stalks were the only and the best way that I knew of to enjoy the juice. I did not need huge roller mills to squish the sugar cane stalks.
Every Chinese New Year, I would walk under the scorching sun to visit my auntie, in my little red dress. I offered her some sweet tangerines for good luck, and she would shower me with sweets, but only two Malaysian dollars in the New Year red envelope called hongbao. In other better-off families, I would normally get four or ten dollars.
I thought my auntie was my father’s birth sister. I realised as an adult that she was actually adopted as a baby, reared as a daughter and was promised to marry my father. They grew up as brother and sister, but they were meant to marry each other, until my father ran away and refused to marry her.
My auntie is a Child Bride.
Rearing a girl to be the future daughter-in-law
“Child Bride” is a term that evokes disgust and sympathy. In Chinese, child brides are called 童养媳 (tóng yǎng xí), literally ‘child, rear, daughter-in-law’. Since the middle period of the Qing dynasty at around 200 years ago, the practice of keeping child brides was popular in an agricultural society in the southern regions of China, such as Fujian and Canton. As emigrants spread across Taiwan and the Southeast Asia, the child bride practice became widespread in these regions.
Both my grandmothers kept a child bride intended for their sons. Both child brides later married outside of our family, as one left the hometown in south China to work in Singapore, and was later unable to return, and my father ran away from his child bride in Johor Bahru in the south of Malaysia. My parents still emphasised that these ladies were meant to be child brides, and we respect them as members of our family. I call them ‘auntie’ all my life with affection. I have fond memories of both my aunties. The auntie who left China as a young girl died in 1979, whose name is frequently mentioned with love, and a shrine is set up in our ancestral home in China to honour her lifelong sacrifice for our family. The other auntie that my father ran away from is still living at the top of the hill, possibly still surrounded by gigantic sugarcanes reaching the sky.
Adopting a Chinese child bride involved rearing her. The adoptive family fed and clothed the girl. Many girls were treated as a source of cheap labour in the labour-intensive agricultural society.
Chinese traditional values favoured boys to girls and a girl was often nicknamed a 赔钱货 (péi qián huò ) – a product that loses money. The online translator on the search engine Bing accurately translated the term 赔钱货 (péi qián huò ) as: 1) A money-losing proposition, and 2) Girl; daughter. (Based on the translation of this term alone, I am happy to declare that Bing Translator is more superior to other online translators.)
A girl was a ‘money-losing commodity’ because a girl would marry one day and belong to another family. She would also carry the surname of her husband. In the agricultural society, where survival was at the mercy of the Heaven, the costs of rearing a daughter and dowry were impossible for poor families.
David K. Jordan, professor emeritus of Anthropology of University of California in San Diego, explained clearly the role of Adopted Daughters-in-law in Traditional Chinese Family and Lineage:
Adopted Daughters-in-Law. When an unwanted additional girl was not killed, she might be given or sold to a wealthier family to work as a serving girl. Alternatively, she might be transferred, at any age from shortly after birth to about ten or eleven, to a poor family where she would be raised as an “adopted daughter-in-law,” intended to become the eventual wife of a son. This avoided the cost of an engagement, extensive entertaining, and wedding gifts.
In most parts of China, such an “adopted daughter-in-law” was called a “daughter-in-law raised from childhood” (tóngyǎng xí 童养媳 / 童養媳). Pending that marriage, she would work essentially as a servant in the family, sometimes charged with the care of the little boy who would later become her husband. When the wedding day arrived (selected by a fortune teller), it was only very modestly celebrated. Like infanticide, these kinds of arrangements were obviously also adaptations to extreme poverty.
From Traditional Chinese Family and Lineage by Professor David K. Jordan
Dreaming of wearing a wedding gown
Child brides were deprived of the dream of dressing up as a beautiful bride. To help these child brides fulfil their dreams of ‘being a bride’, in Taiwan, on the 12th of October this year, the local government in the Yilan county will organise a special event for 100 child brides, who are now grandmothers.
The headlines on the China Times report reads: “Help Child Brides (now grannies) fulfil their wedding gown dream. On the 12th of October, Yilan County government will give 100 child brides a chance to wear a dressing gown, and their grandchildren will help their grandmothers to walk on the red carpet to accept their blessings on the Grandparents’ day.”
ZHANG Yue used to be a child bride in Taiwan. She is now 65 years old and was adopted as a child bride when she was 6 years old. Her husband is 10 years older than her and they have 4 children. Her only regret in life was “never having worn a wedding gown” and she is ashamed. Now she is looking forward to this glorious event, to fulfil the dream of being the most beautiful bride for once.
“Girls in the past were worthless,” grandma said with angst. “People would pay money to buy a daughter-in-law but ironically sell their own daughters away. It was just a terrible practice.”
Words by Seejy’s grandma (madam Choo) in Singapore, on Ah Ma is a child bride post
Some child brides were sold, but some were abandoned girls. Three years ago, in Chongqing of China, a centenarian named ZHAO Zebi celebrated her 100th birthday. She made the news as she was possibly the oldest child bride in Chongqing, and her child was born when she was 48 years old. Madam Zhao said in this interview:
“My father died when I was 7 years old. My mother remarried with my 2-year-old sister. My mother gave me away to the Fan family as a child bride. My mother did not receive any money. She gave me away as if I were a puppy or a kitten.”
Words by ZHAO Zebi , the oldest child bride in Chongqing of China, on her 100th birthday.
Madam Zhao’s husband was 20 years older than her. She became a wife at 17. While her husband was often away selling Chinese herbs, she and her mother-in-law looked after each other.
Happy marriages of child brides
Some child brides have a happy marriage. Skylark on Paradise Bird from Malaysia wrote that his mother is a child bride and she lives happily with her kind and honest husband.
“My mother was given to my father as a child bride as soon as she was born. Luckily, my mother met my father, who is honest and faithful. Over 90 years, they live happily together, and they are grateful of the matchmaking of the two families. Now, my father is 102 years old, and my mother is 95 years old. They both still respect and care for each other as they have gone through life together.”
By Skylark on Child Bride from Paradise Bird
LI Yu Kuan came to Malacca in Malaysia from China when she was five years old after her house was burnt down. When she was 10, she was sold as a child bride for 150 Malaysian dollar to a Catholic family, according to the story, A Child Bride’s Life on Sin Chew Daily.
“My adopted parents treated me well. As far back as I could remember, I was whipped only two times by my adopted mother. One for doing wrong in sewing and another for dropping a dish on the floor. After I got married to their eldest son, I was busy taking care of my children and my adopted father showed his sympathy by buying a sewing machine for me.”
By LI Yu Kuan, child bride in Malaysia on Sin Chew Daily. Interview translated by SOONG Phui Jee.
From these stories of the Chinese Child Brides (or Adopted Daugthers-in-law), I hope you get a glimpse of the real life of the incredible women in a typical Chinese 男尊女卑 society (男尊女卑 : “Men are high; women are low” — nán zūn nǚ bēi), especially in South China.
Writing this series has led me to discover some hidden family pasts. As I am living in England, and have been away from home more than 25 years, it has been hard for me to gather information from my extended family, spreading across Malaysia, Singapore and China. Whenever I have fresh materials, I will continue with this series.
Thank you for reading. Your interaction with me, and your warmth and encouragement have kept me going through the past months.
The Letters from China series was inspired by Blog Exercises: Before the Blog by Lorelle VanFossen. You can find more Blog Exercises on Lorelle on WordPress. This is a year-long challenge to help you flex your blogging muscles.
My Related Posts:
- Letters from China: Part 9
- Letters from China: Part 8
- Letters from China: Part 7
- Letters from China: Part 6
- Letters from China: Part 5
- Letters from China: Part 4
- Letters from China: Part 3
- Letters from China: Part 2
- Letters from China: Part 1
- When did you last go home?
- An age with relative freedom
- Visiting a Columbarium in Singapore
- A poignant visit to a Singapore columbarium
- Why are we all called Jade?
- Weekly Photo Challenge – Urban life in Singapore
- Postcard from Singapore: East vs West
- Postcard from Singapore: Satay
- Weekly Writing Challenge: My Mum’s Net