Letters from China

Letters from China: Part 10

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.

Here is the translation of 'money-losing proposition': Girls in the Chinese society.

On Bing: Money losing proposition = Girls

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.”

Child brides in Yilan, Taiwan, will have a formal wedding.

Child brides (now grannies) in Yilan, Taiwan, will wear a wedding gown.

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.

Child brides have regrets. Blogger Seejy from the Book of Words blogged that her grandma was a child bride in Singapore, sold as a one-month-old baby. Seejy quoted her grandma’s words:

“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 . This is a year-long challenge to help you flex your blogging muscles.

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40 thoughts on “Letters from China: Part 10

    1. Janet Williams Post author

      Thank you for your comment and I’m glad you like reading the stories. I do feel a bit strange that these traditional practices are linked to my personal life — as I don’t consider myself to be too old. More importantly, I hope people get to see the life of the southerners in China through these real stories. Many thanks for your encouragement, and I’ll be back.

      Reply
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  19. Lorelle VanFossen

    To know someone from that time of history – as usual, your story brings me right into the culture, helping me to understand the whys and hows of your homeland.

    When I thought about adopting the children, I had more altruistic ideas in my head, as well as child slavery. You painted a different picture for me. Thank you for stretching my imagination and information.

    These have been beautiful. I feel selfish begging for more. You’ve taken us to places I never dreamed of, and I love traveling this way. Thank you!

    Reply
    1. Janet Williams Post author

      Thank you, my friend.

      I didn’t feel the urge of sharing my experiences before — because I didn’t think hard enough to find that people might be interested. I thought my experiences were common — to Chinese people, these were nothing new, or even ‘boring’ stuff. After writing them recently and sharing with a wider community, I am amazed at the ripples that these stories have stirred up.

      My recent posts in this series could be regarded as an act of tossing out a brick to get a jade gem 抛砖引玉, the 17th of Thirty-Six Stratagems. This expression means using a modest act to encourage people to contribute to valuable ideas and opinions.

      I’ve had wonderful feedback and great conversations. I reported all these to my mother and she thought it ‘funny’ that foreigners want to hear about her stories. Thank you for getting me to think and to write better.

      Reply
  20. janetweightreed10

    Good morning Janet.

    What a fascinating post.

    As a portrait painter, I would love to paint your Aunt who still lives on the mountain surrounded by sugar cane – to be able to sit with someone with such life experiences would indeed be amazing.

    I will need to go back and read more of your blogs…because they are giving such a special insight into China. I realise today that China is somewhat divided, in that you have all the wealth and material gains in big cities….and yet in rural areas, places where I am sure some of the old traditions still hold true.

    As we begin this 21st century when China once more becomes a super power….it is vital that we in the west understand the history of this enormous and complex country. I do believe that it is only in the understanding of a country’s history that we can understand our world today.

    Thank you so much, and wishing you a lovely weekend. Janet.

    Reply
    1. Janet Williams Post author

      Dear Janet,

      So lovely to hear from you again.

      Imagine the heat, the tropical heat and humidity. The sky was always bright. Too bright for me. The sugarcanes were tall and straight like bamboo. The leaves on the long sticks were lush. The little area was not like a posh, neat English garden with boring trimmed borders. It was wild. My other favourite was digging out sweet potatoes and cassava from the ground. In this little wild place, there were chickens and ducks, and an old well was not far away. The living condition of my auntie was very primitive. She didn’t have electricity either. I left home after high school and never see her again. My craving for sugarcane and sweet potatoes come from this early memory with her.

      As my ancestors came from Fujian, south of China, my stories are based on this region, and its emigrants to Southeast Asia. China is divided, and the gap between the very rich and the very poor is beyond belief. Understanding how my ancestors escaped poverty and travelled across the sea for food has shocked me a bit.

      The tradition of going abroad in this region never dies. In 2004, 23 young Chinese people died as they harvested cockles against a rising tide in Morecambe Bay in England. Read BBC: These young people also came from Fujian, and The Economist: Immigration – The parable of the cockle-pickers .

      In 2004, a Child Bride village was discovered in Donghai Village, Putian city of Fujian province in China. This village in the mountain had only 4,300 people, but 1,000 of them were child brides, and each family bought 2-3 child brides. You could read about this Shocking news: Contemporary Child Bride village in Fujian. The Child Bride village was discovered because of a tragedy of murder.

      Thank you for reading and the great conversations we have here. Let’s continue. Wonderful!

      Reply
  21. Shoeluva

    Well, I must say that your Letters from China series are very insightful. I really enjoy reading them. It is so well written and every time I read it, I just feel that I need to share it, so I have since shared it with my sister, my cousin (in Singapore) and some friends in Malaysia!

    Your Part 10 about child bride has made me recall that my grandma is actually a child bride and married (sold) to my grandfather. Now, I begin to think that she has never worn a wedding gown before in her entire life! I know that she is a child bride as she used to mentioned that she was raised by my grandfather’s family. After reading your post, it makes me feel that I want to find out more about my grand mother’s story. I would love to find out more about how she came to Malaysia, and her early days in Malaysia. My grandparents lived in a small town called Batu Pahat in Johor. We used to visit them during school holidays and also Chinese New Year. Those were my very good childhood memories at my grandparents’ house. I think your posts have made me think a lot about my grandmother lately.

    Reply
    1. Janet Williams Post author

      Dear Anna,

      Thank you for your touching story. Now the readers can see that two overseas Chinese from Malaysia in the UK met on WordPress both have child brides in their families. It just shows that the practice was not uncommon in those years in our region, before the 60s.

      If you have the chance to write about your grandmother, please share your stories with us and I’ll link to your posts. More similar stories will help us explore the topic, understand our parents and grandparents’ generation better, so that we will appreciate what they had gone through and all their sacrifices.

      Thank you once again for sharing with us your personal stories, and let us continue this conversation.

      Reply
  22. Debra

    Hi Janet,
    I recently stumbled upon your blog by accident, I’m so glad I did. How interesting and detailed your post is. My maternal grandparents were also originally from south China, unfortunately they have both passed away awhile ago, otherwise I’m sure they would have some amazing stories to tell. My mother’s generation doesn’t recall much, maybe it’s like you say, these stories are “boring” to those who live in the midst of it.
    I’m really enjoying your blog and am looking forward to reading through your archive 🙂

    Reply
    1. Janet Williams Post author

      Dear Debra,

      Thank you for your comment. A lot of us from Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia have the same experiences. Your own cultural mix — German, Chinese, Indonesian, and your life in Singapore and New Zealand– will be fascinating to us too.

      I agree with you – people living in the midst of it don’t want to talk about their life, as they also find them very painful to recall. My mother got emotional when she mentioned some parts of her memories in these stories that I shared.

      Thank you for your input. Please carry on sharing and learning together.

      All the best to you in your new life in New Zealand.

      Reply
  23. Grace

    Dear Janet,

    I just read your article “Letters from China part 10, ” and could echo my grandma’s feelings because she (my father’s mum) was a child bride to my grandad. I never gave it much thought why people did that. But I heard a few girls in my distant family were given away as brides. My grandparents seemed quite happy together until he passed away.

    A well written article. People take their freedom and rights for granted nowadays.

    Reply
    1. Janet Williams Post author

      Thank you Grace for yet another child bride story in the Chinese community.

      I’m pleased to hear that your grandma was happy. Some child brides were not as lucky.

      Thank you for reminding us that we shouldn’t take our freedom for granted. Wonderful words from you. Thank you.

      Reply
    1. Janet Williams Post author

      Dear Opalla,

      Thank you. It took me a long time to write all these posts. These letters are totally consuming and the extended topics are endless. I’m sure with your experience, you’ve got a lot more stories to share. Please add to what I haven’t said enough, and when you write about them, I’ll be linking to yours.

      Reply
  24. nibiew

    Thank you for writing this inspirational series! I am a 3rd generation Singaporean who has nearly lost all contact with my relatives in China. Your posts bring to life a side of China that is very distant (especially in terms of specific traditions, which are quickly dying out in Singapore), yet somewhat familiar to me. Your posts have been very refreshing to read. I hope you will consider compiling the series with other letters into an epistolary book!

    Reply
    1. Janet Williams Post author

      Dear Weibin,

      It’s so nice to hear from you. You amaze me with your scrabble world record.

      I grew up across the Johor causeway and spent a lot of time in Singapore. Our parents’ generation still keep old tradition, customs, and beliefs, sometimes beyond our comprehension. Now we are both in the UK, perhaps it is easier to reflect on the old days, to try to understand how and why our elders live their life so differently from us.

      I know that you also visited China. How had your visit changed your viewpoints about the Chinese traditions?

      Thank you for your encouragement. I’ll continue writing more. If you could also write about the similar topics, it would be interesting as our stories could be connected and shared via WordPress.

      All the best to you.

      Reply
      1. nibiew

        Thanks Janet! I spend a lot of time on Scrabble and am very privileged to get such recognition. I am now back home for a summer break but will be back in London very soon!

        Hmm, personally I have had fewer interactions with ‘traditions’, partially because both my parents were the younger ones in their respective families. Nevertheless there are still a number of practices that I observe and take part in, especially with regards to festivals, religions, and the like. I think traditions really go hand-in-hand with societal norms, and that a lot of these traditions start to lose their value when society changes (modernises, or Westernises, whichever lens you use to look at it). So while my generation would probably dismiss traditions like child brides and bound feet as heavily misogynistic, they would have held very different meanings for societies which practised them. Your letters help to uncover some of these subtleties.

        A thought that preoccupied my mind in China was how old values and practices seem to be reshaped slowly, in the face of government policy, globalisation, and modernisation. It’s something which happened very quickly in Singapore, so quickly that my generation doesn’t have much of a grasp at all on what used to be. Personally, I used to be rather uninterested in traditional practices (because of some reasons outlined in my blog post) but I think this visit has really opened my eyes to how Chinese society, and to an extent Singaporean society, is being changed – and also what these changes mean for people living in society.

  25. 国樑KL

    读了这一系列的家书,真是百味杂陈,再度勾起我许多回忆。眼前仿佛看到许多童年时代熟悉或不熟悉的人物,他们人在南洋,心底牵挂的是出不了国门的血缘亲人,为了血缘和祖屋,他们付出很多,只求个心安理得。家书标志着那个年代人在异乡,心系家乡的道德伦理。我的岳父直到今天还是放不下汕头家乡的堂兄弟,还常常汇款回乡。解不开的情意结。

    我有两篇关于诏安侨批和合安的现成资料,会电邮给你。

    Note: Janet’s Translation of the above text:

    These letter have evoked many of my memories, with mixed feelings. They remind me of those familiar and unfamiliar characters that I used to know in my childhood. Though our elderly were in Nanyang, they always worried about their families left in China. For their blood relation and their ancestral homes, the migrants sacrificed a great deal, to have peace of mind.

    These letters also mark the morality of the migrant generation — they were in another land, yet their hearts were tied to their hometown.

    My father-in-law still continues to send money to his cousins in his hometown in Shantou, China. Their bond never breaks.

    I’m sending you two documents on Hup Ann and Qiaopi from Zhao’an in an email to you.

    Reply
    1. Janet Williams Post author

      谢谢留言。那的确是份解不开的情意结。那个年代,一封家书,是梦里日夜的牵绊。那个年代的悲欢离合,不知多少现代人能够感悟?电邮和各种便捷的电子媒介,使得我们失去了一种叫等待的心情,那种引颈期盼,那种思念,那种在未知的等待中的痛楚。

      我母亲的那一份永恒的牵挂,也不是我完全能够领悟的。

      谢谢你的资料。很有用。我会补在博文中。

      Reply
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