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Bride vs battle-ax

A mother-in-law/daughter-in-law festival in Hangzhou addresses the age-old worldwide issue of troubled intra-family ties. Times are changing in China and young women are more independent. Xu Wenwen reports.

There's an old Chinese saying that young wives suffer at the hands of their mothers-in-law and wait until when their son marries for their turn to wield power over another woman.

The battle-ax or harsh mother-in-law is, of course, a stock figure in comedy, drama and tales around the world, since story telling began.

But that story is changing a bit in China where women, especially the post-1980s generation (people born after 1980), are increasingly independent, see themselves as equal to men and don't take kindly to anyone - husband, mother-in-law or mother - lording it over them and telling them how to behave.

That can make for more friction, but also lead to better, more respectful in-law relationships.

Lots of forces are at work to alter or challenge the old wifely subservience, while the older generation of moms still hasn't completely caught on to changing times.

They said, many young women are still conditioned to be extremely polite and uncomplaining; they are somewhat passive, and non-assertive, making them easy to bully.

It's far from plain sailing and ties between young wives and their husbands' mothers are a hot topic among young people in many discussions online and elsewhere; it's the topic of books and stage plays and frequently comes up in problem-solving radio and TV reality shows.

Wives generally complain mothers-in-law are pushy and demanding, order them around and interfere in how the couple runs their household and rears their child. Mothers-in-law often complain that wives are selfish, still run around, see their friends and party and don't pay enough attention to husband, housework and to them. Husbands/sons are often torn and don't want to get involved in the strife.

And so, the forward-looking city of Hangzhou has seen its first mother-in-law and daughter-in-law festival about harmonizing relations and promoting mutual respect and understanding. Last Friday the event featured forums and advice and even a contest for the 10 pairs of most tactful/skillful young wives and mothers-in-law.

Same goal - a man

"Two women are actually aiming for the same thing - a man," says one of the contest judges, Fu Liqun.

"They are supposed to cooperate for their happiness, and also the man's. It's like running a business - only cooperation leads to a win-win situation," she says.

There's lots of wisdom but the main message seems to be mutual respect, giving everyone space and not living together under the same roof.

Guys should be impartial, never take sides and be willing to take on more responsibilities to ease burdens on both wife and mother.

The event's motto: "understanding and respect."

"Holding a festival doesn't mean the problem is severe, but the idea is to advocate mutual understanding, respect and magnanimity," says Fu, one of the relationship judges, and director of Sociology Department of the Hangzhou Academy of Social Sciences.

The festival was inspired by a study conducted by Hangzhou Women's Federation which distributed 20,000 questionnaires to post-80s wives, husbands and mothers-in-law across the city last May.

Almost 65 percent of respondents said they can feel the tension between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law.

"It's higher than we thought but understandable," says Professor Hou Gonglin, one of the survey designers and vice director of the Psychology Department of Zhejiang Sci-Tech University.

"As modern girls receive equal education with boys, these young wives' independence in economic matters also works to estrange them from their mothers-in-law," he says.

Further, the survey shows that almost 86 percent of responding daughters-in-law said they would not live under the same roof with their mother-in-law.

Since working wives are also breadwinners they have equal say in family issues, the study says. They are often better educated than their mothers-in-law and have more knowledge, so older women have less leverage and no longer enjoy unquestioned superiority. They cannot lecture effectively.

Of course many of them do, and tales of tyranny and mother-in-law meddling have not gone away.

Tensions are inevitable.

The post-1980s generation is often the only child, accustomed to getting their way, more freedom and allowed more individuality than females in the past.

These "little princesses" are unlikely to yield to a demanding mother-in-law and must face the fact that they are involved in another family where in-laws do not treasure them as much as their own parents. Further, Western influence and fashionable lifestyles change approaches to marriage, but accepting new ideas is difficult for older generations.

Professor Hou says China's rapid development hastened the division of large extended families and meant more nuclear families; this also undercuts traditional family culture.

Respect for, and obedience to, the elderly was taken for granted in the old days and many women were without income and power and totally dependent on their husbands' families.

Model in-laws

"The philosophy of getting along with elders-in-law that children might once have learned by observation or instruction from parents and grandparents was missed," Hou says.

At the in-law issues festival, 10 pairs of local "Good Mothers-in-law and Daughters-in-Law" were celebrated and shared their secrets of building a positive relationship between two natural antagonists.

One of the model mothers-in-law, Jin Shengjuan from Fuyang, Hangzhou, sums up her experience: you can scold your son, but for your daughter-in-law, only give care and love.

Her daughter-in-law, Wei Yaoxuan from the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, says being a good "daughter" in a new family requires wisdom and sincerity, not simply forbearance and suffering.

Mother Jin helps Wei with housework and never complains, while daughter Wei buys fashionable clothes for Jin and always has a kind word.

Both say mutual respect and consideration help them overcome geographical, cultural and lifestyle differences.

"We find that both traditional virtues and modern thinking are essential," says Wei Ying, vice chairman of Hangzhou Women's Federation. "Mutual love and affection outweigh differences."

Another good daughter-in-law, Zhang Fengzhang, creates harmony with mother-in-law Qiu Xiong by treating Qiu like her natural mother.

Zhang herself lives quite simply, but frequently she buys her mother-in-law fashions and cosmetics; they frequently shop and travel together. And when Qiu gets sick, Zhang takes care of her around the clock.

Qiu understands her daughter-in-law as well; she is quick to do housework so Zhang has more rest after work and she always takes Zhang's side when she quarrels with her husband.

Judge Fu praises Zhang's handling of the situation.

"Conveying a fresh fashionable lifestyle to her mother-in-law by smart and honest behavior is a good way to find a common language," she says.

Professor Hou says the ties between wife and mother-in-law are not as stable as the mother-son tie and not as strong as the husband-wife bond, so it requires considerable people skills to manage.

These days it's best for both mother-in-law and daughter-in-law to maintain their independence and not to interfere with the other's life.


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