Early Chinese Mothering

After Amy Chua’s article went viral last week on her forthright views about mothering with an authoritarian hand, I can’t help but notice the presence of a couple of formidable mothers in my recent reading. I’ve been returning to an introduction to the life and work of notable Christian thinker Augustine that I began before Christmas, and also reading Sarah Bakewell’s splendid How To Live, her quirky biography of Montaigne. Saint Augustine and Montaigne, the former from the fourth century, the latter from the sixteenth. Both men who made their mark on history, who left written legacies behind them that questioned and explored the way we put what we know into language, and that continue to exert their influence even into the present day. Two deeply contemplative souls. And both of them had powerful, pushy mothers. Who knew?

Saint Augustine was born in Roman Africa, rich, prosperous colonies at that time, Latin-speaking and highly cultured. His father was a difficult man, harsh and argumentative and not always faithful to his wife. His mother, Monica, was a different matter. She was a devout Christian who was frequently guided by her dreams and visions and she longed for her son to share her faith. She took him regularly to church, but the teenage Augustine had other ideas. He spent most of his time trying to catch the eye of pretty girls. The sins of the flesh, as they were often viewed in that time, were his particular weakness. But he had a profoundly philosophical side and was fascinated by the quest for happiness.

This led him down different alleys; he began by joining the Manichees, a sort of heretical sect within Christianity who believed that the lower half of the body was the work of the devil. Despite this, Augustine met and moved in with a young girl of much lower class than himself, who he lived with harmoniously for thirteen years. Eventually she bore him a son (to their initial dismay, but the child was much loved until he died at the early age of 17). Augustine began his career as a teacher of rhetoric, and it was clear he was talented and able. When he was given promotion to Milan as a professor, his devoted mother followed him there and sussed out his chances. If he was to win the honour and distinction he desired, she knew his uneducated partner had to go. Somehow she managed to persuade Augustine and the woman was sent back to Carthage. Monica then saw that he was engaged to marry a young heiress, whose dowry would set him in good stead. Augustine was told he would have to wait until the heiress was old enough to marry him (so goodness knows she must only have been a child), but he wasn’t bothered. He was suffering still from the loss of his love, and turned ever more towards theological thought to find recompense and guidance.

Saint Augustine and Monica

Augustine then followed Neoplatonic thought. Best not to get too much into this, but the point is its idealization of all that is purely spiritual and abstract. The more abstract a thing was, the closer it moved towards the divine. As such it preached interiority and reclusiveness. The life of the early Christians was profoundly ascetic – vegetarianism, no sex, lots and lots of meditation. Fretting over the issue of how to live left Augustine ill and weak, and this finally forced him into a series of decisions. He gave up his teaching post and had himself baptized, committed to the Christian faith in a way that delighted his mother. The two of them would live together for the rest of her life, sharing transcendent visions, exploring their faith, and Augustine’s enforced celibacy meant no other women getting in the way. Augustine spoke worshipfully of his mother, but it seems to me that her possessiveness and ambition must have had an insidious effect on her son, just as much as the philosophy he studied. Augustine had an eye for the ladies; it was his defining characteristic (and giving up sex was his greatest struggle), yet his mother’s more potent libidinal energies won the day. Sexuality, the great weapon of separation from the mother, was always problematic for him; he longed for it, it troubled him, and eventually love took on a different form: that of the Christian passion.

Michel - couldn't find his mum

Michel Eyquem de Montaigne had a notably different relationship to his mother. In that household, it was his father who had the big ideological notions. He felt strongly that there was a certain way to bring up children, and it was with an odd mix of high culture and low authority. As a baby, Michel was put out to a wet nurse, perfectly common in those days, only he lived with the peasant family and not his own for the first two years or so of his life. When he returned to his own family, his father had another notion, and that was to teach him to speak fluent Latin without tears. Latin remained the language necessary for those who wanted to get on in life in the legal or civil service, and the Renaissance period idealized it as the source of all beauty and culture. He hired a tutor who then performed the role of constant interpreter between young Michel and the rest of his family, who were not so proficient in the language. What a strange early life this must have been! And most notable for the lack of opportunities it presented for Michel to bond with his own parents. Then at the age of about six he was abruptly removed from his pleasant if odd circumstances and packed off to school, which the child did not appreciate. Michel de Montaigne had had a lovely childhood in some ways, no corporeal punishment, plenty of deference and gentleness, a continual sense of his own importance and distinction, and yet he had also ended up wayward and eccentric. He was not like anyone else, and the independence of mind this brought with it would be his greatest gift and his greatest challenge.

For Montaigne carried on being smart and gentle, but also lazy and rather inept. He could only do what he was interested in, and he liked an easy life. His mother, Antoinette, seems to have been quite the opposite sort of person – fierce, determined, aggressive on occasion, opinionated. She was clearly a very competent sort of woman, and it seems she struggled with both her husband, who was a man of great energy but who started projects only to leave them half-finished, and with her son, who may have seemed both indolent and disrespectful. Michel’s father’s first will more or less cut Michel out, leaving his mother in charge of the household in the event of his death. This was an extraordinary move, indicating notable lack of faith in Michel, and surprising steadfastness on the part of Antoinette. A later will redressed the balance and seemed more concerned with organizing relations between mother and son. Michel’s father, Pierre, stated that Antoinette must be found accommodation – elsewhere if living on the estate didn’t work out – and that she should receive ‘all filial honour, respect and service’. Antoinette’s will showed the extent of her resentment when she cut Michel’s son out completely. She complained that her dowry should have gone on buying more property, and that her hard work for the past forty years had added considerable wealth to the family, which Michel and his son had benefited from; they deserved nothing more from her.

Michel de Montaigne is famous for the contemplative, meandering essay style he wrote in, and these writings were all accomplished in his library. Libraries were few and far between in these days and yet Michel’s was stupendous – full of books (a real luxury), decorated with murals and special ornaments. It was also up a tower set apart from the main buildings of the household. It’s thought that Michel was a sort of architectural visionary, but I wonder just how much he wanted to steer clear of his mother. There she was, evidently a nag and a sourpuss, her feelings curdled by the sense that she did all the work herself whilst her son enjoyed the fruits of her labour. Why wouldn’t Montaigne have created a little domain all for himself, where he could contemplate his own life and feelings, far away from the mother for whom he felt little affiliation? If Saint Augustine chose the contemplative life because it brought him close to his mother, then Michel de Montaigne may have chosen his because it shut his mother well and truly out. What’s that phrase about there being a strong woman behind every successful man?  I wonder how often it was a mother, who needed to be appeased, or adroitly avoided!


17 thoughts on “Early Chinese Mothering

  1. Isn’t the Bakewell biography great? Montaigne’s tower is so interesting, and I’d love to see it one day. It seems he was able to avoid not only his mother there, but also his wife. I envy him, actually — not that I need to keep distance between me and Hobgoblin, but I like the idea of having my own tower. Wouldn’t that be kind of fun? 🙂

  2. This was so interesting, Litlove. You brought those men and their mothers alive for me. In attachment theory I wonder if St. Augustine would be seen as anxiously attached and Michel as avoidantly.

  3. Fascinating! Seeing the influence people’s parents can have on them — good and bad — makes me quite nervous of the idea of becoming a mother eventually. Especially as it’s such an unpredictable influence. However, having read the Chinese mother thing, I think that writer and I would have really, really different goals for our kids. I’d place a much lower priority on work-type success, and a much higher one on, like, happiness and health and being a good person.

  4. Yes, fascinating! Eleanor of Aquitaine comes to mind… I suspect that the notion of “parental bonding” never occurred to either of those Renaissance mothers. Children–if they survived–were commodities, the means of enhancing, or keeping, the family’s stature through marriage or as in these two cases, profession. I never knew the details of either of these men’s lives. Thank you!
    But I’m with Jenny: health, happiness, & being a good person!

  5. Great review – I also loved the Bakewell book when I read it last year; I’d picked it up in Waterstones because of the odd cover, browsed odd pages and got hooked. I really liked the way the biography was structured and the insight it gave me into Montaigne’s work which I’d slogged through at university but am enjoying more and more now the pressure’s off.

  6. The cover story on this week’s Time Magazine is “The Truth about Tiger Moms”. I’ve not yet had a chance to read it, but I thought of you when it came in the mail. Your post makes me think of the Delafield book I’m reading now which also has a very formidable mother even if she is just trying to get her only daughter married off advantageously. Some of this must just be instinctual–it’s fascinating to think about and compare like you have, though I think I prefer my mom’s own laid back style to the two you write about here! I’d like very much to read the Bakewell bio–my library just got it in, but I know nothing about Montaigne, so I wonder if I should start with his essays first.

  7. When I saw the title here, I thought you might talk about mothers in early (ish) Chinese literature! Like in The Story of the Stone, which I loved — the son, Bao-yu, is pampered and coddled by his mother, and the many girls are also brought up in a loving atmosphere of expectation that they will excel, certainly, but out of merit, not out of necessity. A fabulous work!

  8. What always touched me the most regarding Montaigne is his famous friendship with La Boétie which came to such an early end due to La Boétie’s death at 32 (Il n’est action ou pensée où il ne me manque). I wonder if this is linked to his realtionship with his mother, his only very close realtionship being with a man. Only later he had another profound relationship with another woman, the very young Marie de Gournay, whom he treated like a daughter.I guess his mother was dead by then.

  9. Augustine’s mother sounds fascinating because she seems to have tried not just to direct her son to greatness, but to a specific kind of achievement that tied in with her own spiritual interests. Living through your kid much? It must have been terribly tempting to push sons back then, as womens opportunities were so limited and it must have been a way for some women to live their own dreams, or to increase their further their own causes. But now I feel like I’m backing up that historical stereotype of the maniac mother as a kind of evil advisor, the way a lot of people see the mothers of the Roman emperors.

  10. Dorothy – Oh undoubtedly everyone should have their own tower! Virginia Woolf would have been all over that, if she’d happened to think about it. 🙂 I completely agree that the Bakewell biography is lovely – I can only read a little at a time, but it is beautifully lucid and informative in such an interesting way.

    Lilian – that’s brilliant! I’m sure that would be exactly right!

    Jenny – I think you can only have a really definitive influence as a parent if you go for it, in an excessive way, much as Augustine’s mother did (even Montaigne’s mother had at best a mere negative influence). Which makes me wonder whether that sort of intensive Chinese mothering style is really all about the mother and her narcissism, and not actually about the child and his or her potential at all….

    ds – absolutely – these things are far more important. After all, you can achieve perfectly well in you own time and your own pace and without a pushy authority making demands! What you say about Renaissance children is spot on – commodities first and foremost.

    Anonymous – I had to teach Montaigne and I must admit (although quietly because many readers love him) that I found him a real slog, too. This biography is a much better way of getting to know his work.

    Danielle – I think laid-back parenting is completely the way to go! I’ll be interested to know what you think of the article,though, when you read it. As for Montaigne, I would actually start with the biography. I’m finding it much more interesting and accessible than the essays themselves (although of course lots of other readers get on with Montaigne really well). And I really want to read that Delafield!

    Jenny – Asian literature is one of the big black holes in my reading, and I hope to do some this year to compensate. Thank you for the book titles – I will certainly be looking them up!

    Caroline – amazingly, Montaigne’s mother outlived him by several years. So there was no getting away from her. I think you are right, though, that his ability to make straightforward heterosexual relationships was probably marred by the lack of bonding in his childhood. I know what you mean about his friendship with La Boetie – very touching and sad.

    Bookgazing – I think you’re quite right. Particularly as Monica followed Augustine to Milan after her husband died and seemed to transfer all her hopes and fears for status, as well as all her love, onto him. I think he was a substitute for an unhappy and unsatisfying marriage attachment – never a good idea! And as you say, women had no route to power for themselves. I know nothing about the mothers of the Roman emperors but it sounds like I should look into them straight away. Manic mothers as evil advisors spark my curiosity. 🙂

  11. Tries to rember classics education – think it’s Caligula’s mother Agrippina and Livia, Tiberius’ mother who get given that role in ancient literature.

  12. I am so glad you liked Bakewell’s book. I was worried when I saw the full title and the scheme that it would be a trendy gimmicky job, but I think it was an inspired format. I can’t add to your excellent exposition, but I am intrigued by the question of early influences, which create us in one way or another. How did that strange upbringing impact on who Montaigne came to be? In particular I wonder how that early separation from his native language world, which the need for interpretation must have made evident to him, shaped his thinking tools as he grew older. Language is fundamental to our natures,I think. Did it shape a sense of difference into the core of his being, a separation which fuelled his quest to explore the fundamentals of his nature, human nature and their relationshipe to experience? It can only be speculation, but I wonder if your specialisation in languagues suggests anything to you about this? Interested to read your thoughts.

  13. Can I have a tower too? 😀 What two very interesting men and their mothers. Is the Augustine bio good? I can’t say that I’ve ever wanted to know much about him but your snip have made me curious. I have the Bakewell book and am very much looking forward to diving in.

  14. I’m reading the Montaigne bio right now, too, and finding it utterly delightful. Pierre and Antoinette both sound like quite the characters. Just wrote a piece of doggerel verse about Montaigne’s avoidance of his mother, actually! (It’s over at my blog, if you’re curious.)

  15. Bookgazing – thank you!! I had no idea whatsoever, so this is very enlightening.

    Bookboxed – It IS a good book, mostly, I think, because of the clever way that Bakewell picks through her material. That isn’t easy to do, but she accomplishes it with panache. As for the formative influence of Latin, I think you are quite right that it would have made a big difference on Montaigne. Alas, I don’t know Latin myself so am not familiar with its patterns and internal structures. But the way that you have to dip about back and forth in a Latin sentence to get its meaning does make me think of Montaigne’s essays and their own meandering movement across thought. But apart from that, being the only person to know Latin, at a time when it was such a highly prized language, and one that was thought to open the door to the greatest cultural knowledge, must have given Montaigne an unusual sense of superiority as well as isolation. The right to pronounce on life as it is lived from within an ivory tower, maybe? Well, I am playing here, just speculating! 🙂

    Stefanie – you may have one if I can come and visit! (Is your hair long enough to climb up??) The Augustine book is one of those brief introductions from OUP, and it is okay. I don’t like the author’s prose style – he puts everything backwards, as certain academics are wont to do and it makes reading hard. The Bakewell is great, though, and I’m sure you’ll love it.

    Emily – I’m so glad you are enjoying that book! And I loved your doggerel – it made me laugh out loud!

  16. Litlove,

    Thanks for this very informative post on early Chinese Mom. You know, the more I think about this, the more I feel that the Chinese Mom has been around for ages, and in various cultures. Amy Chua might just have stricken the right (or wrong) chord in provoking the opinion of modern Western Mom’s.

    As a Chinese-Canadian immigrant who came here as a teenager, and years later became a mother bringing up a 2nd generation, I totally understand where Amy Chua’s values come from, just a little surprised that she being American born would be so persistent to enforce some very traditional Chinese values. This however, may just well be a promotional tactic.

    I just received an email from a cousin, a Chinese-American immigrant Mom who has brought up two American-born children, a son and a daughter. Both of them are young professionals now. I’ve asked her permission to share this with you and your readers. This is her comment after reading the book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother:

    “Just got done reading her book, some reviews say it’s nothing more than the excerpt. I say it is much, much more and enjoyed it a lot more than the excerpt, it’s a fun read – I couldn’t put it down – full of humor and self-mocking. Her style of parenting is tough love, carried to extreme, and in an earlier chapter she talked about why she was determined to practice it on her 2 children… The results are two very exceptional students and accomplished musicians. But more importantly, they are healthy, well-adjusted, and ever grateful to their Tiger Mom for doing what she did, and the bonds between them and Tiger Mom have never been stronger… I told my kids (and kid-in-law) to read it, that they will see parts of themselves in it, I did.”

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