Move Over, Tiger Moms: Meet Three Amazing Mothers of Ancient China

May 5, 2015 Updated: July 19, 2015    

Recent years have seen the popularization of “tiger moms”—whose relentless, draconian measures supposedly guarantee their children successful, high-paying careers—in describing the archetypal Chinese mother.  

To be sure, the ancient Chinese valued industriousness, but they held virtue and wisdom in immeasurably higher regard than simple material gain. As one traditional saying has it, the foolish and incapable are superior to those who are skilled but wicked.

In ancient times, politics and other fields were outwardly dominated by men, but ancient Chinese histories acknowledged the importance of women in forging the harmonious progression of society.

The “Three Queens of the Zhou Dynasty” records the deeds and character of the wives of three outstanding kings during the early Zhou period (c. 1100 B.C.–221 B.C.). In the account, these women are credited with laying the foundations of Zhou rule by acting as maternal role models for the entire kingdom.

Tai Si, queen of the famed King Wen and last of the three women described, was known for her exceptional dedication and skill in maintaining peace in the imperial court. This allowed her husband to focus his attention on state affairs and govern the Zhou kingdom effectively. Tai Si became known by the respectful title of “Wen Mu,” meaning “Mother of Culture.”   

We share three stories of remarkable mothers from ancient China.

A Lesson in China

Teachers impart technical mastery, but maternal instruction molds a child’s basic character.

In the “Thousand Character Classic,” a poetic text traditionally used to teach literacy in Chinese writing, there is the line “Outside the home, mind your teacher; inside the home, mind your mother.”

This refers to the famous tale of the 4th-century B.C. Chinese philosopher Mencius, whose mother, Zhang Shi, did everything in her power to give him a virtuous upbringing. To afford her son a good environment, she moved the family three times.

Their first home was near a cemetery, and soon Zhang noticed her son imitating the behavior of people visiting graves. Finding this inappropriate, she moved again, this time to an area near the marketplace. Mencius began learning the banter of salesmen, which his mother again disapproved of. Finally, she found residence near a school, and was pleased to see her son learning from the dignified habits of scholars.

As a child, Mencius did not always apply himself to his studies. Seeing this, his mother tore apart the cloth she had been weaving at her loom to show him that a brilliant but untrained mind was useless—just like a ripped length of fabric.

Taking this lesson to heart, Mencius became a dedicated scholar of the Confucian creed, and his teachings became the basic standard for family values in East Asia.

Zeng Shen Feels His Mother’s Pain

In the “Classic of Filial Piety,” Confucius compared maternal love to a type of emotional currency that holds society together, saying “Thus the mother is afforded [the child’s love], while the sovereign is afforded reverence.”  

Zeng Shen was a disciple of Confucius famous for recording his conversations with the great sage. His father died when he was young, leaving him a great deal of responsibility in the household.

Legend has it that on one occasion, when out gathering firewood, the young Zeng felt an aching pain in his chest and immediately rushed home to find that his mother had hurt herself. Apparently there existed an ESP-like bond between mother and son. Whatever the story’s veracity, it illustrates the place that familial bonds occupy in Chinese folklore.

Sometimes the ESP can be tampered with, though. In another famous episode, a man who shared Zeng Shen’s name had committed murder. The news soon mistakenly spread to Zeng’s hometown, but his mother would have none of it. Her son, whom she knew like the back of her hand, was not a killer.

Another visitor came by to inform her of the bad news, and again was refuted. But a third report shook her faith, prompting her to go see for herself whether it was true.

The power of the report was later summarized in a couplet describing the scene:

“Though a murderer Zeng Shen is not, his mother can be moved by rumors spoken thrice.”   

‘Serve the Country Loyally’

In the 12th century, both China and the young man Yue Fei faced a dilemma. The dynasty at the time, the Song (960–1279), was on the brink of destruction by the nomadic Khitan people who had already conquered much of northern China.

Yue Fei, meanwhile, was caught in an apparent paradox between patriotic duty and filial piety. On the one hand, he felt it his responsibility to enlist in the imperial army and defend against the invaders. At the same time, his mother needed his support at home.

Sensing the source of her son’s indecision, Yue Fei’s mother tattooed four characters on his back: “Serve the country loyally.” Her son’s wish was now her wish, and he could go to war without worrying about her. Yue Fei rose to become one of China’s most outstanding generals, and his loyalty to the state never wavered.