top of page

How to (Be) ‘Mother’: Motherhood in Late Imperial China

Rachel Alexandra Chua | University College London

「不孝有三,無後為大。」“There are three ways to be unfilial, but the most grievous is to have no heirs.”

《孟子‧離婁上》Works of Mencius, Mencius, Lilou Shang, Book 4, Section 26

On October 19th, 1881, on the isle of Nantai in Fujian province, China, Mrs Diong Ahok 張鶴齡夫人 (1850-191?) gave birth to a son. Her husband, Mr Diong Ahok, was a prominent and wealthy local businessman who owned several provision stores in Fuzhou 福州city, and their family was well-placed in the upper circles of Chinese society. Until then, their marriage had been plagued by twelve years of childlessness. With the birth of her son, this would no longer be so. As befitted their joy, the literal translation of the Chinese name they chose was ‘Heaven-come’, with ‘James’ as his English name. But they also called him something far more unusual: “The Christian Doctrine-Child”, or Hung-kau-nié-kiang (紅教伲仔), in the Fuzhou Min dialect.

The circumstances surrounding the ‘God-given’ child’s arrival precede his birth by several years. Mr Ahok, who often moved in foreign circles, had invited Miss May Foster, an English missionary, to begin teaching Mrs Ahok English. Foster consented on the grounds that she teach Mrs Ahok English from the Bible. Initially reticent to Foster’s attempts at proselytisation, Mrs Ahok finally relented when her adopted son and grandson fell worryingly ill. Under tremendous strain and concerned about her place in her household as matriarch and mother, she asked Foster if her Christian god could grant her a biological son of her own.

Miss Foster related the biblical story of Hannah, who was childless until God blessed her with Samuel, and suggested that Mrs Ahok pray to Jesus to make her request known. They prayed together for Mrs Ahok to receive the Holy Spirit and for her to be blessed with a son. Foster then adjourned to Australia, returning to Fuzhou some months later to find – what else – Mrs Ahok with the new-born “Doctrine-Child”, James. When Foster went to Mrs Ahok to ask if she would now serve God, she agreed, saying she could no longer “worship her idols”. Mrs Ahok, her mother, and two other family members were all baptised by the Anglican mission in Fuzhou on June 18th, 1882.

A Photograph of Mrs Diong Ahok
Mrs Diong Ahok, in Fagg, May, (Two Golden Lilies from the Empire of the Rising Sun, India’s Women and China’s Daughters (London: Church of England Zenana Missionary Society, Marshall Brothers, 1923), preface.)

Mrs Ahok’s journey to biological motherhood shares thematic parallels with many of her contemporaries, despite her conversion to Christianity. Motherhood has always been a site of confrontation: of identity and self, status and performance, and of the public and the private. The junctures of confrontation allow us to examine the organic process through which certain notions are both consciously and subconsciously included, merged, or discarded in the evolution of conceptualisations, particularly in the reconciliation of cultural, religious, and social identities. Mrs Ahok’s notions of motherhood were shaped by her cultural environment, guided further by her socio-economic position, and yet further influenced by Anglican Christian ideals of motherhood and its evangelical purposes. What the ostensibly miraculous account of James Ahok’s birth illustrates, however, is the manner in which concepts and beliefs evolve – concepts here that surround ideas and ideals of motherhood, the role of the mother, of status performance, and of role ethics. And it is in this manner that we may begin to examine the ways in which information and ideas are synthesised into new knowledge systems and integrated into existing cultural beliefs, traditions, and practices.

Like Mrs Ahok, Lin Heping 林和平 (1880-1950) was another prominent Chinese Christian woman who hailed from Fuzhou. She was born in 1880 to a poverty-stricken family who sold her to be raised as the daughter of a rich local businessman, from whom she took her surname to be the daughter of his childless concubine.

Adopted as she was, it was the parent-child relationship that particularly struck her from a young age. Her childhood was, by her own recollection, a joyous and carefree one, with her parents doting on her and loving her as if she were their blood:

… I became the beloved apple of their eye; I truly became their daughter, and they truly became my beloved parents. My parents’ love for me grew with each passing day, to the extent that we were so intertwined with each other. Oh, what a wonderful thing! That my birth parents were capable of discarding me, but the adopted parents that raised me loved me as they did their own lives.

Adoption in late Qing society was often the route of choice for childless couples with sufficient means looking for a male heir to continue the family line and perpetuate ancestral worship. Here, however, Lin was an adopted girl for her father’s concubine. This was likely deliberate on the part of Lin’s father in order to prevent confusion regarding inheritance and the patriline. We cannot forget, of course, that Lin’s natural parents also gave her up for adoption as they were impoverished and saw no value in raising another girl in their household. Lin’s testimony is deliberately phrased: she uses the well-known idiom to describe their preference for sons, ‘to value males and belittle females’ (zhong nan qing nü 重男輕女). The long-established preferential bias for sons in the Qing empire was related to both the rule of male primogeniture and Confucian rituals and greatly shaped the way parents viewed, raised, and valued their daughters in that gender hierarchy. The raising of a daughter was a wholly separate endeavour from that of sons, necessitating entirely different resources, educational foci, and social networks.

Lin’s early experiences– as an adopted girl and as a girl given up for adoption – reveal socio-cultural pressures present in motherhood even before birth. A ‘good’ mother should, first and foremost, have sons. Sons, then, would cement their mother’s status in the family hierarchy. Whether Lin subscribed to such notions, she was nonetheless susceptible and beholden to them. Indeed, Lin thought the societal bias towards boys was old-fashioned and “bad thinking”, but her cultural internalisations proved stronger than intellectual musings. After the birth of her first two daughters, Lin faced harsh criticism from her mother-in-law:

At that time, my mother-in-law began to voice complaints, saying that [I was] only able to birth daughters. That old lady also had that mindset to ‘value males and belittle females’ … Yet when I was once again pregnant, in my heart I was a little afraid, truly terrified that what that old lady said was true.

To be a wife in Qing society was, if one performed to expectations, to be a mother. A key object of marriage was the production of male heirs and the continuation of the patrilineal family. One can imagine the pressures Lin was under as the new wife in the household, with all hope for a grandson pinned on her. Her relationship with her mother-in-law was fraught and rocky, and her transition to her husband’s household a rough one. Here Lin once again employs the same phrase: zhong nan qing nü. And, like before, she expresses her disdain of that mindset. There are two strands that must be teased out here: one of Lin’s indignance at her mother-in-law’s accusation and suspicion that she was unable to bear sons, and the other of her fear at being unable to do so. These are closely intertwined. The first suggests Lin’s offence was linked to the suggestion that she was biologically faulty – physically unable to bear sons – while the second concerns her anxiety at being unable to fulfil a role requirement.

Given Lin’s upbringing in a culturally Chinese setting, it is, at times, easy to forget her religious participation. Her parents converted to Christianity in 1886 when she was six years old, subsequently sending both her and her siblings to be educated in Christian schools. Her husband, a pastor’s son, had grown up in a Christian household and served on the board of the local Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA). That Lin’s mother-in-law, a pastor’s wife, subscribed so heavily to the gender bias and that Lin herself instinctively feared her inability to deliver speaks to the depth that social and cultural norms are ingrained within communities. At the granular level, it points to the difficulty of and the instinctive unwillingness to contravene these norms.

Returning now to Mrs Ahok, Chinese women would:

serve goddesses day and night. They think they can give them children, and therefore they worship them ... I also used to do quite the same, but afterwards I received God's Gospel and threw away all such idols and images, and came to worship God.

We know Mrs Ahok only converted to Christianity after she prayed to Christ for a boy and gave birth to a son; Lin, too, found herself pleading to her god in the same fashion. There seems to be little in the way of reflection in historical records on the manner in which their practices mirrored their ‘heathen’ counterparts.

A Photograph Mrs Ahok and her Grandchildren
Mrs Ahok and her Grandchildren, in Fagg, May, (Two Golden Lilies from the Empire of the Rising Sun, India’s Women and China’s Daughters (London,: Church of England Zenana Missionary Society, Marshall Brothers, 1923), p.84.)

Motherhood has never been a simple or straightforward endeavour, and its meanings have been shaped and reshaped over time. Despite the currents of religion, social change, and socio-economic differences, practices that constitute motherhood and the motivations behind these remain mirrors of each other.

Crucially, this reveals the curious way in which socio-cultural beliefs melded with Christian practice and ideas and were cohered differently by converts, despite being mirrors of frowned-upon ‘traditional’ practice. Mrs Ahok refers to her past prayers to the pantheon of Chinese gods and goddesses for a son. We find that her desperation for a male child is linked to her desire to embed and establish herself more firmly within her husband’s household, where she was facing difficulties and pressure. Mrs Ahok’s conversion was no different, in broad strokes, from any other woman becoming a devotee of a goddess after a prayer for a child was granted.

At the heart of this article is the notion that cultural internalisations run deep. More than that, however, is that these internalisations were often reinterpreted through different lenses that allowed Chinese Christian converts to reconcile new ideas – such as their religion – with their social and cultural upbringings. The worries of mothers and hopefuls did not confine itself to one segment of Qing or Republican society or any single religion. They were always culturally embedded, socially reinforced, and difficult to reject. They could, however, be synthesised, co-opted, and reinterpreted to fit with new information paradigms, as in the cases of Lin and Mrs Ahok. The ways in which these ideals were synthesised were, despite their paradoxes, always coherent and logical to their subjects.

The process of becoming a mother and understanding motherhood begins far before childbirth. Lin and Mrs Ahok were indelibly shaped by their experiences, interpretations, and local representations of what motherhood meant. In the dialogue between Chinese and Christian identities, we find that the reconciliation of the two is a constant, evolving intercourse. We have seen the ways in which ideals of motherhood formed its practice but also shaped the liminal spaces between wifehood and motherhood in Qing and Republican China. We have looked at how culturally-embedded ideas surrounding motherhood were taken, reshaped, and re-expressed in various guises. All of this informs, and should continue to inform, our wider understanding of how knowledge is transmitted, absorbed, and made coherent – and in the whole process transformed and naturalised.


Further Reading

  • Ebrey, Patricia Buckley, and Rubie S. Watson, eds., Marriage and Inequality in Chinese Society, ACLS Humanities E-Book. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991)

  • Rich, Adrienne, Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution (Norton, 1976)

  • Kwok, Pui Lan, Chinese Women and Christianity, 1860-1927, American Academy of Religion Academy Series (Scholars Press, 1992)

  • Wu, Yi-Li, Reproducing Women: Medicine, Metaphor, and Childbirth in Late Imperial China (University of California Press, 2010)

Rachel is a PhD candidate at University College London (UCL) working on the history of science, race, and medicine of late imperial and Republican China. She is a Senior Postgraduate Teaching Assistant at UCL and at the London School of Economics (LSE), where she teaches a course on Modernity and the State in East Asia. Her research explores imperial dynamics as it relates to modernity narratives, community cultures, and current decolonisation discourses. She completed her undergraduate degree in Law from the LSE in 2015, and her Master’s in International History from the LSE in 2018. She has previously worked as a lawyer and is interested in all forms of socio-legal history and gender history.


bottom of page