I Promised You Bastards, Polygamy, and Deadly Queen Bees

And so you shall have them. But not necessarily in that order.

Or, Fuck You Freud, Part 2. My mama can kick your ass any time.

Polygamy vs. Nuclear Family

In my other post, I spent a lot of time clearing away what I felt was an ill-fitting and inappropriate belief system about family, as codified and legitimized by Freud. Now I want to delve into a whole other system of family that is as elaborately conceived, pattern- or archetype-oriented, and filled with its own pretensions toward normalization as Freud, but that is instead indigenous to Chinese culture. And by that I mean something so deeply dyed-in-the-wool that to name it is to almost invite ridicule at identifying something so self-evident.

I’m talking about the Confucian-derived way of naming extended family kin. I believe that it has as much power to shape ideas of individuation, gender difference, and sexual identity as Freud, if not more so. The Wikipedia entry is surprisingly useful and detailed:

In the Chinese kinship system:

  • Maternal and paternal lineages are distinguished. For example, a mother’s brother and a father’s brother have different terms.
  • The relative age of a sibling relation is considered. For example, a father’s younger brother has a different terminology than his older brother.
  • The gender of the relative is distinguished, like in English.
  • The generation from ego is indicated, like in English.

Chinese kinship is agnatic, emphasising patrilineality.

What this means in practice is that you will learn the Chinese way of “calling” your relatives from the time you are a child. Your mother’s eldest sister will be “a-yi” as opposed to plain vanilla “aunt.” Your paternal grandparents will be your “nai-nai” (grandmother) and “yeh-yeh” (grandfather), your maternal grandparents will be your “po-po” (grandmother) and “gung-gung” (grandfather). All of this, including birth order, will matter. so the wife of your father’s eldest brother, “da sao,” will have a place in the pecking order very different than that of the wife of the youngest son of the family. And it’s possible to have a great-uncle twelve, whose number, “twelve,” is an accounting for his ranking in the total number of male progeny of his generation. And what has jurisdiction over all of these relationships is a large, elaborate system of thought to dictate ideal behavior loosely understood as Confucian discourse (here glossed briefly by one of the chief contemporary neo-confucianist thinkers, Tu Weiming).

But why the elaborate way to name and identify, to quantify and map, each person’s relationship to you in such detail? Why isn’t a more generic “aunt” or “uncle” good enough? This is something only a Chinese American could ask, with our partial, deep-yet-occluded understanding. The kind of comprehension that lives in your marrows and has to be dredged and skimmed from the top of the soup pot after many boilings.

I remember when this question meant the world to me in graduate school, because I finally determined, after years of having the obvious stare me in the face, that the fixation on birth order was not some silliness over who was more likely to be a rebel and who was more likely to be a success/a leader, but because when a society is organized around polygamy, it becomes all the more important to keep the generations straight. That is, polygamy evolved with Confucianism to explain and support it; or vice versa…Confucianism enabled order to be imposed on polygamy. A man with more than one wife will attempt to have as many sons as possible, and all the sons he sires will be counted within the patriline but the daughters will not be as significant. So birth orders of the sons by different wives will matter in how the half-brothers are raised and supposed to relate to one another.

With multiply-branching family trees, it’s altogether conceivable, for example, that an aunt could be younger in chronological age than her nephew. What’s important is that her seniority in the family will require of her certain obligations, certain attitudes of responsibility and duties toward those considered her junior that come with the station, so to speak, and have little to do with who the individual person is.

Likewise, her nephew, while older, will have to act in ways that demonstrate awareness of her position within the family and his. But where this matters most is in how sons/half-brothers relate to one another, and how the line of succession to the Patriarch is counted.

All of this sounds very deterministic. And it is, and isn’t, in accordance with the way a discourse of family–a Confucian discourse of family–in existence for well over 2,000 years, has simultaneously been gathering in strength/ossifying and becoming diluted/threatening to disintegrate for 2,000 years.

By far the most radical blow to feudalism/Confucianism the communist Chinese enacted was–is–the one child policy. It not only ushered in “modernity” by drastically curtailing the size of most agrarian Chinese families, it gave lip service to dismantling male preference and elevating the station of women. For all its environmental impact (mostly positive–could China have sustained a wildly geometric rate of growth during the twentieth century when it was already the most populous nation at the close of the nineteenth?), the sudden rejection of extended/polygamous family structures in favor of western-style nuclear ones is ongoing and the social impact has yet to be charted.

But because the People’s Republic of China is undeniably the sun exerting an unspoken gravitational pull on the rest of diasporic ethnic chinese living in the satellites of Asia/Southeast Asia, Europe, and North, South and Central America, its experiment in sudden, drastic nuclear family formation will significantly disrupt what semi-extended or semi-nuclear family formations exist in the diaspora.

In fact, I believe that among diasporic Chinese today, the “traditional”/Confucian extended family is more powerfully manifest than in mainland China. Especially among the wealthy. Who hasn’t heard of the “Hong Kong” divorce, where wife number one gets to live in retirement with her children while businessman hubby keeps “wives” (mistresses) #2, 3, and 4 in Macao, Taiwan, or Shanghai? The whole time no one is divorced; geography displaces a lot of uncomfortable feelings that would otherwise have to be confronted, and property allocated as a result. Easier and probably cheaper to let short plane rides stand in for what everyone tacitly acknowledges: there’s more than a little something-something on the side.

And, as we can also see, the one child policy in china may have sundered the extended family as it was known in feudal times, but it did nothing by way of vanquishing male preference or replacing male preference with appreciation for females. (This heartbreaking article speaks to the high rate of suicide among rural chinese women, who are treated like mules. 450 million chinese women currently live this way. And then there’s this.) Attitudes and the behaviors that belie them, those ancient parts of Chinese culture, have not proven to be as easily renovated as the sleeping and housekeeping arrangements.

As I’ve argued before, polygamy is curiously co-extensive with homosexuality and other sexual identities as we’ve come to know them today. It’s entirely possible to have as one’s main sexual interest other men, and at the same time, to fulfill the filial, normally heteronormative obligation to reproduce with women. This resembles the more “decadent” or European approach to marriage, which recognizes that marital relations and erotic passion often must exist within different partners. I’m not saying this is right, nor am I saying that pre-modern definitions of homosocial relationships, including homoerotic attachments, are historically continuous with what we currently understand to be gay/lesbian identities now. But I am saying if we underestimate the persistence of Confucian influences it can be surprising to see a man whose primary sexual attachments are to men also concurrently act as the biological father to children in what seems like a heteronormative arrangement such as marriage to a woman. I think what I’m decrying here is the potential for Chinese culture to treat Chinese women like brood sows regardless of how “traditional” or how “modern” Chinese culture is reputed to be–regardless of the rhetoric of homophobia (mainland china: “homosexuality is a western import!”) or the tacit tolerance of homosexuality (much of classical chinese literature/pre-Qing dynasty chinese culture, passions of the “cut sleeve”).

In thinking a lot about polygamy in graduate school–technically, polygyny, or the practice of multiple female partners by a man, typically a high-status, bourgeois/wealthy man–I spent a lot of time doing the usual feminist critique rooted in Gayle Rubin’s ideas about the traffic in women. Heteronormativity, goes this feminist critique, circulates women in a gift economy arranged by, benefiting, and further propagated by men. The usual example is the “giving away” the father of the bride does when he walks his daughter, the bride, down the aisle at her marriage. The bride is transacted (passive tense, for a passive situation!) between two men: her father and the new patriline she joins, that of her husband. This seems like very much second-wave feminism at work, and very useful to begin to identify systems and roughly sketch power relations.

But what I was interested in is how women are actors, for better or worse, within that system of patriarchy. Given polygyny, how do women act? What are the reactions of wife #1 when wife #2 is (and subsequent wives, or mistresses are) presented to her? What are the dynamics among them? Could it be possible that women “trafficked” in men? That they sought to game the system in ways that made the favor of men (if not the men themselves) the coin of transaction? Mind you, there’s no way I’d argue women pro-actively working in this way to gain some sort of advantage for themselves inside patriarchy is a feminist act. I just believe it’s a far from passive act. That they were far from only acted upon. If anything, the signature flag of Confucian patriarchal power is a kind of imperial passivity–no need to lift a finger when the culture’s organized around you and women’s energy tied up with executing your privilege. And that admission alone probably puts me in the company of third wave feminists, the ones who own up to the existence of Queen Bees and Wannabes.


This is hard for me to write, and even though I might only have 30 regular readers at most, all of whom I appreciate and who I hope read in good faith, it’s still difficult to disclose. Does it make it more shameful to tell a secret, or to keep it? Or does talking about the so-called unspeakable take away the shame, if we deny that it’s something shameful to begin with?

The difficulty stems from an extremely protective feeling toward my mother. My impulse to protect her secrets with my silence clashes with my impulse to protect her from what I believe are a larger set of untruths that unfairly shackle and pain her, and stand between her and her own sense of self-worth. Is this my Atonement, my moment of supreme self-serving rationalization mingled with sacrifice? Very possibly. It occurs to me that one reason literary criticism exists is that we chew over in plain view what we elsewhere politely agree to avert our eyes from: literature stands in for what we otherwise cannot bear to discuss, and yet cannot bear to leave silent. Literature is the mannequin we practice mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on in the hopes of saving our own lives.

My mother is an “outside” child. Late in life, she learned the woman she always thought was her mother was in fact the number one wife, and her biological mother was a number two wife. I am thinking this explains a lot about my mother.

Why did number two wife die young? So young that my mother hardly remembers her? I’ve stared at the one surviving photograph of her, trying to find any clue to this mystery.

Which brings me to:

Deadly Queen Bees

The American version of female relational violence, as popularized by Rosalind Wiseman’s book, addresses the problem of female bullying as one limited to adolescence. But we all know this is too neat to reflect reality: Queen Bee tweens and teens grow up to terrorize their grown up peers. Take one example among many: drive-by mothering (you know, where moms snipe at each others’ mothering in sneaky ways).

Adolescent girls bullying each other is, literally, child’s play. Among adult women, there’s so much more at stake. Think back to The Joy Luck Club and the mother An-Mei Hsu (“Magpies”), whose own mother was unlucky wife #4. That mother committed suicide right before the new year so her daughter An-Mei could use the power of An-Mei’s mother’s ghost to protect herself. Now it was not wife #1 who was the deadly queen bee, it was wife #2. She made An-Mei’s mother’s life so miserable as wife #4 that it was better to make the household afraid of her ghost than to continue living in those circumstances.

When wives are forced to live together, are forced to accept one another and have no power other than what an absent man grants them, then all the ugly relational violence, compounded a million and one times by the passive-aggressiveness and indirection of Chinese culture, finds expression in the intimate relationships these women have with one another. In “Magpies,” wife #2 tricks An-Mei’s mother into being raped by Wu-Tsing, husband to all these women. She takes over the precious son who is the result of that rape in an act of aggressive fostering. and she deprives An-Mei and her mother of the material comfort of a separate house that Wu-Tsing had promised them.

Wife #2 is, as most Queen Bees are, powerful within a system that also victimizes her. Trying to succeed within patriarchy brings out monstrous behavior in wife #2. To secure her own position she sacrifices another woman’s well-being, that woman’s mental health, bodily integrity, happiness, and dignity. And she does this under the guise of friendship with An-Mei’s mother and by manipulating the fears of her superstitious, male-heir desiring and ghost-fearing husband.

Can a Queen Bee kill you? Sure she can. Even better, she can lead you to want to kill yourself. Pushing someone to the edge of suicide is a much neater form of murder anyway, isn’t it?

Was my mother’s biological mother put in a similar situation? How did she mysteriously die? I’ve met the woman who was my mother’s proclaimed mother. She wasn’t ever mean to me, though I can’t say she was warm, either. She came from Taiwan and attended my birth here in the U.S. She lived with my mother and father and me for several months to help out when I was a newborn. There’s meaning in those acts I feel it’ll take my lifetime to sort out.

But I know she was unhappy that her husband had a second wife. And I can’t imagine any woman who has a shred of feeling for her husband brooks the appearance of a second wife (or more) happily, even if the entire culture is set up for precisely such a thing. Nor can it be a happy situation to foster a girl child whose biological mother is dead, when that child is a constant reminder of your husband’s lack of fidelity to you.

In the end, the only way I can see it clearly is that it takes the unhappiness and bitterness of three women to guarantee the satisfaction of one man: my mother’s biological mother, clearly miserable; my mother’s foster mother, the first wife, clearly displeased; and my mother, crucially unmoored in the way I imagine children who are fostered or part of families through closed adoption are. And even more so to have the details of your mother’s origins revealed to you late in life. The man, of course, is my maternal grandfather. In some ways, his life has cast a shadow on mine through three women close to him.

To this day

  • I don’t do well with Queen Bees. I think they find me insufficiently deferential.
  • a corollary: I don’t do well with entitled women. Their sense of entitlement triggers my rage. It’s envy at their presumption and also anger that their entitlement often gets played out in zero-sum fashion.
  • I’ve allowed women to damage and injure me in ways I’d never allow a man to.
  • I’ve foregone close relationships with other women friends when I should’ve been open to them.
  • I have difficulty reconciling the ideals of feminism with the ways women actually act.
  • I refuse to horse-trade the confidences of other women to my own benefit as a sort of ‘will to power’ (maybe naively so?). It’s shocking what people tell me. and yet I never “use” this information.
  • I view powerful women as potentially dangerous (lethal, even?) women. It’s unfair and not always true, but it’s how I view them.
  • I feel the strong absence of a guide to these thickets that seems to compound through time; I don’t feel as if I’ve gained any greater sense of how to navigate feminine schadenfruede successfully.

Luckily I also feel the need for a certain kind of female approval less and less. Though I’m sure there is a “sisterhood network” I could’ve benefited from and happily contributed to that I didn’t. I am trying to unlearn this habit of distrust and suspicion. Not all women deserve that, though I’m sad to say many do.

  • I used to enter into friendships with women where my job was to be second fiddle. The minute I decided not to accept that, my friendships with these women often ended. I’m saddened by the loss of these friendships but at the same time relieved. These “alpha women” were never as interesting as they thought they were and I have much more energy to do other things than to play sidekick–I prefer to focus on my own life, for example. Why they need female friendships that require flunkies is their issue, not mine.
  • I’m getting better about not being bullied by other women.
  • I’m getting better about not giving a shit about what other women think. I stopped giving a shit about what most men think a long time ago.
  • I’m improving my ability to be resilient when it comes to the give and take of power between and among women. Why give your own power away? Why not just let a certain amount of bullshit and crazymaking roll off you like water off a duck’s back, much in the same way I tune out the honking, flapping, and parading of male privilege? (Easier said than done, but still. Fake it ’til you make it.)
  • I’m getting better at making and demanding a place for myself and asserting on my mother’s behalf, instead of reflexively folding and taking quiet abjection as our due.

So with regard to shame: there is nothing that my mother did or does to make me or anyone else ashamed of her. Her existence as an “outside” child is not shameful. It describes the circumstances of how her life began but not the totality of who she is now, and everything she struggled for and has accomplished against huge odds. What is shameful is how Chinese culture continues to lay these head trips, using every possible form of social coercion (norms, propriety, pressure from men and other women, the threat of becoming outcast from your patriline), on Chinese women inside and outside the diaspora.

I used to wonder why Maxine Hong Kingston’s “ghost women” (The Woman Warrior) reverberated so much with me. It’s because now I see that women have always existed on the margins of patrilineation. We are always already “illegitimate,” unclaimed, outside. Once we die, Chinese women will be forgotten. Nameless, we’ll be erased. How can a woman be an ancestor for beyond one or two generations of direct memory? But though that fate is sad, it’s more tragic to walk around alive and already be treated like a ghost. When you’re reminded of your lack of consequence, your insignificance, your existence that has meaning solely to enable/ease/boost another’s–well, who can survive that kind of daily annihilation? Self-abnegation of that order is unliveable.

It’s not only my life, my Joy Luck Club dramas with my mother, though. I’m convinced traditional Chinese culture, steeped in Confucian beliefs, creates a tremendous wound between women, whether between mother and daughter or between women who should be peers, friends, or allies. Instead, the imposition of hierarchy where it need not exist warps and distances women from one another.

I think there’s a tremendous feminist yearning for the strong, benevolent mother who is our untiring advocate, mentor, and protector. This all-powerful mother teaches us to successfully navigate the smallness and venality of womanhood, and instead gives us the keys to unlock the powerful and merciful qualities of love in each other. To make each other and our well-being a priority. Instead, male preference, and female power through male preference, distorts our relationships to one another.

So you see, it was crucial to me that any kind of feminism I encountered could account for my mother’s painful life, and her mystery mother’s life too. The kind of feminism I encountered in the academy kept wanting me to sell my mother out for a veneer of theoretical sophistication and upward mobility, careerwise. I just couldn’t do it. All I wanted to do was to take Virginia Woolf at her word, to literally and figuratively “think back through [my] mother.” And do it in a way as close as possible to my “mother tongue,” so to speak.

Someone might wonder, “well, what would be wrong with adapting Freud to describe what matters to you?”

To which I would reply, “why not anchor an entire new apparatus describing family, gender, and sexuality in something more culturally and linguistically proximate, aside from your own ignorance and resistance to the need to educate yourself in that material?” The last thing I naively expected was another form of erasure. It was, however, exactly what I got.

In short, fuck you, Freud, and the horse you rode in on.

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8 thoughts on “I Promised You Bastards, Polygamy, and Deadly Queen Bees

  1. wow. thank you for this. this entry was a wonderful gift for the start of 2008. i know exactly what you mean about friendships with other women, though i too am optimistic in a few cases where women have been AWESOME and in general as I’ve become more comfortable in my own skin.

    anyway, you totally rock.

  2. mayumi,
    thank you for your comment, and for reading. maybe at a later date i’ll post some notes toward what positive, healing women’s friendships would look and feel like…trying to own this and my part within it, both the dysfunction and the tentative steps toward something beneficial. i’ve been lucky to have a few of these nourishing relationships too–aren’t we all trying to recover from the various -isms that act on and through us?

    for now, it feels good to let fear go.

    something i hope to do more of in 2008.


  3. this post was incredible. it took a lot to share your observations about your mother, i imagine, and i appreciate that candid bravery. i’ve read maxine hong kingston (way back in feminist lit a thousand, er, some years ago) as well as the joy luck club. i have always wished that i could get perspective from an person who lived the culture, as these books actually tore at me but i could never understand why. hearing your perspective makes it all start to make sense.

    oh, and that freud guy? what you said goes double from me.

  4. wreke,
    thanks–i know i have amazing, thoughtful readers who wouldn’t slam or abuse me, so it made it easier to do, though it was still hard. and i’m glad it spoke to you in some small way–that it wasn’t purely a solipsistic exercise.

    it’s tiring to live caged by fear or shame. what’s to be afraid or ashamed about?

    kafka’s “frozen sea within us,” forster’s “only connect,” etc. why else write, and for other people?

  5. THAT was great.

    What struck me, perhaps showing my own poverty of empathy was:

    i don’t do well with Queen Bees. i think they find me insufficiently deferential.

    a corollary: i don’t do well with entitled women. their sense of entitlement triggers my rage. it’s envy at their presumption and also anger that their entitlement often gets played out in zero-sum fashion.

    I don’t do well with entitled people at all. I’m hoping to change that by entitling myself.

  6. amazing, isn’t it, that ten years after leaving grad school i still haven’t expelled a lot of the toxins? :)

    felt good to set down my enormous dislike for freud for once and for all. i’ve always said i still believe in and value the work i did there, just hated the experience.

    oh interblogs, where were you when i was but a naive graduate student? i could’ve told all my tales out of school then, slapped Google Adsense on the blog, and made my fortune that way from the zillion and one academics drooling for my fresh UC Berkeley gossip.

  7. jael on

    you write wonderfully, cynematic. living in a confucian (though not chinese culture) as a white western woman has been a steep learning curve: your comments about naming conventions in the family is something that I’ve found very difficult to adapt to. Really glad to have found your blog: I can see myself returning often for further insight! thank you

  8. Ryenwine on

    Thank you for posting this: I found it very interesting. Even though an englishman, I have had a soft spot for Confucianism and its warm, human values, ever since I studied it (out of curiosity) some 15 years ago.

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