The Home Front: Chinese Mother-In-Law Nightmares

The Home Front: Chinese Mother-In-Law Nightmares
Sep 07, 2012 By Thomas Ackerman ,

Mothers-in-law have been a source of humor for us in the West for years now. We make fun of the stereotypical mother-in-law, who is usually portrayed as a human pit-bull -- vicious, aggressive and controlling. However, for whatever reason a lot of this view has become outdated and a very poor stereotype. Some still complain about their in-laws but most of us, if we complain, are more likely to do it about our parents than our mother-in-law.

In China, as you learn in only a short time here, the mother-in-law (popo) is known universally to be tough and controlling, particularly to her daughter-in-law (xifu). We’re not talking about an outdated stereotype; most Chinese will assure you it is quite true. This mother-in-law relationship is called “poxi guanxi” and has its roots in traditional family relationships. Since the son is the supporter of the elder family, it is his mother who moves in, at least temporarily, with the newly married couple. It is also she who has high authority over the household, and naturally over the daughter-in-law.

This sometimes results in the horror stories you may hear, the ones about the popo who is bossy at best and cruel at worst. Very often emotional issues get thrown into the family mix and the mother-in-law’s relationship becomes an emotional vendetta. This could be because of fear of losing her son, anger at the daughter-in-law for not having male children or just simple meanness.

To give you a more specific idea of what difficulties occur, I’ve gotten together some first and second-hand stories about the poxi guanxi relationship that cast some light on how it affects the home. Granted, most of this material comes from the daughter-in-law or parties sympathetic to her, so if I have not given the mother-in-laws their day in court, I do apologize.

North versus South

The Players: The mother-in-law, the elder Mrs. Cheng, is a widow from Sichuan Province. She is a very thrifty person and spoils her only son.

The daughter-in-law, the younger Mrs. Cheng, is a clerk in a foreign company. She is Cantonese and very independent.

As one might guess, an early point of conflict between the elder and younger Mrs. Cheng was food. The elder Mrs. Cheng, being from Sichuan, likes spicy food and eats everything heaping with hot peppers. Not so with the young Mrs. Cheng, who is from the south and hates spicy food. To resolve this the younger Cheng suggested that they eat their meals separately, but pretty soon her mother-in-law got angry and scolded her for this, even accusing her of not liking her. According to the elder Cheng, the daughter-in-law ought to adapt to the new kind of food, since she had married her son.

The elder Cheng is also critical of nearly everything that the younger Cheng does. She requires the younger Cheng to do things her way, especially when it comes to running the household. For example, once the young Cheng bought new clothes for her mother-in-law, the elder Cheng scolded her for spending money like water. You only know how to spend money – she said – and not save it. For the younger Cheng, this was slander, since in fact she rarely bought expensive clothes. She thinks her mother-in-law is just cheap, and views every Yuan as a thousand.

One final and very recurrent point of conflict is the son, Mr. Cheng. Whenever the younger Cheng spends time alone with her husband and has to leave her mother-in-law alone, the elder Cheng gets upset. This happens when the husband and wife go out for a meal or to hang out together. In the mind of the elder Cheng, her daughter-in-law is stealing her son from her, and even teaching him to ignore her.

Reasons: However troubling, the situation displayed here is actually fairly typical in China, and not extreme. The mother-in-law is still very much attached to her son and is used to always having her way.

She’s got to go

The Players: The mother-in-law, the elder Mrs. Lu, is a homemaker with little education. Her son is a businessman. Mrs. Lu always looked forward to grandsons and is very superstitious.

The daughter-in-law – the younger Mrs. Lu – used to be a pharmacist, but quit to become a homemaker after marriage.

The relationship between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law started quite well in this case, but in the long run nearly ended with a broken home. To begin with, the elder Mrs. Lu treated the younger kindly: when her daughter-in-law got pregnant the elder Lu bought her a lot of expensive maternity clothes and nutritious food. According to the elder Lu, she did this because her fortune teller had told her that her grandchild would be a boy. However, after the younger Lu gave birth to a girl, the elder Lu was more than disappointed and even blamed her daughter-in-law for it. In a fit, the elder Lu threw out all the gifts she had given to her daughter-in-law before.

Things soon went from bad to worse. The doctor told the younger Lu that because of a physical condition, she wouldn’t be able to have children for several more years. When the elder Lu heard this, she treated her daughter-in-law poorly, criticizing her and even implying to her son that he’d be better to divorce the younger Lu and marry someone else. The mother-in-law proceeded to arrange a date for her son with another woman, and told him that the fortune teller had claimed that this woman would have many boys and the family would become rich.

Reasons: Demands for a boy child are still strong in China today and this seems to be a motivating factor for the elder Lu. Practicing divination is far less common than in the past, although for Chinese who do consult fortune tellers or the I Ching, it truly does affect their life decisions. Trying to end the marriage itself, although not unheard of, is a severe step, even within the traditional poxi guanxi.


The Players: The mother-in-law, the elder Mrs. Dai, was a teacher and finally a middle school dean before retirement. She is always strict and serious.

The daughter-in-law, the younger Mrs. Dai, is an administrator at a company. She has a Master’s Degree and earns a high salary.

When the young Mr. and Mrs. Dai got married, the elder Mrs. Dai was required to come live with them. As is frequently the case, the mother-in-law immediately began interfering in her daughter-in-law’s social activities. For example, she would criticize the younger Mrs. Dai for going shopping with her friends or for chatting on the phone for more than a few minutes.

When the younger Dai got pregnant, the elder Dai returned to her own hometown, avoiding taking care of her daughter-in-law during pregnancy. The elder Dai also frequently implied that if the child were a girl she would not treat the younger Dai well. The child turned out to be a boy, and the mother-in-law was briefly happy, but the relationship still didn’t improve. The elder Dai rarely helped out taking care of the baby, and frequently criticized the younger Dai for her housekeeping and cooking.

Once, the younger Dai injured her hand and hired a household assistant to do much of the housework. This didn’t sit well with the mother-in-law, as the elder Dai soon came up with a series of excuses to fire the assistant, and then required the younger Dai to do the work herself.

Reasons: The elder Dai is very controlling in the home and certainly feels she has the right to be. According to the younger Dai’s reasoning, her mother-in-law treated her with such severity, that she deserved the same treatment in kind. This reason surely explains many other similar cases.

Related links
Chinese Wives’ Reaction List When Husband Stays Out All Night
Smile on Your Brother: Marrying into a Chinese Family
Dreading Your Wedding: Chinese Women and the Pressure to Marry

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Keywords: family relations china mother-in-law china family china in-laws china


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When I married my wife, my wife suddenly had to play second fiddle to me- I am not regarded as a son in law at all, but a full son.
Now, my mother in law is an educator and many of today's top leaders in China were her students at one time, so this is not a simpleton in the least.

My wife lamented that she has been a good daughter lo these many years only to see me step ahead of the line.

I am pleasantly surprised and this relationship is such that even with my limited Chinese and my mother in law's non existent English, we can sit for hours and talk about stuff .
I try to never impose, but she insists on giving me lavish gifts and always sends her wishes and love.

I was married before in the states and no way did I have as nice an experience as this.

I am thankful.

Sep 09, 2012 10:24 Report Abuse


gotta love chinese families....:-)

Feb 03, 2015 13:33 Report Abuse


Could this website start doing articles on something other than "how much tougher" Chinese have it? Seriously, f#ck off already. These fucking people have everything handed to them by their parents, even spouses.

Get a job, pay your own way already.

Sep 07, 2012 20:46 Report Abuse


You don't need the hyphens in this scenario.

Sep 07, 2012 20:49 Report Abuse


nice one retards, read the article and then point out a grammatical error. lucky you're not my mother in laws

Sep 07, 2012 22:43 Report Abuse