Ancient China witnessed many talented and upright historic figures, who brought great changes to their time and became role models in Chinese culture.
But many of them would not have achieved this without the upbringing they received from their mothers. These mothers were more than loving caregivers, but were also their mentor and coach, serving as their moral compass even when they were adults.
Here are some stories of famous mothers in Chinese history, who raised their children into famous men of honour.
Raising A Heroic General
Yue Fei (岳飞) was a military general and hero of the Southern Song dynasty, and is best known for leading the Song army in repelling the Jurchen invaders. Revered in Chinese culture for being the epitome of loyalty, Yue Fei had a famous tattoo on his back that read: “Serve the country with utmost loyalty (尽忠报国).”
Many Chinese know that the tattoo was placed by Yue Fei’s mother, Lady Yue. But how many of us know the real story behind that tattoo?
A Lifelong Message to Her Son
When Yue Fei was a young adult, he was visited by a stranger. The stranger introduced himself as Wang Zuo (王佐), a general serving the rebel Yang Yao. Yang Yao was a notorious bandit of Dongting Lake, who had raised his own rebel army.
“My leader has heard of your superb talent in martial and military arts. As such, he invites you to join his army,” said Wang Zuo, while placing a present of gold ingots and precious gems before Yue Fei.
But Yue Fei immediately rejected Wang Zuo’s offer and gifts. “I was born a Song subject, and will die a ghost of Song!” he exclaimed.
After sending Wang Zuo off, Yue Fei went back into his home and told his mother what had happened. After some silent thought, Lady Yue asked Yue Fei to prepare the ancestral altar for prayer, while she went to fetch Yue Fei’s wife.
After lighting some incense and praying to the heavens and their ancestors, Yue Fei’s mother asked Yue Fei’s wife to prepare some ink.
She then said to Yue Fei, “My son, I am glad that you chose righteousness over greed today. However, I worry that after I have passed on, there will continue to be malicious men who will lure you into committing dishonourable deeds.
“Therefore, I have told Heaven and our ancestors that I will be tattooing four words on your back, to remind you of your lifelong duty to remain loyal to your country and preserve the good name of our family.”
Yue Fei agreed to his mother’s suggestion, and knelt before her. Picking up an ink brush, Yue Fei’s mother wrote “serve the country with utmost loyalty (尽忠报国)”on his back, and began piercing the words into his skin with a needle.
With the first prick, Yue Fei’s back twitched. Yue Fei’s mother asked if it hurt, but Yue Fei replied, “Why do you ask when you haven’t even started piercing?”
With tears in her eyes, Yue Fei’s mother replied, “I know you are telling me it doesn’t hurt, because you don’t want me to falter.” With that, she grit her teeth and continued pricking. After she was done, she painted the words with ink mixed with vinegar, so that they would never fade.
For the rest of his life, Yue Fei maintained his unwavering loyalty to the Emperor and dynasty, even though he was finally betrayed and assassinated by the corrupt Prime Minister Qin Hui (秦桧) and Wang Shi (王氏), Qin Hui’s wife.
Legend goes that when Qin Hui charged Yue Fei with treason, Yue Fei uncovered the tattoo on his back – a validation to those present that he was clearly innocent of the charges.
Nurturing A Master Poet
Ouyang Xiu (欧阳修) was a reputed statesman and writer of the Song Dynasty. Before he became a famed poet and one of the most powerful men in the imperial court, he grew up in a relatively poor home with very humble beginnings.
Ouyang Xiu’s father died when he was three, and he was raised by his mother, Zheng Shi (郑氏). In addition to being the sole breadwinner of the family, Zhengshi took it upon herself to educate her son despite their impoverished circumstances.
Zheng Shi began teaching Ouyang Xiu from a very young age, by telling him stories that emphasised life principles and values. In particular, she constantly reminded him to never blindly follow the norm, but to always weigh the morality of one’s actions.
Teaching Her Son to Write in Sand
When Ouyang Xiu was a little older, Zheng Shi began teaching him to read and write. She started by reading him poems by famous Tang Dynasty poets. Although Ouyang Xiu was still too young to fully understand the poems, they sparked his passion in poetry and prose.
When Ouyang Xiu reached the age of schooling, Zheng Shi very much wanted him to receive an education. However, the family was too poor to afford paper and ink brushes, much less enrol him into a school.
But Zheng Shi did not give up. Without writing materials, she improvised with stiff reed stalks from a nearby lake, and the smooth sandy ground in front of their home. Every day, both mother and son would write Chinese characters in the sand until Lady Ouyang was satisfied with Ouyang Xiu’s penmanship.
Under his mother’s tutelage, Ouyang Xiu quickly fell in love with the poetry and books that he copied daily. His literacy grew exponentially, and despite his young age he could memorise the contents of books that he had just skimmed.
Stories of Integrity
Prior to his death, Ouyang Xiu’s father was a minor official in administration and judicial affairs. When Ouyang Xiu became an official, Zheng Shi would tell him stories of his father’s integrity and good deeds.
“As an official, your father often worked late into the night,” she recounted. “He paid exceptional attention to cases involving commoners, and he would review those cases in great detail to prevent unjust sentences from being passed. Where available, he would lighten the sentence. As for those sentences he could not lighten, he would often sigh in regret.”
She added, “Your father was very upright, and he refused to take bribes. He frequently gave money to charity, and although he did not earn much, he kept little for himself as he did not want his wealth to become a burden. As such, after he died, he left behind no house or land.”
Zheng Shi continued, “You don’t have to provide me with a luxurious life; what is more important to me is your filial heart. While you cannot give all your possessions to the poor, you must always treat them with kindness and generosity. I cannot teach you how to govern, but if you can remember your father’s example, I can live without worry.”
Zheng Shi’s teachings would define Ouyang Xiu’s career as an official. When she passed away at the age of 73, Ouyang Xiu specially arranged for her to be buried in her hometown.
Raising A Virtuous Governor
Tao Kan (陶侃) was a renowned general and governor of the Jin Dynasty. He was also the great-grandfather of the Jin Dynasty poet Tao Yuanming.
Tao Kan lost his father at a young age, and their family was very poor. While his mother, Zhan Shi (湛氏), had little literacy, she understood the importance of education. She thus worked hard to support her family and pay for Tao Kan’s schooling, by weaving cloth to sell.
But the young Tao Kan was playful and did not devote himself to his studies. This worried Zhan Shi very much.
Teaching Her Son to Treasure Time
One rainy day, Tao Kan was playing beside his mother while she weaved cloth. As Zhan Shi swiftly passed the shuttle back and forth, Tao Kan looked on curiously.
Zhan Shi asked him, “How are you doing in your studies?”
Tao Kan began reciting his homework from his textbook, Ancient and Modern Chinese Proverbs. “Time flies like an arrow, days and months flash by like a weaver’s shuttle,” he said.
Zhan Shi then pointed at her shuttle and said: “My son, doesn’t the shuttle fly very fast as I weave? Each day passes very quickly; don’t they fly by as fast as a shuttle or arrow?”
Tao Kan realised his mother was teaching him to cherish time and use it wisely. He began putting his utmost effort in his studies.
After becoming an official, Tao Kan often reminded his subordinates, “The sage Yu the Great cherished every second; we as common people should cherish every minute.”
Sacrificing Her Hair for Guests
If I receive official property as a present, it not only does not make me happy, but even adds to my unhappiness!
– Tao kan (陶侃)’s mother to her son.
When Tao Kan was a young adult, he was paid a visit by his good friend, Fan Kui. Fan Kui (范逵) had just been made an official in Luoyang, and was on his way to Luoyang fill the position.
It was a cold winter, and Fan Kui was coming with a large entourage of servants and horse carriages. But Tao Kan’s family was very poor, and Tao Kan fretted about how to entertain his guest and his entourage.
When Zhan Shi learned about Tao Kan’s predicament, she cut her long hair and traded it at the market for rice and meat. She also cut up her straw sleeping mat, to serve as fodder for the horses. Tao Kan himself dismantled half the wooden pillars in the house, and chopped them into firewood to keep the house warm.
When Fan Kui met Zhan Shi, he was surprised to see that her long hair was gone. After some digging, he discovered what Zhan Shi and Tao Kan had done. He sighed, “A mother as virtuous and capable as her would certainly have moulded her son into a great talent!”
The Tao family’s act of hospitality left a deep impression on Fan Kui, who recommended Tao Kan for an official position, launching Tao Kan’s political career.
Returning a Jar of Salted Fish
Early in his career, Tao Kan was posted as an official for a small fishing industry in Xunyang Commandary. While far from home, Tao Kan remembered his mother, who had lived in abject poverty most of her life.
One day, while he colleagues were away, Tao Kan snuck a jar of her favourite salted fish from the fishery and sent it to his mother.
Zhan Shi was very happy to see the gift. But when she learned about the improper means by which Tao Kan had obtained it, she resealed the jar and sent it back to Tao Kan with a letter reprimanding him: “If I receive official property as a present, it not only does not make me happy, but even adds to my unhappiness!”
Tao Kan was full of remorse for letting his mother down. He became a clean and upright official, and maintained stringent ethical standards throughout his life.
Cultivating A Great Sage
Mencius is one of China’s greatest philosophers and sages. But behind the great sage was an equally great mother – Mdm Zhang.
Like Ouyang Xiu and Tao Kan, Mencius lost his father when he was three, and was raised singlehandedly by his mother. There are many stories of how Mdm Zhang did everything to ensure her son had a virtuous upbringing. She went to great lengths to provide her son with the right conditions to learn, and taught and disciplined her son from youth to adulthood.
Moving Her Family Three Times
One of the most well-known tales is how Mdm Zhang moved the family three times, as she sought a good environment to bring up her son.
The Mengs originally lived in Ghost Village, at the foot of Ma-an Mountain. Tombstones were scattered all around the village, and funeral rites were frequently held in the area.
Seeing the adults hold funeral rites on a daily basis, Mencius and the village children began enacting funeral rites during the pretend-play as well. This pained Mdm Zhang and she wished to reduce Mencius’ exposure to these sights, but she could not bring herself to lock her active son indoors. Her only other solution was to move to another place.
After much difficulty, Mdm Zhang finally moved the family to a village with a market. The market was a bustling place where people bargained for goods. Like the other children in the village, Mencius soon began mimicking the calculated haggling of the buyers and merchants.
This again worried Mdm Zhang, who did not want Mencius to grow up believing that calculating behaviour was a desirable trait. As such, she decided to move house again.
This time, Mdm Zhang moved to a home near a school. As many scholars lived in the vicinity, their calm, courteous and refined mannerisms had a great influence on the villagers, particularly the young children.
At playtime, Mencius and the other children would meet and re-enact the courteous bows and exchanges between the scholars. This sight made Mdm Zhang sigh with relief: “Finally, I have found the right place for my son to grow up in!”
Ripping the Cloth on Her Loom
To pay for her son’s schooling and to help them get by, Mdm Zhang wove cloth on her loom. Each bolt of cloth took days to weeks to make.
Mencius, however, was not always disciplined in his studies, and one day he skipped school.
When Mencius returned home, he saw his mother at her loom with a nearly finished piece of cloth. Silently, she took out her scissors and began cutting giant, ugly rips in the beautiful cloth.
Mencius was thunderstruck – what was his mother doing? Then Mdm Zhang admonished:” Your act of skipping school is no different from me ripping up this cloth! The only way one can achieve great things is through consistent, hard work. If you keep putting in half-hearted, inconsistent efforts into your studies, you will never amount to anything. How will you be able to support your family and future career?”
Mencius was distressed and ashamed. Knowing how much effort it took for his mother to weave each bolt of cloth, he took his mother’s lesson to heart. From then on, he applied himself to his studies diligently.