Mysterious Chinese Characters: Mǔ母

The addition of breasts to the kneeling figure depicted in the ancient character for woman creates the pictograph for 'mother'. (母 mǔ). (Brad T/CHINA GAZE staff)
The addition of breasts to the kneeling figure depicted in the ancient character for woman creates the pictograph for 'mother'. (母 mǔ). (Brad T/CHINA GAZE staff)

Chinese characters are pictographs that convey deep inner meanings. The addition of breasts to the kneeling figure depicted in the ancient character for woman (女 nǚ) creates the pictograph for “mother” (母 mǔ) — literally, a woman who suckles.

In pre-modern China, the primary duty of any woman was to marry and produce sons for her new family. She was always subservient to her husband and mother-in-law, and also confined to the home — literally so, if her feet had been bound.

If a woman succeeded in producing sons, her status was raised considerably, because it meant that in due course she, too, could become a mother-in-law, the most powerful female in the household.

Also, according to Confucian precepts of filial piety, the respect of children for their parents was the cornerstone of a stable society, and therefore, a man’s reverence toward his mother should take precedence over his love for his wife.

At least half of the stories in the Twenty-Four Examples of Filial Piety demonstrate the loyalty and obedience of children toward their mothers, stepmothers, or mothers-in-law.

Despite the inferior status of women in traditional society, there were two occasions when exceptionally forceful mothers succeeded in effectively ruling China. The first was when Wu Zetian deposed the emperor, her own son, in A.D. 690, declaring her own dynasty and ruling for nearly 20 years.

More than 1,000 years later, the dowager Empress Cixi, an imperial concubine like Empress Wu, effectively ruled China from 1861 to her death in 1908, during the reigns of her son Muzong and nephew Dezong.

There are several popular maternal deities in China, such as Xi Wang Mu, the powerful Queen Mother of the West, and Guanyin, the embodiment of maternal love and kindness.

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