All-round Woman Tackled Marriage Crisis
In ancient times, women who were talented could hardly handle the chores of housewives. Can you picture the scene of Lin Daiyu managing the trivia in Jia’s mansion? Can you imagine Li Qingzhao—who was always either writing or drinking—minding the farmland and counting the income of the shop? Vice versa, how can a housewife who hosts the whole family—looking after the old and young—spare time to sigh for the changes of seasons and convert emotions into literary works?
Guan Daosheng managed to do it. Not only was she a talented and intelligent lady, she was also an able housewife, performing well both in the kitchen and the hall.
Guan Daosheng was highly versatile, mastering writing, painting, and calligraphy. Her calligraphy enjoyed equal popularity with that of Madam Wei, teacher of the eminent calligrapher Wang Xizhi. Therefore, she was honored as “Madam Guan.” Her paintings were also regarded as national treasures and showcased at the Palace Museum. Her husband, Zhao Mengfu was more renowned. As the eleventh grandson of Emperor Taizu of Song, Zhao Kuangyin, he was also a calligrapher, painter, and poet in the Yuan dynasty. The same hobbies brought them together. The sweet couple led a happy life, having three sons and six daughters.
Apart from the eldest who died young, the other eight offspring of Guan grew healthily in the years without antibiotics, vaccinations, and surgery. This shows how careful she was when tending to her children. She had once written a poem about child rearing: “Another sunny day in Spring, with the kids, off to the bamboo forest. Now that Spring is in the air, under the sun, bamboo shoots sprout.” The poem not only expressed the joy of hanging out with the youth, it also revealed a mother’s expectations for children to grow up healthily. Apart from taking children to family trips, she also painted with the children. Educated in this enjoyable manner, her sons, Zhao Yong and Zhao Yi, both became masters of calligraphy and painting.
Guan Daosheng was also an efficient manager. Under her management, the whole family was united and harmonious. To the elders, she never neglected her filial duties; to her husband and the younger, she offered them help and care. Besides, she was very kind to her kinsmen. If she knew anyone was sold into slavery, she would buy him freedom. If she found anyone in trouble, she would give a hand without hesitation. Therefore, she won the love and respect of all her kins. Normally, it is annoying enough for an ordinary woman to deal with her mother and sister in law. However, Guan Daosheng was able to manage the huge family of more than a hundred people. Surely, she was a “superwoman.” Also, her social competence was impressive. The colleagues and friends of her husband all showered praise on her. Later, when her husband was promoted, she was honored as “the Madam of Wei.” After that,
Guan often appeared in the palace. In court, the lady again impressed people with her social capability, and became a close friend of the Queen.
However, such a lady with high intelligence and sociability also encountered marriage crisis. In ancient China, men were allowed to have concubines. Men who refused to have concubines would be called hen-pecked and his companions would also send him concubines. For this reason, we can’t call Zhao Mengfu a bad man. He was just tired of his partner after years of marriage.
In his forties, Zhao Mengfu was sent to work in the south Yangtze River region and Guan Daosheng was left in the capital city to look after the family. The couple was parted. Over the next two years, Zhao Mengfu didn’t return home and he only wrote occasionally to his wife. Immediately, Guan Daosheng sensed that her husband must have been with another women. Compared with those sobbing and rowdy women who were mad at their husbands’ affairs, Guan Daosheng was a notch above them. She knew that quarrelling with her husband would only give the mistress opportunity to creep in. Therefore, she wrote a letter to her husband saying: “The bamboos you cut when you left, they have grown into a forest, but you have not returned. The withered flowers will bloom again, but the decrepit appearance of mine can never reverse.” This letter expressed her deep love for her husband and the melancholy triggered by the passing of time. There was not a single line of complaint. Zhao Mengfu came back home immediately after reading this letter.
In his fifties, Zhao Mengfu felt restless again. This time, he also obliquely expressed his intentions. He wrote a letter to his wife saying: “I am the official, you are the wife. Haven’t
you heard that official Wang has Tao Ye and Tao Gen and official Su has Zhao Yun and Mu Yun? I am justified to have some Wu Ji and Yue Nv. Already in your forties, minding the household is enough for you.” In this letter he tried to tell his wife that writer Su Shi and calligrapher Wang Xianzhi all had concubines, thus it was reasonable for him to have a few mistresses. He felt the main focus of his faded wife should be the family and being a responsible wife.
Guan Daosheng decided to impress her husband with love, writing a tune as a reply: “You have me in your heart, I have you in mine. We are in love, fiery love. Take the clay, model and mold me. Break us together, mix us with water. Remodel you and me. You are in the clay of mine, I am in the clay of yours. In life, we are under the same quilt; after death, we lie under the same plank.”
After reading this tune, Zhao Mengfu broke down. How could a concubine live and die with her man? Breaking his wife’s heart for a temporary plaything was not worthwhile. From then on, he spent the rest of his life with just his wife.
At the age of 57, Guan Daosheng died of disease. Zhao Mengfu was inconsolable and sullen, dying just three years later. The couple was buried at the south foot of Dongheng Mountain, Deqing County, Huzhou City. Eventually, they brought the line “In life, we are under the same quilt; after death, we lie under the same plank” into reality.
(From MarriageandFamily Issue 3, 2017. Translation: Yu Lan.)