The Men Plow and the Women Weave

Xiao Mei

PureInsight | April 5, 2004

Part I

It is amazing how off target our preconceived ideas and prejudices can be. We often develop ideas based on skimpy, second hand information and emotions that are 180 degrees off from the true situation. During the Christmas holidays three years ago, Ying, who is a friend of a friend and lives in the southern part of the United States, came to visit my friend who lives in the north. When I heard the news of her arrival, I went to my friend's place immediately to meet Ying because she is said to be a very talented woman and an accomplished writer.

I had imagined Ying to be an aloof, arrogant, unsociable, and the least amiable type of person because of her talents. I had also imagined her to be the dominant one in her marriage. But it turned out that these were just my own biased presumptions. When I entered my friend's house that day, Ying was sitting quietly next to her husband. She looked like a gentlewoman from the Tang Dynasty. An amiable smile seems to have permanently registered on her face. I could not help wondering, "How come she's not at all what I have imagined? How could someone as talented as she, be so humble and quiet?"

This made me become all the more curious about Ying. I was sitting across from her, so I took the advantage of that position to quietly observe her while people talked. When her children took a break from playing, they came over and snuggled against Ying, who then put her arms around them affectionately. My immediate impression of Ying was that she is an affectionate mother and a virtuous wife.

Ying's husband appeared to be an austere man. He talked a lot. He had his own unique viewpoint on everything. His comments sounded more like criticism. If the person that he criticized were to be in the audience, I am sure the target of his criticism would feel very uncomfortable. His sarcasms were quite pungent. Luckily for me, he only criticized Ying that day.

"A wife is the center of a family. If the center is not stable, the family is not stable." He tried to imply that Ying sometimes nagged him.

"But woman are naturally more talkative." I said in Ying's defense.

I looked to Ying, and she was still smiling. She said peacefully; "I am not doing my best in my cultivation, so sometimes I might lose my composure." Ying's response immediately stopped her husband from making additional criticism. I applauded in my heart for Ying's progress in her cultivation and her deft use of restraining fierceness with gentleness.

Part II

During the Christmas holiday this year, Ying brought her husband and their children to the north for skiing, and decided to stay at my humble home. I am a terrible housewife in terms of keeping house, and I was pretty nervous about having people over. I made a effort to tidy up my home and make dumplings from scratch for them, but the end result was less than satisfactory.

Soon Ying and her family arrived. They also brought their lovely pet bird with them.

Ying seemed to admire my new home very much because she took a really good look at the interior as soon as she walked in. I was embarrassed about my home's appearance, because I had been indulging in my hobbies lately. Thus, I had neglected my domestic duty and had become a "part-time" housewife.

Despite the initial embarrassment, I felt exactly like what Confucius said, "Good friends coming to see me from far away. Is it not delightful?" When Ying followed me into the kitchen, I almost felt like apologizing to her because I did not know how to receive guests who had traveled a long way to see me.

As I picked up a big bowl of unseasoned ground pork, I told Ying apologetically, " I'm very bad at receiving guests. I'm nervous when they come."

Ying smiled, took the bowl from me and said, "Why do you worry when I'm here?"

"That's what I like to hear most!" My husband said in celebrating tone. He noted that he does nothing in the kitchen but the dishes.

Ying laughed, and said, "I'm good at nothing but cooking. Do you have scallion, ginger root and cooking wine?"

My anxiety went away immediately. Then a lot of questions popped up in my mind.

"Are you very busy every day?" I asked Ying.

"I don't think so. You won't feel busy if you have arranged everything well."

"So, how do you find time to compose new songs?"

"Well, mostly while I do grocery shopping. Most of my inspirations pop up at that time," she answered casually.

"What about novels? Haven't you already published two novels?" I asked.

"The novels… I wrote them while I was pregnant with my second child. I had to find something to do." She still maintained her relaxed composure. In Ying's eyes, writing a
novel is no different than cooking a meal. It is nothing to brag about.

We made several plates of dumplings while carrying on a light-hearted and enjoyable conversation. The children devoured the dumplings.

As I watched Ying's composed and graceful manners, I thought, "A dull and mundane woman would become even more dull and mundane when she is stuck with doing trivial, repetitive house chores day in and day out. It is a miracle that Ying can perform these repetitive house chores years after years and yet continues to develop beautiful, artistic inspirations. As a mother and a wife, she has brought happiness to her family. As a talented writer, she has moved people with her stories and songs. What's most amazing about her is that her works are as natural and unpretentious as her cooking. You will not find her work flamboyant or ornate at all."

Part III

After dinner, the four of us, Ying, her husband, my husband, and I, had a hearty discussion on many subjects late into the night.

In a long conversation like this, we really began to see Ying's husband's wisdom and intelligence that might have escaped our attention in a conversation of shorter duration.

As parents, we naturally turned to the topic of children's education. We all agreed that our children should learn the Chinese language, but the kids usually do not like studying Chinese. Ying's husband said, "I used a metaphor to convince my son to study Chinese, and it worked fairly well."

He said to his son, "Son, if you know only one language, then you have only one head, two eyes and one mouth. If you know two languages, then you have two heads, four eyes and two mouths."

His child was smart enough to immediately grasp his father's logic, and he said, "Dad, so if I know three languages, then I'll have three heads, six eyes and three mouths." His son wants to become smarter than other kids, so he willingly followed his father's advice in learning Chinese in order to grow more heads.

Ying's husband also pays attention to the well-roundedness of a child's education. He thinks a person's confidence is more important than his knowledge; therefore, he tries to nurture his son's confidence in all aspects.

One of the things he has asked his son to do was, "Each time you finish doing something, you must ask yourself, 'Have I tried my best?' If the answer is no, then do it all over again and this time give it your best shot." Later, the supervisory teacher of his son's class posted his advice on the wall of the classroom and made these words into a motto for all students in the class.

Ying's husband is a very honest and straightforward guy, especially with friends. Last Christmas, a friend of his invited him over for a Christmas party. After all the guests finished the Christmas feast, his friend produced a copy of a religious scripture that he had carefully prepared in advance for each guest and started preaching how sacred his religion was. He was so emotionally absorbed in his speech that tears rolled down his cheeks at times. However, his guests became increasingly tired of the subject as he went on and on. For fear of hurting his feelings, nobody wanted to say how they really felt. Then Ying's husband cut the speech short.

"Hey, buddy, hold on for a second. This world is a very interesting place because of the different varieties of people. For example, some people aspire to be a teacher, but whenever they start speaking, the students will doze off. Some others do not want to be a teacher at all, but when they speak, everyone applauds and roots for them. I think you are of the former kind. You have very good intentions, but it appears that you are far from achieving your goal. I suggest that you'd better stop your speech. Frankly, although I do not believe in your religion, I had no negative impressions with it before I came. After hearing your speech, I started feeling annoyed about your religion." His friend was very embarrassed.

When I heard his account, I said to him disapprovingly, "How could you criticize your friend in his face in front of others?" He responded, "Since we are friends, why shouldn't I be direct with him?"

Then he went on to explain his views. "I think two people are like two worlds. If two people's worlds are entirely different and share nothing in common, then they will definitely bicker each time they speak to each other and their two worlds will clash. In this case, there is no need for the two people to communicate with each other because they will never agree with each other. If two people's worlds were completely identical to each other, then there would be no need for the two to speak to each other either because they will agree with each other on absolutely everything. All they need to do when they meet is to smile at each other. It is only when two people's worlds have certain but not all things in common that they need to communicate with each other or that it is worth the effort to communicate with each other."

Ying's husband shows a lot of personality as he uses a lot of hand gestures as he speaks. Ying just sits quietly by his side and pats him on the back occasionally to show her support. The two of them together make an happy picture.

Although Ying's husband appeared a little conceited, he was very courteous towards his wife and always let his lady go first. For example, when it was time to use the bathroom before going to bed, he patted her gently to signal her to go first while he stood outside to chat with us.

Part IV

I hoped for another night of conversation like this, but Ying's children were beginning to miss their home because Ying has made it very comfortable and enjoyable for them.

While Ying was packing their things, she took out a folded map from a shirt that her husband had worn the night before. She handed it to her husband, and then finished the packing. Their two children brought the birdcage to the car first. Finally, her husband took the map out and sat on the driver's seat.

While I was quietly observing the operations of this family, I couldn't help admire this couple. The husband is as masculine as a man should be and the wife is as feminine as a woman should be. Because Ying and her husband complement each other so seamlessly, all chances of bickering naturally disappear. Because of the lack of conflicts, they provide a nurturing environment for their children to grow emotionally healthy.

"Parting is such a sweet sorrow." There was a feeling of loss in me while I watched my friend Ying leave. Afterwards, I opened my dairy and began to write the following words to myself.

I finally found an ideal family model and that is Ying's family. Perhaps some people would find it odd in my keen interest in Ying's family. I think it is because I am born to be an old-fashioned person and have different tastes than a typical modern Chinese. I am drawn to more traditional things. For example, I enjoy reading Chinese and western classic masterpieces of literature and I admire classical music and paintings. When it comes to romance novels, I prefer reading classic Chinese romance stories such as Butterfly Lovers. When it comes to friendship, I tend to build life-long friends rather than having merry-making or fair-weather friends. I have a very different idea of an ideal family than the modern people. I long for the type of couple that's typical in the ancient Chinese times when the men plowed and the women weaved. In those days, men were truly like men should be --- masculine, responsible, solemn and proud. Men would provide for and protect their wives and children. In those days, women were also like women should be --- feminine, virtuous, wise, well-educated, and properly mannered. Women would stay home taking care of the domestic affairs and provide great support to their husbands. Ying and her husband are the epitome of the ideal couple in the time when men plowed and women weaved. They are also the epitome of the theory that masculinity (Yang) and femininity (Ying) complete and complement each other.

Balancing or harmonizing Ying and Yang is one of the core Chinese philosophies. It is essentially a theory that all creations mutually promote and restrain one another and it also applies to a family unit. I suppose the type of family characterized by "men plowing and women weaving" must have arisen from this ancient philosophy as well because a family that complies with this philosophy seems to be perfectly harmonious and happy.

It is pity that it is becoming increasingly difficult to find a family that conforms to this philosophy in my generation. It was not until that Ying's family had walked into my life that my longing for an old-fashioned family has been satisfied.

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