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Journal of the Society for

Psychological Anthropology


Mothering Expectant Mothers:
Consumption, Production, and Two
Motherhoods in Contemporary China
Jianfeng Zhu

Abstract Drawing on four years of field research in Zhengzhou, China with two generations of mothers, older
mothers and their younger daughters, who became mothers under the one-child policy, I document in this article
the generational differences in opinions about and practices of nourishing the fetus. I examine distinctive practices
of younger mothers consuming prenatal vitamins and their mothers’ buying fresh food from the farmer’s market,
and argue that the distinction between the practices of the two generations of mothers lies in their different life
experiences with the governing strategies of the Mao and post-Mao Chinese state. I further examine encounters
between the two groups of mothers regarding vitamin intake and show how argument itself is one of the important
mothering practices in China through which mothers and their adult daughters not only reinforce their own identities as ‘‘old mothers’’ and ‘‘modern mothers’’ but also recognize each others’ values. Thus, they form
interdependent relationships to mother the third generation. This article contributes to broader literatures in
anthropology of one child policy in China and consuming motherhood. [mothering, prenatal nutrition, daughter–
mother relationship, one child policy, China]

Since the 1990s, with the development of biomedical knowledge on human reproduction,
new reproductive technologies, and genetics, the population policy of the Chinese state has
shifted from concerns about ‘‘small quantity’’ to a focus on ‘‘high quality.’’ It is a major shift
from intense focus on one child to focus on the ‘‘quality’’ of that one child. The ideal model
of a modern family encouraged by the Chinese state is that ‘‘one couple has only one but one
high quality child.’’ Through mass media, the Chinese state propagates the idea that the
expectant mother should take primary responsibility for the health and intelligence of her
future child. Accordingly, to be a good mother in 21st century China means first of all giving
birth to a ‘‘high quality’’ baby. Moreover, along with the post-Mao state’s modernization
project of promoting scientific knowledge, through various education classes sponsored
by the Chinese government, hospitals, and maternal health institutions, young women
are taught to believe that having a quality baby should depend on scientific knowledge of
maternal health and technological management of their prenatal lives. Urban China is
witnessing a new kind of mothering practice named ‘‘scientific childbearing and childrearing’’
). Experts on childbearing and childbirth are available to replace the
(ke xue yu er,
conventional grandmother’s role to tutor younger mothers through the pregnancy process.
My research nevertheless, witnessed complicated interactions among younger expectant
mothers, their older mothers, and experts on childbearing. In China, woman’s maternal
ETHOS, Vol. 38, Issue 4, pp. 406–421, ISSN 0091-2131 online ISSN 1548-1352. & 2010 by the American Anthropological
Association. All rights reserved. DOI: 10.1111/j.1548-1352.2010.01158.x.

for instance. I noticed that the older mothers dismissed the younger mothers’ intense concerns about the future babies’ quality as well as their prenatal health care practices as evidence of the younger generations’ ‘‘spoiled’’ character. increased to the point of doubting their own ability to have healthy. Thus. rather.1 I also explore their argumentative mode of communication as a means of sharing knowledge and promoting hybrid practices.2 they form distinctive identities as ‘‘modern’’ mofarmers’ markets (Cai Shi Chang. asserting that ‘‘in our times. the capital city of Hennan Province. headquarters of local banks and provincial governments. their narratives were often almost identical from one grandmother to the next. maternal grandmothers play a particularly active and important role in the process of reproducing the family.SCHOOL OF SOCIAL DEVELOPMENT AND PUBLIC POLICY. I document how two generations of mothers operating under the one-child policy prepare for and feed the daughters’ future baby and how both women come to best care practices for the daughter during pregnancy. My initial research was designed to investigate both the modern and the traditional perinatal healthcare practices that urban middle-class women in contemporary China undertake. I argue that through everyday practices. Moreover. I noticed that the young pregnant women and new mothers in their late 20s and early 30s talked explicitly and intensively about their maternal bodies and whether they were able to give birth to a high quality baby. local universities. we had nothing. nevertheless. together they form hybrid mothering practices that nourish the future baby. providing both material and emotional support to young mothers. the older mother usually moves into her child’s household when the daughter or daughter-in-law is pregnant and does not move out until the grandchild is old enough to be admitted to kindergarten at around the age of three. However. In contrast. it seemed that their anxieties did not fade but. Most of them told me that their pregnancies were anything but enjoyable and the baby they were carrying was frequently called a ‘‘burden. when the older mothers described their own experiences of childbearing and childbirth. and they worried whether their mothering practices were scientific enough. smart babies. FUDAN UNIVERSITY 407 body is read as emblematic of the family future. They followed experts’ advice on prenatal health care. Nobody paid any attention to our . although the interactions between them take the form of arguments that reinforce their own separate identities.’’ While talking to these younger women’s mothers. Research This article is based on three years of field work in urban Zhengzhou (from 2004 to 2007). central China. In this article. As my field work developed. the younger mothers’ prenatal vitamin taking and the older mothers’ buying of vegetables from ). ther and ‘‘old’’ mother. These stresses and anxieties often led to prenatal depression and mental suffering. The neighborhood I lived in is located in a district of research institutes. contradictions and conflicts around certain mothering practices arise between the two generations. On her daughter’s requests. Young urban middle-class mothers welcome especially their own mothers’ help during these periods.

clinics. which according to them. only occurred when the parents had a family history of certain diseases. Intensive observation lasted three years while I was in the field. I chose to focus my study on ten households. and public gardens. The other three lived so close to their daughters that they could go to their daughters’ apartments every day to cook meals and do housework in the daytime and go back to their own apartments at night. To gather data on the intergenerational communications.408 ETHOS pregnancies. My questions centered on their behaviors with respect to consuming food and nourishing children. even as they took responsibility to arrange for the care of their children’’ (1999:231). maternal classes. 1997. I conducted interviews with the pair of mothers during their spare time or meal times. Robinson 1985). Jacka 1990. The younger expectant mothers in this research are in their late 20s or early 30s and they all have college diplomas. the younger expectant mothers were subjected to the state’s call for consumption that would ‘‘provide a process of identification for members of the newly emerging middle class to position themselves as ‘modern’ and ‘sophisticated’ citizen-consumers’’ (Ngai 2003:474). they are deeply influenced by resurgent notions of ‘‘virtuous wife and good mother’’ that entail the assumption that women should take primary responsibility for the health of their babies (Croll 1985. To observe the two generational mothers’ behaviors and actions around nurturing prenatal bodies.’’ Some of them even told me that they worked until the due date and had never worried that much about the possibility of delivering an unhealthy baby. In the meantime. The older mothers’ accounts of their own experiences with childbirth were always entangled with their critiques of the young-generations’ obsessions with maternal health. Davin 1989. I also accompanied the older mothers to the farmer’s markets where they bought fresh food for the family everyday. Born in the 1970s and growing up with Deng Xiaoping’s market-driven economic reforms. I followed the younger mothers to their prenatal health care clinic visits. Their distinctive opinions on childbearing and childbirth inspired me to further examine how the Maoist and post-Maoist Chinese state’s governing ideologies and techniques influenced mothers’ subjectivities and their opinions about and practices of mothering. In the meantime. Seven older mothers lived with their pregnant daughters to take care of the young couples and later the new born baby. In contrast to their daughters’ intense attention to raising a healthy . and being seen as having failed to take responsibility for ensuring the baby’s future. I chatted with around 50 younger pregnant mothers and older mothers when I met them in maternal-education classes. The older mothers achieved their motherhood either in the middle or at the end of the cultural revolution. During their pregnancies. Their older mothers are mainly in their middle 50s and are retirees. stable high-income jobs (3000rmb [about $500] per month) and apartments. they fear failing to give birth to a perfect child. Their stories also serve as an important source. during the course of my field research. and shopping places. younger expectant mothers today feel pressured to consume supplements and other health products prescribed by prenatal health services. Such comments are in accordance with Rofel’s observations on mothering practices among the cultural revolutionary cohort women who are ‘‘refreshingly lacking in anxiety about the quality of their mothering.

I finally realized that verbal argument is an important form of communication that the women consider ‘‘typical’’ of mother–daughter relationships. doing housework. When talking about taking care of their pregnant daughters and their future grandchildren. When asked why they felt obligated to help their daughters with childrearing. The frequency of verbal conflicts (chaojia. and dismissive of each other. June 2005]3 Given that work and productive capacities were the central values learned in Mao’s era. I look after my daughter now. rather than as a favor to their children. I also emphasize the interactions between mothers and daughters in their everyday lives that both reinforce and contest each other’s subjectivity as a mother. both mothers appeared to be short tempered.SCHOOL OF SOCIAL DEVELOPMENT AND PUBLIC POLICY. it is not surprising that the older mothers measure the value of their housework by their children’s productivity and achievements in their careers. Yang 1999). As a matter of fact. I had nothing to gain now (in terms of work) and she still has a lot to do. FUDAN UNIVERSITY 409 future baby. wash clothes. . the older mothers spoke little of their practices of mothering in their narratives. as required by Mao’s policy for erasing gender differences and emphasizing the obligation and opportunity of all women to contribute to society (Hershatter 2007. .’’ ‘‘outdated. and complaining.’’ even though they appear to trust only themselves to make the best decisions. older mothers regarded this caretaking as an obligation. blaming. washing machines (Croll 1983). I had nothing but time so that I could cook. The bonds between them are not in any sense loosened by their everyday arguments. When verbal conflicts occurred. I initially felt quite uncomfortable. when the older mothers were young mothers in the 1970s. I hope that childbearing won’t affect her work so much. shoes. I noticed these arguments were brief and frequent in their everyday lives. but as the research developed. As an observer. Under such circumstances. being a mother. Daily communications were filled with nagging. for this work did not belong to the category of social production.’’ or ‘‘superstitious. . irritated. One of the younger mothers told me that ‘‘Verbal conflicts are normal. and organize the house and other housework. Instead they all shared the common memories of working in the factories and farming in the countryside. while silence means a serious problem.’’ The older mothers expressed similar feelingsFthat these arguments make them feel close to their daughters and connected with them. [interview. What I found particularly striking is that even though the two generations of mothers hold contradictory opinions as to whom to trust in terms of nutritional sources. even though they value their own knowledge over the others’Fthey are living together in harmony. Although I am concerned about how the power of the state through the institutions of education and medicine shape these two cohorts of women’s subjectivities as mothers. the domestic workload was heavy because the state invested much more in heavy industry than in consumer goods such as clothing. Few of the older mothers mentioned the help obtained from their own mothers or mother-in-laws.’’ ‘‘naı¨ve. ) between the older and younger mothers is remarkable. impatient. one of the older mothers told me that: after my retirement. even though they accused each other of being ‘‘ignorant. taking responsibilities for educating children was neither glorified nor even acknowledged. thus linking the grandmothers’ own domestic work to social production. .

their own identities as ‘‘the old’’ and ‘‘the modern’’ are reinforced. as subjects of the post-Mao state. emphasizing their lack of scientific modern knowledge. Both mothers. both the younger expectant mother and the older mother define themselves and recognize each other as independent subjects and establish a deeper emotional bond of ‘‘mutual recognition. In the meantime. As mentioned above. often refer to a ‘‘generation gap’’ to express their differences. They present their differences as irresolvable. My research concerns how these two generations of mothers ‘‘communicate’’ in the form of ‘‘arguments’’ regarding expectant motherhood. They often justify their own decisions not to follow certain experts’ suggestions by quoting their mothers’ comments. the more worried they are. In her new book. to catch up with the ‘‘new’’ knowledge. beneath the hubbub of a much debated politics. Yet they realize that the more they know.’’ However. the younger expectant mothers are educated to believe in authoritative knowledge conveyed by experts. However. Weighing more heavily modern technologies imbued with scientific knowledge. over the course of the decade’’ (Farquhar 2002:17). through these arguments. the younger mothers position themselves in terms of relations of consumption. from their daughters’ generation. difference. my further observations of their practices suggest that the argumentative communications help mothers of two generations to form an interdependent relationship. It is during their ‘‘argumentative communications’’ that both mother and daughter realize their interdependence. the younger expectant mothers often dismissed their mothers’ advice. they reflect on their mothers’ life experiences and question whether all the prenatal health care is necessary. I raised you and you are healthy. in which each sees the other as supplementing her own knowledge. The Subject of Gender: Daughters and Mothers in Urban China (2008). the older mothers usually performed as if they despised textual knowledge and cast doubt on the credibility of the doctor and other experts whom their daughters rely on to provide scientific knowledge on reproduction and childbirth. however. For instance. I argue that during the argumentative communications. Together they form a series of new hybrid mothering practices to nurture the third generation. and attachment’’ (Evans 2008:84) as well. The older mothers emphasize ‘‘empirical knowledge and experiences. . Harriet Evans points out the sharply different expectations of generational communications between mother and daughter in 1950s and 1990s.410 ETHOS In the following. I call such verbal conflicts ‘‘argumentative communication’’ through which both older mothers and their pregnant daughters recognize each other’s values and negotiate their identities. I found they frequently mentioned the ‘‘empirical knowledge ) learned from their lives that distinguish them and experiences’’ (shijian jingyan. during many conversations with the older mothers. such as ‘‘Even without so much knowledge or health products.’’ situating their values in the production process. Thus. thus. the older mothers also turn to scientific discourses on health and refashion their empirical knowledge through seeking more scientific explanations. Referring to the differences as a ‘‘generation gap’’ presumes two independent subjects produced differently by virtue of their respective ages through ‘‘the conditions of everyday life in a post socialist reform process that quietly evolved. When arguing with the daughters.

or friends. childbirth. According to the younger expectant mothers in my research. beneath the younger mothers’ prenatal vitamin consumption lies an undercurrent of anxiety about their own abilities to create quality babies. but they all provide basic knowledge and information about topics that include reproduction. in popular life science journals. such as ‘‘What are the good foods to feed my baby?’’ ‘‘Are three meals sufficient in meeting daily nutritional needs?’’ ‘‘Do traditional prohibitions on certain foods have any scientific basis?’’ One chart particularly . manageable. In Zhengzhou in the past ten years. this process facilitates and supports the formation of a woman’s identity as an expectant mother.4 a 25-year-old technician working in a local research institute who had been pregnant for two months. the room was already crowded with pregnant women and their partners: husbands. with information about nutrition being disseminated in textbooks. on TV and radio programs and in explicit association with modern life and healthy life styles. relatives. prenatal vitamin consumption has become popular among expectant mothers in urban China. Posters lined the wall. and one communicative argument between a daughter and a mother on prenatal nutrition sources. Mothering Practice One: Feeding the Future Baby with Scientifically Designed Vitamins Since the 1990s. scientific. presenting information ranging from an outline of the developmental stages of the fetus. FUDAN UNIVERSITY 411 To further illustrate how a mother’s subject position is produced by the state’s governing techniques as well as the interactions between mothers and daughters. I detail one such class held by a local women’s and children’s healthcare center in the summer of 2005 to illustrate how the analyses of the body’s nutritional needs and food reform (re)construct and (re)produce women’s knowledge and imagination of the fetus. past. to teach young women scientific ways of having a high quality child through prenatal health care some hospitals as well as women and infant health care institutions initiated maternal education classes. In this section. In turn. give them a more transparent picture of what they are consuming in a way that is quantifiable. and future interact in the processes of expecting a ‘‘healthy’’ third generation. and details about postpartum recovery. notes about maternal hygiene. postpartum. and modern. Questions on the subject of maternal nutrition were prominent. nutritional supplements. and lactation health care. The classes soon became popular and commonplace in China. Maternal nutrition is an important topic covered in all ten maternal-education classes that I attended during my fieldwork. However. to the importance of having regular prenatal testing. It is here that expectant mothers gather information from experts on how to raise a healthy and smart baby. Xiaomeng. in what follows I detail three ethnographic cases: the younger expectant mothers’ prenatal vitamin consumption. In so doing. as I show below. I attended this class with my informant. When we stepped into the classroom. I intend to demonstrate how the present. preconception and prenatal care. the older mothers’ vegetable buying activities in the farmer’s market.SCHOOL OF SOCIAL DEVELOPMENT AND PUBLIC POLICY. Informational courses might differ in content.

would eventually ruin the baby’s future. and fruits. and milk formula. every class and article first listed the risks of lacking each element. She introduced herself as a doctor in a women’s and children’s health clinic who had been teaching maternal education classes for five years. folic acid and others. and C. calcium. a pregnant woman should take calcium tablets and other nutritional supplements.’’ After briefly introducing basic nutritional guidelines to the audience.’’ and ‘‘functions.412 ETHOS caught my eye. It is not the accurate and ‘‘objective’’ scientific facts per se that convince women to take prenatal vitamins or other supplements. Having learned about nutrition. vitamins A. C. is crucial for the birth of a healthy baby. eggs. Xiaomeng still confirmed the value of the class. as participants often noted that she looked like an ‘‘intellectual’’ and a ‘‘knowledgeable’’ expert. despite her skepticism that the instructor was hired by companies to promote their products. highlighting ‘‘scientific’’ evidence. B. She repeatedly emphasized that . half of the class attested they would like to try one or another ‘‘all natural’’ meal ‘‘supplements. iron. I noticed that some saleswomen with posters and product samples entered the classroom and at least seven women showed interest in their products and asked detailed information about prices and ingredients. making supplements all the more necessary. numbers. fiber and starch from particular foods. Those numbers provide detailed information and meet the expectant mothers’ desire to pursue ‘‘scientific’’ knowledge about themselves and the fetus. such as meat. including vitamins. calcium. Throughout the session. and pictures. dairy and bean products. the instructor reduced food consumption to the intake of vitamins and minor elementsFvitamins A. saying that ‘‘She must be paid by a certain company to promote their products.’’ ‘‘sources of meals. The instructor was in her mid-forties and dressed in the professional white uniform worn by nurses. According to the audience. Unbalanced and unhealthy diets. meats. She said ) they eat and some suffer from that many women were too picky about the food (tiaoshi. the instructor warned.’’ It explained to the reader that one could get certain nutritional components. rice. on the corner of every poster. there was an image of a pregnant woman recommending a certain brand name of nutritional supplements. composed of natural foods specifically. When asked if such lectures and articles were useful. calcium. flours.’’ At one moment. The presentation was filled with charts. To emphasize the importance of maternal nutrition especially for the pregnant women. Xiaomeng maintained her skepticism. referring to the fetus as a human being) needs adequate nutrition to a baby (baobao. she concluded by saying that in addition to a balanced meal. develop and a pregnant woman can generally not get enough from an ordinary diet. fiber. however. this reinforced her expert status. and fruits. vegetables. It had three subject areas: ‘‘nutritional components. morning sickness. She continued to give specific examples of the nutrition provided by specific vegetables. and B. Although the instructor did not present herself as a ‘‘business type’’ nor give any hint that she was hired by any profit-driven companies. such as protein. Their decisions have much to do with their understanding of the relationship between such molecular components of the food and the health of their babies. . It suggested that a balanced and nutritious diet. In the meantime.

In 2007. nutrition education discourses encourage women to imagine their baby in the future. . Everyday when the younger expectant mothers take their ‘‘pills. ‘‘It will be a great burden to this family and also the defective child himself will suffer physically and emotionally and he will blame me for giving birth to him. which is believed to build up the baby’s ‘‘bone structure. told me after the class that she did not take folic acid suggested to be taken three months before pregnancy and she then started to worry if the baby would be all right.’’ In addition to the negative results from nutritional deficiences.’’ they not only consume the physical objects but also reinforce the knowledge indexed by those pills about their future babies’ bodies and health.’’ Another example is calcium. protein. Afterward. hoping to raise their children scientifically. Vitamin EFmiscarriage. when I revisited these families. appear a healthy red (bai li tou hong.’’ a metaphor used to describe an independent and determined person. For instance. although they themselves often do not continue taking vitamins. an omega-3 fatty acid. women were always presented with the positive and bright side of what could benefit their babies. is said to charge the develas ‘‘the foundation of the life’’ (sheng ming de jichu. mentioned above. even when there is serious flu around. I just could not afford it. following the instructions on the labels. but it is new in China that such responsibility is tied to certain prenatal vitamin consumption. ‘‘My daughter is unlikely to catch a cold. and it inspires the pregnant woman to relate protein to the health of the baby and the ability of its immune system to prevent disease and illness in the future. is promoted as if it could ‘‘directly’’ and ‘‘efficiently’’ increase the intelligence of the baby. she did start taking folic acid everyday. I found the young mothers fed their young children multivitamins in the same manner as they took them during their pregnancies. She expressed tremendous anxieties and called me at night talking about the possibilities of having a ‘‘defective’’ child. Iron. Xiaomeng. They applied what they had learned from the maternal education class. deafness and dwarfism. . Those who do not take the vitamins as suggested by the experts appear more anxious about whether the fetus will be normal. thus contributing to the formation of their identities as expectant mothers responsible for the birth of a healthy baby. I asked what if the results of the tests were not reassuring. IronFfetal brain atrophy. nutritional components and phenotypical defects.’’ In sum. opment of the baby’s physical body and its immune system. cardiovascular abnormalities.’’ It is nothing new for pregnant women to see themselves as responsible for the birth of a healthy baby. taking enough calcium makes the child have more ‘‘bone qi ). makes the baby’s face ) because it produces the ‘‘blood. One of my informants who gave birth to her daughter three years before my research attributed her daughter’s strong body and immunity to her own intake of protein powder during her pregnancy. however. ). (guqi Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA). such as ‘‘Vitamin AFcleft lip. Folic AcidFNeural tube defects. I guess it is because I ate the protein powder.’’ Thus.SCHOOL OF SOCIAL DEVELOPMENT AND PUBLIC POLICY. Vitamin EFmiscarriage. but not until she confirmed by various prenatal test results that her baby was fine. . FUDAN UNIVERSITY 413 At the end. . the women in the audience had two parallel lists at hand. IodineFspeech defects. She said.

Although it was only 6:00 A. whose daughter was five months pregnant by then. In their eyes. vegetables. some of which I could not even name. There were no gates. no divisions. or classifications. As a matter of fact. and when we arrived. Cai Shi Chang is neither hygienic nor healthy. It was just past 5:30 A. anytime this week. After buying other vegetables. Aunt Liu was amazingly skillful in making her way through the market. and surrounded by vendors. We headed for the Cai Shi Chang closest to where she lived. a farmer’s market where fresh produce from the countryside is sold. no walls.414 ETHOS Mothering Practice Two: Buying Vegetables from the Farmer’s Market Despite the popularity that various nutrition supplements have gained in the consumer market.’’ Such greetings suggested that they had known each other for some time. The same vegetables would cost on average five jiao (around 8 pennies per 500 grams) more than those from the Cai Shi Chang. The older-generation mothers are the ones typically providing the meals on the dinner table. such in-person relationships not only saved them a lot of time and energy bargaining. ‘‘How is your daughter? About to go into labor soon?’’ Liu: ‘‘Yes. Such places are denounced by the younger mothers in my research. They attribute the older-generation mothers’ choices of shopping in Cai Shi Chang to their ‘‘cheap habit’’ formed from the socialist past. In the following. It took us about half an hour to get there. both younger mothers and older mothers in my research agreed that they should not replace healthy food. when I met Aunt Liu at the gate of her daughter’s apartment building. with a focus on how she found healthy food based on her life experiences. I immediately found myself bumping into other customers. On entering the area. I found the vendors spread out in disorderly rows. and a breakfast stand. I thus followed ten older mothers to buy vegetables in Cai Shi Chang for three months almost every morning or late afternoon and observed how they process food and serve meals. it was already crowded with customers and almost all were old women like Aunt Liu.M. on a summer morning in July 2006.M. because the familiar vendor would always offer the older mothers the lowest price. She told me that it was very important to buy fresh vegetables every day to feed her pregnant daughter. and they indeed apply their opinions of ‘‘healthy food’’ to the meals the younger mothers consume. I found later that all the older-generation mothers had established relationships with vendors in the Cai Shi Chang they frequently visited. she insisted that the vegetables were not fresh and were expensive. but also guaranteed them . Aunt Liu rode a tricycle and asked me to sit down in the back box.. The food looks dirtier than that displayed in the supermarket. According to them. All the goods were laid out on the muddy ground. I soon lost both my way and my mind. fruits. Although there was a supermarket one block away from the apartment. but they disagreed over whether the food should come from Cai Shi Chang. The Cai Shi Chang looked like a maze to me. she passed through the narrow twisting passages to another stand: Liu: ‘‘Give me half a gram of green beans’’ Vendor: This vendor smiled at her. Every vendor’s goods were seasonal vegetables. I detail one typical fieldtrip with Aunt Liu. but each had different kinds.

If there was any problem. The same as Aunt Liu. The older mothers had never worried whether they were ‘‘good mothers. it seems that the older mothers are retreating to domestic domains and starting to understand themselves as ‘‘mothers’’ or ‘‘mothers’ mothers. FUDAN UNIVERSITY 415 quality goods. On the way home. The kitchen became their new workplace. they bleached the products. Aunt Liu pointed to one pile on the ground and insisted: ‘‘I don’t want those washed ones.’’ After their retirement and their daughters’ pregnancies. . though indirectly. when Juan (her daughter) was little. These however.’’ Nonetheless.’’ During their youth. During the course of my fieldwork emerging notions and discourses around motherhood and young women increasingly cast the role of being a housewife as a desirable new ‘‘professional job. ‘‘I know. It is very important. As the younger expectant mothers said. looked dirtier to me than the ones on the ground. in which domestic labor had never been highly valued by society and was considered a hindrance to the work. I want her to concentrate on her work. she told me her story of becoming a ‘‘real’’ mother: I become a real old mother [lao ma zi. I help as much as I can. ‘‘You young people. I am still contributing to society. Superficially. It usually took her at least three hours to prepare clean and safe raw material before cooking. many of the older mothers I met during fieldwork treated the whole process of serving food as the main productive activity of their retirement lives.’’ However. I found the older mothers were preparing food in the kitchen. . Once I moved into Juan’s home. I never had real time to do housework. I do not need to worry what to eat next.’’ The vendor got some out of a black plastic bag. lack empirical knowledge. ‘‘once my mother arrived. Actually. I started to learn how to cook good meals. Juan does not have time to cook freshly everyday. But I do.SCHOOL OF SOCIAL DEVELOPMENT AND PUBLIC POLICY. like my daughter. they talked explicitly about their ‘‘duty’’ to serve their daughters’ families with healthy and nutritional meals. ] now. The older mothers’ .’’ After she had carefully selected food from the market. I always told myself in this way. I could clearly detect the continuities of Mao’s policy emphasizing the value of production. the older mothers would not hesitate to take products back and the vendor risked losing a long-term customer. This procedure was intended to ensure that the food was clean and safe enough for her pregnant daughter to consume. Who had time to cook? I bought three meals from the canteen in our factory. Serving food is my major work all day long. the older mothers devoted themselves to the construction of Mao’s ideal socialist communities. soaked what was left in clean water to dissolve the leftover fertilizer. the younger mothers I had met continued their careers after childbirth as their mothers expected. Later Aunt Liu told me that those in the clean pile had been washed by the vendors. Aunt Liu discarded the bad parts. from many conversations. . All most all the time when I visited the research households. releasing them from housework and allowing them to continue their professional lives as usual. While she was cooking lunch. and to make them appealing to the customers. it (doing housework) makes me feel I am still useful. and rinsed all of the produce. Not only did the older mothers consider that the food served on the dinner table embodied their labor but also they saw themselves actively joining in social production through their daughters. I have never stepped into the kitchen again. I am not giving you those. Plus.’’ The vendor smiled. It is not difficult at all if only you have leisure time. Aunt Liu offered me many tips on how to buy fresh vegetables.’’ rather than ‘‘workers.

Originally. If it is worth it. Liumei: Yes. Vitamin C. and folic acid as I mentioned before. money is not a problem. Just at that moment. I am not saying we should not spend money. do you need to take extra vitamins. vitamins used to be prescribed by doctors. are you giving the same old lecture about vitamin pills? You are too outdated. Only when your body does not function well. ‘‘Amway. Obviously. Liyan does that too. they are made of natural food! Liumei responded. She recently asked her mother to move into her apartment. But do you really think that medicine pills (yaopian. who by then was preparing dinner.’’ ‘‘You only believe those advertisements and never trust your mother. Normal and healthy people do not need them if they eat correctly and exercise frequently. In the past. it is a meal in the form of a pill. . her daughter came in and interrupted this conversation. I have told you what I am taking is not a pill. Liyan gave me a look: ‘‘she is too stubborn. yes.416 ETHOS housework thus contributes to producing ‘‘working mothers’’ in the post-Mao era and transfers their notion of what counts as a valuable (productive) woman to their daughters.’’ popped into sight. they are nutrition supplements (yingyang. . . which to me is too expensive. and nutrition supplements. program in Beijing and only came back twice a month. right? ) (I immediately corrected her). Liumei: You are doing your dissertation research on pregnancy and childbirth? That is a very interesting topic. Did you find anything useful yet? Jianfeng: Oh.D. like maternal clothes. . It looks like a pill. Mom. Jianfeng: Liumei: Waste? How so? Do you know how much those things cost? I bet you have already made an investigation yourself. bupin Liumei: You mean these vitamins. ) could replace food and offer enough nutrition? Jianfeng: Medicine pills? No. I once worked as a nurse you know. She pointed to an array of bottles of different shapes and sizes on the table. those are not drugs. . because her husband was enrolled in a Ph. ‘‘They are pills. I by chance started an interesting conversation with her mother. Such a waste. I take all natural supplements. . I scheduled an interview with her daughter. let us just leave her alone. but essentially. They cost thousands. Vitamin B. The brand name.’’ Liumei insisted. Each set cost 3000 RMB (then equal to one and a half months of Liyan’s salary) including protein powder. I recognized immediately that they were the ‘‘luxurious set of maternal nutrition supplements’’ that Amway promoted this year. Liyan. she was trying to correct my concept of vitamins from a professional point of view. When and only when your immune system has a problem will doctors prescribe different vitamins to you. for example. ‘‘Then why not just eat food? You eat too little!’’ It was obvious to me that such an argument was more than an occasional event. who at that time was already seven-months pregnant. it is a meal. Mothering Practice Three: Argumentative Communications Liumei is a retired nurse from a local clinic. During a break in my interview with Liyan. . You should take vitamin C when catching a cold. I notice women nowadays are spending a lot of money on maternal products.

including black chicken soup. Liyan: That is why I bought those vitamins. everyday when you eat ten tablets that look like pills. After dinner. She is much better now. told me that she bought a set of Amway prenatal meal supplements. I am afraid that the baby won’t have balanced nutrition because of my picky habit. I was surprised and asked why she thought it was necessary to take this specific supplement. To Liumei. the whole manufacturing process of the vitamin pills is unknown and they do not embody one’s labor. Liumei: How do you know? Do you see the whole production process? Do you know they do not add anything else? They are not natural and they are made solely for more profit you know. Liumei also stressed that she learned about such knowledge through the health journals she has subscribed to since Liyan became pregnant. ‘‘Indeed. she eats too little and she is too thin. and milk was part of a meal. Liumei explained.’’ Given the arguments around pills versus meals. rich in calcium. thus they are unsafe. folic acid is a medical pill but because it was prescribed by the doctor. I tried some new recipes in order to make her eat more. you should correct your picky habit and overcome difficulties. However. while the younger mothers prefer to put their . it should be all right. She still did not have much appetite. you start wondering if it is really necessary. Neither did her mother. You young people do not have any life experiences and could be easily cheated by the advertisements. Just not that many. She suffered from serious morning sickness during the first three months. Liyan. [field notes. as long as the products are from well-known companies. thus safe for her daughter. She was pretty picky about food when she was young. at the dinner table. she stopped taking the vitamins except folic acid. Liyan: They are not pills. To Liyan. Liumei brought a glass of milk and one tablet. Liumei told me what Liyan’s taste was like.’’ Liumei and Liyan’s arguments around prenatal vitamin consumption as meals or pills illustrate common interactions between the older mothers and the younger mothers during my fieldwork. May 2005] Although Liumei stressed the fact that Liyan was picky about food. As for the milk. just like me. Although Liyan’s mother’s words sounded harsh. One undercurrent of these arguments is differing opinions about consumption. however. They are made from natural food. they are safe. served Liyan four dishes. Everyday. it is a specially designed milk formula for pregnant women. What you need is to eat many varieties of food. In her opinion. FUDAN UNIVERSITY 417 Will I do any harm to you?’’ Her mother threw the last sentence at us before Liyan dragged me into another room. But she loves meat.SCHOOL OF SOCIAL DEVELOPMENT AND PUBLIC POLICY. which according to Liumei was an especially good nutritional source for a pregnant woman. Liyan did not seem to mind at all. but after eating them all for one month. her mother as usual. Liumei: I have never said you should not take any of them. Later on. ‘‘ Have your daily folic aid. She did not like spinach and other green leafy vegetables. I noticed that Liyan tasted all the dishes her mother cooked and ate a reasonable amount as well. For the sake of your baby. She said that Liyan did not eat enough green leafy vegetables to provide her enough folic acid and the doctors suggested taking folic acid. The older mothers would rather put their trust in the production domain. They are indeed pills.

I could not help but recall all of the arguments occurring between the two generations of mothers when preparing for the health of this little life. although they could not agree on whether the prenatal vitamins were pills or meals. Oddly enough these moments transform in my eyes from being ‘‘small life entities’’ to the result of complex convergent processes of negotiation among two mothers. disagreements. Arguments not only allow both of them to freely express their own ideas as independent individuals but also help them realize the values of the other. as Liumei accused Liyan of not trusting her advice over advertisements and Liyan complained of her mother sticking to old rules. long-term observations over three years suggest that the arguments are a primary form of communication between the older mothers and the younger expectant mothers. and two sets of social values. Within this context. prenatal tests.418 ETHOS trust in the market. they cooperated and agreed with each other on feeding children both ‘‘natural’’ food and ‘‘artificial’’ meal supplements. healthy and smart. They are wearing the fashionable. When I joined them to share their enjoyment of the moment when the younger expectant women became mothers. emphasizing participation in a productive labor force or cultivating consumer subjects. all the younger mothers gave birth to their ‘‘high quality’’ babies. in reality. quarrels. two historical moments. these verbal conflicts sound quite serious. Conclusion Chinese mothers’ mothering practices don’t stop even after the third generation is born. and when I looked at these tiny babies. the older mothers are actively involved in mothering younger mothers by providing help with domestic housework like cooking and childcare until their grandchildren grow up to be three years old or so. This tendency becomes more noticeable as the first generation of children born under the one-child policy reaches maternal age. squabbles. each generation’s distinctive subjectivity is shaped by the Chinese state’s governing strategies. As I argue above. The younger mothers referred to their older mothers as the ‘‘old antique. . Paradoxically. cute receiving blankets for swaddling babies as well as the secondhand outfits from their bigger cousins. As my research suggested. Like Liumei and Liyan. They are also consuming their mother’s milk supplemented by infant milk formula. and fetal education to infant products. The arguments.’’ However. I draw the following conclusions from the cases shown above. During my three years of research. I realize that it is this very moment that reveals life itself as a process. They also came to a compromise position on the prenatal vitamin use with Liyan diminishing her intake of vitamins and Liumei supporting her use of some supplements. and even verbal fights focus on various topics from prenatal diets. They are using the brand new bath packets as well as used cribs from their cousins.’’ Several times at the beginning of my field research I mistakenly interpreted their verbal conflicts as ‘‘verbal abuse. Now the babies are using the traditional cloth diapers in the daytime and changing to the packaged ones at night. To outsiders.

Much recent anthropological research on the subject of the Chinese one child policy focuses on how the state’s discourses of ‘‘overpopulation’’ and ‘‘population quality’’ form the modern subject of Chinese people (Anagnost 1995. either a productive citizen in Mao’s era or a consuming subject in the post-Mao era. In reality. I feel isolated from my daughter. ‘‘without arguing. Moreover. thus demonstrating the dynamic relationships among the state and ordinary people as well as revealing challenges to those seemingly homogeneous and powerful state discourses at microlevels. Anthropologists who study consuming motherhood (Gottschang 2001. Throughout this article. and governmentality by contributing ethnographic descriptions of native actors’ everyday practices. A ‘‘good’’ mother needs to first respond to the state’s call for its ideal subject. examining both the older mothers’ and the younger mothers’ practices of nurturing a prenatal body for a healthy future baby.SCHOOL OF SOCIAL DEVELOPMENT AND PUBLIC POLICY. situations at the micro level. they choose ‘‘argumentative communication’’ as one major way to present and reinforce their value to each other. protection. the adult daughters). Older mother’s housework practices reflected their ideas of production and consumption formed under Mao’s socialist ideology. the mothers as well as their children (in my case. Through the comparison. that one of the older mothers claims. is it clear just what counts as a ‘‘good mother’’ in culturally specific terms. caring. ‘‘I could not bear to live even one day without hearing my mothers’ ). Along the line of such scholarship. Younger mothers’ vitamin consumption confirms the former research showing that since the 1990s the subjectivity of Chinese mothers is partly formed by the wide spread consumer culture in transitional China. or love. in China where a strong state exerts power over its citizen’s bodies through population control policies. I have demonstrated how two generations of mothers interact with each other and together take care of future babies’ health. I hope to join in the current discussions in anthropology on state. my research extends discourse analyses to everyday practices of mothering with emphases on what mothers do in addition to what they say. My research affirms this scholarship. modern power. Taylor 2004) concentrate on how consuming becomes one of the important mothering practices in a society filled with consumer culture. During this process.’’ Only in light of broader social political contexts as well as practical nagging (laodao.’’ and one of the younger mothers states. a mother’s relational identity with her child is formed and an adult daughter learns to become a ‘‘good’’ mother to her own baby. demonstrating that the national discourses such as the emphasis on ‘‘production’’ in the Mao era and ‘‘consumption’’ in the post-Mao era dominate the narratives of two generational mothers respectively and certainly shape their understanding of self-identity as a mother and influence their maternal behaviors. They directly relate women’s identities as mothers to this emphasis on consumption. ‘‘Argumentative communications’’ can be misleadingly interpreted by outsiders as anything but patience. In doing so. nurture. Through complex and real time interactions. 2004). FUDAN UNIVERSITY 419 My subjects experiences suggest that mothering in China should be understood as hybrid practices embedded in dynamic relations among the state. this form of communication is so pervasive and effective. Most importantly. this . I approach the same issue from a comparative point of view. Miller 1997. mothering practices are to a large degree also political actions.

Tamara 1990 Back to the Work: Women and Employment in Chinese Industry in the 1980s. Relationships among in-laws are not within the scope of this contribution because they are more complicated than and different from the motherFdaughter relationships I demonstrate here. New York: Monthly Review. In Conceiving the New World Order: The Global Politics of Reproduction. In Promissory Notes: Women in the Transition to Socialism. eds. CA: University of California Press. and Washing Machines: Women in the People’s Republic of China. 4. Faye D. eds. In Urban China. Public Culture 16(2): 189–208. Rayna Rapp. 1985 Women and Rural Development in China: Production and Reproduction. Gottschang. All the interviews in this article are conducted in Chinese and I translated them into English. The research presented in this article was conducted with the approval of the Internal Review Boards at the University of Minnesota. 1. NC: Duke University Press. Sonia Kruks. Croll. Jacka. Woman. hence contributing to transcending the dichotomous thinking so frequently apparent in post-socialist studies. 3. Minneapolis. Farquhar. Geneva: International Labour Office. 2. I use Cai Shi Chang to refer to such a place in the following texts. 11. Pp 354–358. Suzanne Z. Culture.420 ETHOS research provides evidence of historical narrative mothering at a transitional stage in postMao China. MD: Rowman and Littlefield. Young. Miller. All names for interviewees in this article are pseudonyms. Nancy Chen. Lanham. 2001 The Consuming Mother: Infant Feeding and the Feminine Body. Ann 1995 A Surfeit of Bodies: Population and Rationality of the State in Post-Mao China. Ginsburg and Rayna Rapp. Dicta. Australian Journal of Chinese Affairs 24(1): 1–23. Gail 2007 State of the Field: Women in China’s Long Twentieth Century. Elisabeth 1983 Chinese Women since Mao. Judith 2002 Appetites: Food and Sex in Post-Socialist China. Suzanne Gottschang. Hershatter. . and Marilyn B. Theory. Notes Acknowledgments. Work. References Cited Anagnost. Pp 89–103. Pp 22–41. NC: Duke University Press. Berkeley: University of California Press. Constance Clark. Durham. Harriet 2008 The Subject of Gender: Daughters and Mothers in Urban China. Shanghai. ed. 2004 The Corporeal Politics of Quality (Suzhi). Because of the different cultural implications of famers’ market in English and Cai Shi Chang in Chinese. I am able to reveal a series of hybrid mothering practices. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Davin. JIANFENG ZHU is Lecturer at Fudan University. Delia 1989 Of Dogma. and Society 14(4): 67–88. London: Zed. Durham. and Lyn Jeffery. By attending to the dynamic relationships between the generations. 1997 Women’s Work in Rural China: Change and Continuity in an Era of Reform. and Development. Berkeley. Research from 2007 to 2008 was funded by NSF grants. Evans. Daniel 1997 How Infants Grow Mothers in North London.

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