Hong Kong Legislative Council member Eunice Yung recently announced in a newspaper ad that she was cutting off ties with her father-in-law, Elmer Yuen. Photo: Jonathan Wong
by Wee Kek Koon
by Wee Kek Koon

In Chinese history, Confucian culture instructed wives to treat their parents-in-law as their own. One book gave a rundown of daily requirements

  • In imperial times, filial piety obliged children’s spouses, especially the wives of sons, to show love and respect for their parents-in-law
  • The ‘Book of Rites’ detailed how they should do this every day, including stroking and scratching painful areas of their in-laws’ bodies, and helping them wash

Eunice Yung Hoi-yan, a member of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council, recently took out an advertisement in the Oriental Daily newspaper to announce that she was cutting off ties with her father-in-law, Elmer Yuen Gong-yi.

The ad in the Chinese-language newspaper stated that “as a Chinese with the blood of the great Motherland coursing through [her veins]”, Yung had to sever her affinal ties with Yuen, who is charged with subversion under the national security law for his role in calling for a Hong Kong parliament-in-exile.

It’s sad when families are torn apart by different ideologies. At the height of the unrest in the city in 2019–20, many Hongkongers “cut the mat” (got zik) with their kin, disowning parents, children and other relatives because of opposing political views.

Chinese culture places the family on such a lofty pedestal that it is almost sacrosanct. Indeed, there were laws during imperial times that punished those who contravened society’s kinship norms, the chief pillar of which was the concept of xiao, often translated as “filial piety”.

Elmer Yuen (right), Yung’s father-in-law, at a press conference launching the Hong Kong Electoral Organising Committee in Toronto, Canada, on July 27. Photo: Facebook

Not only were children expected to be filial to their parents, xiao also obliged children’s spouses, especially the wives of sons, to show love and respect for their parents-in-law.

The Book of Rites, one of the core texts of the Confucian canon in imperial times, contains instructions to daughters-in-law on how they should behave towards their husband’s parents.

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In the chapter “The Pattern of the Family”, it unequivocally states that “sons’ wives should serve their parents-in-law as they serve their own parents”, before giving a detailed rundown of what they should do every day from daybreak.

The instructions for attending to the ablutions of their parents-in-law deserve to be quoted in full.

“Thus dressed, they should go to their … parents-in-law. On getting to where they are, with bated breath and gentle voice, they should ask if their clothes are too warm or too cold, whether they are ill or pained, or uncomfortable in any part; and if they be so, they should proceed reverently to stroke and scratch the place.

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“They should in the same way, going before or following after, help and support their parents[-in-law] in leaving or entering [the room].

“In bringing in the basin for them to wash, the younger will carry the stand and the elder the water; they will beg to be allowed to pour out the water, and when the washing is concluded, they will hand over the towel.

“They will ask whether they want anything, and then respectfully bring it. All this they will do with an appearance of pleasure to make their parents feel at ease.”

Yung’s advert in the Oriental Daily. Photo: Warton Li

This goes on in a similar manner for other times of the day. We should be grateful that such behaviour is no longer expected.

In most modern families, Chinese or otherwise, genuine affection and intimacy between children’s spouses and their parents-in-law are exception rather than the rule, with parents-in-laws and their children’s spouses mostly leading separate lives.

As with any relationship, civility is the ideal baseline of behaviour, especially when the other person is the parent of one’s spouse, or the spouse of one’s child. Hence, Yung’s dramatic severance of her ties with her father-in-law is surprising. One can imagine how awkward family events are going to be from now on.

But I’m sure Yung knows what she’s doing; she would have weighed all the pros and cons before reaching her decision. Still, I hope she and her father-in-law reconcile. As the Chinese saying goes: “All things thrive in a harmonious family.”