A Stepmother: The Power of Love and Kindness

Green bamboo on handmade rice paper background with Chinese characters for eternity, freedom, happiness, beauty.

A famous Ming Dynasty scholar said that for a biological mother, it is most important to teach her children well, but for a stepmother, the most important thing is to be loving and kind. (Image: Elinacious via Dreamstime)

Lu Kun, a famous literary scholar and thinker during the Ming Dynasty, compiled the book Virtue for Women. In this book, he emphasizes that the most important thing for a biological mother is to teach her children correctly and not overindulge them. However, for a stepmother, the most important thing is to be more patient and loving. This is why, since ancient times, people have said: “Birth mothers should teach, while stepmothers should love”

Sacrificing her own son out of principle

During the reign of King Xuan of Qi in the Warring States period, there was an incident on the street that ended in a fatal fight. Two brothers who were found near the body were suspected by the local government of having murdered the deceased. Not knowing which one was guilty, they brought both men in to interrogate.

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During the interrogation, the elder brother said that he was the one who had killed the man, but the younger brother also said that he was the guilty party. The magistrate was unable to discover the truth, so he reported it to the King of Qi.

King Xuan of Qi said: “If both are pardoned, it would be an indulgence of the guilty; if both are found guilty, it would be a wrongful accusation of the innocent.” So he sent someone to ask their mother what she thought about the situation.

Statue of a stone warrior in Thailand with the cloudy sky in the background.
King Xuan of Qi sent someone to ask their mother what she thought about the situation. (Image: Parinyabinsuk via Dreamstime)

The mother replied with tears in her eyes: “Please let my older son live.” When asked why, she said: “My younger son is my biological son. The older one is my husband’s son from a previous marriage. My husband told me before his passing to treat his son well and I promised I would, so how could I forget it? To kill the elder and spare the younger would be to forsake justice and break promises to the deceased.”

The mother wept as she spoke, her garments drenched with tears. It was clear that although she did not want to let go of her young son, she was willing to sacrifice him in order to keep her promise and uphold justice.

When the messenger returned with her answer to the King of Qi, he was filled with admiration. He declared both sons pardoned and honored their mother as a “Righteous Mother.”

Commenting on this story, philosopher Lu Kun noted that stepmothers would usually be hostile to their husband’s children because since they are older than their own children, they would compete for inheritance. Moreover, they may worry that their own children may suffer harm because of any disputes over property. Even if the stepchildren are filial and respectful, the stepmother may not be patient or understanding enough to judge their intentions. How could she even consider sacrificing her own child to save her stepchild? Such a righteous stepmother is both a virtuous wife and an affectionate mother, and her story has moved people to tears for centuries. 

Li Mujiang’s love and kindness touched her stepson

Li Mujiang was the second wife of Cheng Wenju in the late Eastern Han Dynasty. They had two sons together, Cheng Huai and Cheng Ji. With the four sons from his first wife, there were six children altogether. After Li Mujiang’s husband died, she had the responsibility to raise all six of these children.

Led by their eldest brother, Cheng Xing, the four stepsons formed the opinion that Li Mujiang would not treat them kindly since she was not their birth mother, and they would often defy her authority. However, instead of scolding them, she was even more loving and generous towards them, often providing them with more than she did for her own children when it came to clothing, food, shelter, and expenses.

When someone asked Li Mujiang why she had been so kind to those four stepchildren, who had treated her so harshly, she replied: “They have no birth mother, but my sons do. Suppose my sons were disobedient – as a mother, could I bear to abandon them?”

One day, Cheng Xing got seriously ill. Li Mujiang personally prepared medicinal herbs for him and took care of him with the utmost effort, and yet she became increasingly exhausted due to worry. Seeing all of this, Cheng Xing was deeply moved.

As a stepmother, Li Mujiang personally prepared medicinal herbs for her stepson and took care of him with the utmost effort.
As a stepmother, Li Mujiang personally prepared medicinal herbs for her stepson and took care of him with the utmost effort. (Image: Shutterbestiole via Dreamstime)

After he recovered, Cheng Xing said to his three younger brothers: “Our stepmother is so kind-hearted and benevolent by nature. We brothers have not been filial; we are worse than beasts. Our sins are too great.” And so, the four of them went to the county government office to testify of their stepmother’s virtue and confess their own wrongdoings, asking to be punished.

The county magistrate had trouble deciding what to do, so he reported this to the prefecture magistrate, who subsequently issued a proclamation recognizing Li Mujiang and exempting her family from any forced labor details. He also encouraged her four stepchildren to reform themselves.

Eventually, all six of Li Mujiang’s sons became filial children, with five of them being recommended by the prefectures and counties for official posts. Li Mujiang’s second son, Cheng Ji, even served as the prefect of Nanjun.

The virtuous Li Mujiang lived to be over 80 years old. On her death bed, she told her children: “Your uncle Li Bodu is a very learned man; he advocates simple burials. You should follow his teachings and put my mind at ease lest I die worrying that I’ve been a burden to you.” Her children all followed their mother’s wishes.

Translated by Eva

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