A Chinese proverb calls filial piety "the first among 100 virtues," and the ancient philosopher Confucius credited it as the bedrock of social harmony. Examples of family loyalty abound: A popular song urges grown children to visit their parents often. Communities celebrate Seniors' Day and hold "best children" contests, complete with cash prizes. One county even made filial piety a condition for the promotion of local officials.
Generations of Chinese read the classic morality guide, "The Twenty-Four Filial Exemplars," where sons strangle tigers, let mosquitoes feast on their blood and proudly scrub bedpans for the sake of their parents. (A modern, somewhat more practical version of the guide advises children to call their parents regularly and spend holidays with them.)
As a 2008 bulletin from the U.S. aging advocacy group AARP put it: "For thousands of years, filial piety was China's Medicare, Social Security and long-term care, all woven into a single family virtue."
This is the world Zhang was born into, on Aug. 15, 1919.
She was of little use to a family of poor farmers, so her parents married her off at 14. Her husband died of dysentery, and she found herself a widow with two little girls and her husband's mother to support.
But her mother-in-law set her free. You don't have to take care of me, she told Zhang.
Zhang quickly remarried. Her new husband, a furniture maker, was too poor to support her, so they moved in with his parents.
Her new in-laws expected her to look after them. And that's when her nightmare truly began.
"She's not making sense!" Kuang snaps.
Zhang, the target of Kuang's ire, is hunched on her bed, mouth set in a grim line. She barely acknowledges her daughter-in-law's insult. In fact, she barely acknowledges her at all.
Both women are fighting for their audience, though Kuang's ear-splitting staccato often drowns out Zhang's hushed monotone. Kuang hovers over her mother-in-law, interjecting constant critiques: Zhang is messing up the story, Zhang cannot remember a detail, even if she is in the midst of delivering it.
At the moment, they are arguing about Zhang's age when her first husband died. Zhang is struggling ... Was she 24? Or was it 21?
"Don't make up nonsense!" a frustrated Kuang says, voice rising. "It was 22! IT WAS 22!"
Zhang is crying. It's hard to tell if the tears are linked to the miseries of her past or her present.
Her father-in-law, she says, was a gambling addict with a violent temper. Still, she never considered leaving — that would have made her a social outcast.
Kuang, in a rare moment of agreement, jumps in: "That's just the way it was at the time."
Zhang's growing brood survived mainly on a thin broth of boiled corn stalks. Yet when her hated father-in-law died in 1959, she had to give her food to the guests at his funeral.
Three decades later, her husband died, leaving her to the mercy of her offspring.
But the world had changed, and the bickering and bartering soon began. Once again, her very existence seemed to inconvenience everyone.
Zhang murmurs that she wants to say something, but is afraid to talk in front of her daughter-in-law. A reluctant Kuang steps outside and Zhang pleads: "Don't let her know that I told you this..."
Her family locks her in this room all day. She dares not scream for help for fear she will be beaten.
She pinches her cheek hard, slaps a visitor's arm. That's what they do to me, she says.
Her bones ache. Her feet ache. She hasn't moved her bowels in at least 10 days. The stench from the toilet bucket sickens her. Her children force her to drag it outside to empty it, but she is too weak and it is too heavy.
When her lawsuit hit the local news, she says, a furious Kuang asked her: "Why don't you go hang yourself?"
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