Taiwan and Hong Kong have always had a lot in common, and one reason is that both places received a huge influx of China’s educated classes in the years following 1949. People who had been running a vast country found themselves instead running a large island and a rocky islet, respectively. Irrespective of one’s political position, the contribution of these refugees should not be underestimated in considering the subsequent histories of both places.
This book is a set of essays on how to live the good life, mostly taking its examples from the author’s own family history. In the 1930s Betty Chung’s family was important in Republican Nanjing, her father the youngest senator in the legislature and her mother a senior librarian and emerging feminist. They moved to Canton (now known as Guangzhou) after the Japanese assault on Nanjing in 1937, and then, after several other moves, to Hong Kong in May 1949. In 1966 Betty Chung’s parents moved over to Taiwan where her mother was the Canton City Representative in the National Assembly, in the days when it still claimed to represent the whole of China, until her death in 1978. Betty didn’t go with them, however, but went instead to Canada to study for a doctorate in psychology.
Although described as “recipes from my mother”, i.e. the Taipei legislator, these chapters really represent Betty Chung’s own philosophy of life. Nevertheless, her mother was an unusual woman, more independently minded than most women of her era and class, combining this sense of freedom with what she perceived to be the best elements in traditional Confucianism. She was no Simone de Beauvoir, in other words, but a sage and astute individual in her own right.
Life Recipes From My Mother: Timeless Lessons for Living a Contented Life
By Betty Jamie Chung
But when I first sat down to read Life Recipes From My Mother, I was somewhat taken aback to find an early chapter on the importance of table manners. It was a long time since anyone I knew had valued, or even expressed a belief in the existence of, such things. But I warmed to the book later, and was surprised to find I could agree with its author on a number of matters.
Even so, you won’t find anything radical here, far less any injunctions to, say, break the law. Instead, it’s a measured look at Confucian tradition, especially with regard to the family. If you want to sum it up in a few words, you could say that what this book argues is “Confucianism? Well, yes and no.”
To give an example of Chung’s qualified support for Confucian traditions, she asks whether we should respect our parents and obey them in every particular. Her answer is that we should always respect them, but only obey them selectively. She gives as an example an uncle of hers who as a boy was a musical prodigy, but was forced by his father to follow the family tradition and become a doctor. The result was that he was never truly happy for the rest of his life.
Westerners living in Chinese societies are often astonished by how parents treat their children. There’s a lot in this book about the parent-child relationship, with the emphasis often on allowing children more freedom than is traditional given, particularly when it comes to artistic offspring and to education. The author is aware, for instance, that a PhD was often considered a surplus requirement for a woman in Chinese society, and she mentions the belief that too much education could make her unmarriageable. But her parents were never typical merchants, even though they’d made their fortune in the salt business. When her father finally moved to Hong Kong, for example, all he really cared about taking with him were his books.