Mother/ Daughter relationships: Cultural difference and modernity

Mother/ Daughter relationships: Cultural difference and modernity

Stevi Jackson, University of York

Over the last two decades there has been considerable sociological debate about the extent to which ‘intimacy’ – a term taken to cover all aspects of close personal relationships – is undergoing transformation in late modern societies as a result of changes in gender relations, increased individualization and an alleged greater fluidity (or instability) in familial and sexual relationships (Heaphy 2007). Most of this debate has been focused exclusively on western societies (Koo and Wong 2009).

As a small step towards thinking of these issues beyond ‘the west’ I worked with Sik Ying (Petula) Ho from the University of Hong Kong on a two year exploratory project, funded by an ESRC Hong Kong bilateral award, to compare women’s experiences of social change and personal life in Britain and Hong Kong. These two societies provide an interesting case for comparison. Both are part of the rich world, or the ‘global north’, but with differing cultural heritages and political systems. Their histories are intertwined, with the legacy of British colonialism leaving its mark on Hong Kong. Until the 1970s Hong Kong was characterised by ‘third world’ levels of poverty and while it is now richer than the UK in terms of overall economic indicators, the policies of both the colonial and present administrations have resulted in a lack of welfare provision and a huge gulf between rich and poor (Goodstadt 2013).

As a means of tapping into change in personal life we conducted in-depth interviews with two generations of women: young university educated women aged 20-26 (those most likely to have benefitted from recent social change and to have the opportunity to lead more individualised lives) and their mothers. We interviewed 13 young white British women and 12 of their mothers and 14 young Hong Kong Chinese women and 12 of their mothers and conducted focus groups with young women. In exploring many aspects of personal life, one area of contrast that emerged was in mother-daughter relationships, in particular how and to what extent mothers sought to influence or regulate their daughters’ lives.

Tiger mothers?

The much publicised Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, by Chinese-American author Amy Chua, conveyed a particular image of Chinese maternal practices held to explain the educational success of Chinese children – the mother who pushes her child to the limit, expects them to excel in all they do and never accepts anything less than an outstanding performance. The Hong Kong mothers in our sample did not display the more extreme traits of the tiger mother, but they did push their daughters very hard and, despite mostly having modest means, spent all they could afford on their education. One mother told us she and her husband had spent all their savings on their two daughters’ education and had no money left, while another said that she considered it an ‘obligation’ to give her children ‘the best education we could afford.’

In part, this may reflect the fiercely competitive educational and wider economic climate in Hong Kong and the importance of material success for survival. It may also be a response to the mothers’ own experiences with many of them having grown up in poverty with limited education – free compulsory schooling in Hong Kong dates back only to the 1970s. Some, therefore, expressed a determination to give their daughters the chances they never had. In addition education was seen as an investment in the parents’ own futures as well as their daughters’, with an expectation that daughters would support their parents in their old age – a necessity given the lack of adequate pension provision in Hong Kong.

Both the British and Hong Kong mothers hoped that their daughters would succeed in a career – and expressed concern about the obstacles facing them in a global climate of economic uncertainly, but beyond this their emphases and strategies differed. Material success and social status figured far more in the Hong Kong mothers’ accounts whereas the British mothers placed more emphasis on finding a career that offered personal fulfilment, summed up by a frequently uttered phrase ‘as long as she’s happy’. British mothers were certainly involved in their daughters’ education, offered them advice, encouragement and material support but were more inclined to ‘let them find their own level’. Hong Kong mothers, on the other hand, imposed strict discipline on their daughters while they were growing up, restricting their activities to schoolwork and approved, and improving, extra-curricular activities.

One aspect of this pattern of discipline was that physical punishment of children was a common practice in many of our Hong Kong families – not the odd slap, but systematic beatings of a kind that would be considered abusive in Britain. The young women who had received such beatings displayed little or no resentment at this practice – provided it was explained as punishment for an identifiable act of misconduct and delivered in the context of ‘love’, it was widely seen as justifiable. Some also told us that they would beat their own children, with one saying ‘it is necessary as the child needs to be afraid of the parents to a certain extent.’ Physical punishment of any kind was rare in our British sample. Mothers preferred to reason with their daughters or, where this failed, withdraw privileges. In the daughters’ accounts, however, another strategy emerged, one that they saw as being particularly effective: the inculcation of guilt through such phrases as ‘I am very disappointed in you’. Control was thus established through emotional manipulation rather than physical force.

Nonetheless it is clear that the British young women grew up with greater freedom and were also able to develop more independence from their parents on reaching adulthood – in part because most left home for good once they began higher education, though  a few had become ‘boomerang’ children, returning home because of lack of a job or a relationship failure. All the Hong Kong young women, however, still lived with their parents – partly because of a cultural expectation that they would do so until they married and partly because of the lack of affordable alternative accommodation available to them. This meant that their mothers continued trying to influence daughters’ conduct into adulthood. One example of this, which also illustrates divergent attitudes and practices in the two locations, is the issue of sexuality.


British women in both generations, with the exception of one deeply religious mother-daughter pair, seemed to accept teenage sexual experimentation as a ‘normal’ aspect of growing up and took non-marital sexuality for granted as part of life. The British mothers typically had allowed their daughters to sleep with their (predominantly male) sexual partners at home, to stay with them at weekends or go on holiday with them – and this often began before daughters left home to go to university. They were concerned about the risk of early pregnancy and most ensured their daughters had access to contraception, but otherwise did not interfere in their sex lives. Permitting them to use the parental home for sexual encounters could be seen a means of ensuring they were safe and was therefore a form of benign surveillance. As one mother noted, it also made it possible for a daughter to return to live in the parental home without it unduly constraining her lifestyle.

Whereas only one (very devout) British mother expected her daughter to remain a virgin until marriage, in Hong Kong virginity prior to marriage remains normative. Not all our Hong Kong daughters were avowed virgins, but all saw virginity as an important and contentious issue. Many mothers assiduously policed their daughters’ virginity, one told us that ‘virginity is a gift to your life-long partner’, while her daughter complained that her mother was constantly checking her virginity status and stressing its importance. Young women gave many other examples of how their mothers sought to discourage sexual activity, from constant warnings against losing their virginity to, in one case, directly instructing a daughter’s boyfriend not to have sex with her. Pre-marital sex was only ever considered acceptable when marriage plans were underway.  In general the young Hong Kong women had much less sexual experience than their British counterparts, in keeping with what is known from survey data of the two societies (Family Planning Association of Hong Kong 2013, Mercer et el 2013).

Hong Kong also remains far more heteronormative than Britain. Both British generations expressed liberal attitudes to lesbianism, for example, ‘the gender of the person that loves your child is less important than the quality of the love.’ Hong Kong mothers frequently saw lesbianism as ‘abnormal’. The daughters’ attitudes were more accepting of sexual diversity and two were lesbian, one of whose mothers said that it took her two years (and the fear of losing her daughter altogether) to accept it. The other does not acknowledge her daughter’s sexuality.

Why the difference?

As we have argued at length in a recent article (Jackson and Ho forthcoming), we do not see these differences as a product of ‘cultural lag’ and we certainly do not assume that Hong Kong will (or should) ‘catch up’ with western attitudes and practices. Some of the differences are products of cultural heritage, such as the continued importance of filial piety in Chinese societies, others are the result of historical circumstances and the social-economic and political conditions of life in the two societies. Certainly we cannot assume that conditions of modernity have the same consequences for personal life everywhere in the world. 


References and further reading:

Family Planning Association of Hong Kong (2013) Report of the Youth Sexuality Study 2011. Hong Kong:  The Family Planning Association of Hong Kong.

Goodstadt, Leo F. (2013) Poverty in the Midst of Affluence: How Hong Kong Mismanaged Its Prosperity. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.

Heaphy, Brian (2007) Late Modernity and Social Change: Reconstructing Social and Personal Life. London: Routledge. Jackson, Stevi, Ho, Petula Sik Ying and Na, Jin Nye (2013) ‘Reshaping tradition?  Women negotiating the boundaries of tradition and modernity in Hong Kong and British families’, The Sociological Review, 61 (4): 667-688.

Koo, Anita C. and Wong, Thomas W.P. (2009) ‘Family in flux: benchmarking family changes in Hong Kong society’, Social Transformations in Chinese Society, 4 (special issue, ‘Doing Families in Hong Kong’): 17-56.

Mercer, Catherine H., Tanton, Clare, Prah, Philip et al. (2013) ‘Changes in sexual attitudes and lifestyles in Britian through the life course and over time: findings from the National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (Natsal)’, The Lancet, 382 (9907): 1781-1794

Stevi Jackson is Professor of Women’s Studies and Director of the Centre for Women’s Studies at the University of York. Her most recent book, co-authored with Sue Scott, is Theorizing Sexuality, Open University Press 2010. She is currently working with Sik Ying Ho on a book provisionally entitled Women Doing Intimacy: Gender, Family and Modernity in Hong Kong and Britain, which is to be published by Palgrave Macmillan.