A Tale of Motherhood across Cultures

Tales from around the world can teach us, love is universal and unlimited, so is motherhood, says Jaiyi Liao.

I recently wrote a blog explaining the comfort I was able to draw from the world’s great flood myths during this global pandemic. Two things struck me, firstly that the tale seemed to be repeated in different cultures around the world. Secondly, the message seemed to be routinely missed. I wanted to turn my attention to another such recurring story. One commonly held to be a praise of the principles of justice. Yet, it is also a tale of motherhood across cultures. 

The story, as told in the bible (1 Kings 3: 3-38), goes a little like this;

One day, two prostitutes living in the same house each give birth to a child, but one baby dies at night. Both claim to be the mother of the surviving child. They come to King Solomon to adjudicate their claims. King Solomon, who has the wisdom of God with him, asks for a sword to divide the baby in two, giving half to one woman, and half to the other. One woman begs him not to slay the child and is willing to give him up, but the other says, “divide him and let him be neither mine nor thine.” King Solomon then judges the former as the true mother, as no mother could bear to slay her own child. 

This parable in the Old Testament is well-known throughout the world, and various cultures share a common tale of two women fighting over the custody of one child.  

In the Buddhist Karma Scriptures about wisdom and foolishness, a wise king suggests that each woman hold one hand of the child and pull. He declares that the one who manages to pull the child towards her would win custody. The false mother pulls with might, whereas the true mother doesn’t pull hard lest she should harm her beloved child. Knowing the nature of mother’s love, the wise king successfully recognises the true mother and resolves the struggle. 

In Huilanji (The Chalk Circle), a famous Chinese play written in the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), two wives of the same husband claim to be the mother of one child. Judge Bao, who is reputed for his wisdom and justice, asks the child to stand in a chalk circle on the floor. He asks the two women to compete to pull the child out of the circle from two opposite sides. Similar to the previous two stories, Judge Bao discerns the true mother, who doesn’t pull hard because of her love for the child. 

At first glance, these stories serve to praise the wisdom of a judge. Taking a deeper look, all of them are in essence a celebration of the unselfish love of mothers.  All of them follow the logic that the true mother would not harm her child at any expense. 

These three are perhaps the best known globally but tales with a similar plot are found in many other cultures. Some suspect that the story originated in Minor Asia and later spread to India and China through trade routes. Others argue that the similarity is a coincidence due to similar understanding of motherhood in distinct cultures. As the stories are ancient, there is insufficient evidence to draw a definite conclusion. Yet, the tales can tell something about “motherhood” across cultures. The ready willingness of a mother to sacrifice herself to protect the child transcends the boundaries of space and time and is praised cross-culturally in tales and reality. 

Interestingly, in The Caucasian Chalk Circle, a recent adaptation in 1948 of the Chinese play, German playwright Bertolt Brecht further escalates the praise of motherhood in the ancient tales. Brecht redefines “motherhood,” challenging traditional and limited understandings. Similar to the old tales, two women fight over the custody of one child in Brecht’s play, but this time, there is a big twist in the end: the “true mother” loses!  

In this play, the biological mother of the child is a noble woman who abandons her son in a coup in the hurry to rescue her own luxurious belongings. A servant girl of the family saves the baby in the chaos. She takes on the child somewhat reluctantly at the beginning and thinks about leaving him alone. But eventually, with her conscience and compassion, she decides to raise the baby as her own child against all odds. Several years later, the noble woman comes back for her child, not for regret or love, but for his right of property inheritance. The servant girl, on the other hand, was determined to protect the child from his loveless biological mother.

During the two women’s fight for the child’s custody, the judge employs the same old trick of a chalk circle. However, contrary to the traditions, the “true mother” by blood pulls the child hard with her desire to win the property. The foster mother, who is false by blood but true by love, refuses to pull and hurt the child, and thus wins the custody. Brecht reinterprets “motherhood” not as a genetic disposition but a selfless love for others derived from deep compassion transcending genetics. 

In ancient tales, motherhood broke through the boundaries of cultures. In Brecht’s modern rendition, motherhood breaks through the limit of blood. Love is universal and unlimited. So is motherhood.


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A Tale of Motherhood across Cultures

by Jiayi Liao Reading time: 4 min