China’s Honor Code
“You don’t call. You never write. You won’t eat my dumplings anymore!”
Chinese mothers will not have to utter those words again if the powers that be have their way.
In Shanghai, the Nanjing East Road Neighborhood Committee recently took to public shaming to ensure that people attend to their aging parents. Anyone who doesn’t visit at least once every three months faces having his or her name posted on a community signboard.
Members of a nearby senior community announced a different approach: They would fine offspring $5 if they didn’t invite their parents home for Chinese New Year.
And then there’s the Chinese government itself: Shirkers face five years in prison for failing to support or take care of their parents.
In the battle to safeguard the tradition of filial piety, China’s social watchdogs are employing many weapons: shame, fines, bribery, guilt and flattery.
Respect for parents and clan elders has been a cornerstone of Chinese culture for thousands of years, part of a defining social contract in which parents cared for their children while they were young and children supported their parents in their dotage.
But something happened on the way to the 21st century. The fundamental glue that bound generations through dynasties, wars and famines started coming unstuck in the face of rapid economic and social change. Add it up, traditionalists fear, and the very definition of what it means to be Chinese is under threat.
Perhaps only in China will you find best-child contests. Wang Xinjun, 47, a resident of the central province of Shanxi, beams with pride. She was recently named a Model Filial Daughter-in-Law of the year, one of eight selected from her community.
Although she acknowledges having a few fights with her mother-in-law early on, she has cheerfully cared for her father-in-law, two disabled siblings, three children and a nephew for two decades. She won a $60 prize and hopes to compete in next year’s county-level filial finals.
Grabbing the national spotlight can be a bit more difficult: China Person of the Year recipient Tian Shiguo gave his mother one of his kidneys without telling her it was his.
“My contribution to my mother does not compare to what she has given me,” the Guangzhou lawyer told reporters.
China is promoting piety on the airwaves as well, with televised ads that show the crestfallen face of an elderly woman waiting to have dinner with her grown children as each calls to say they’re too busy. These are complemented by dramas on state-run television with filial piety themes, including “Nine Daughters at Home” and “My Old Parents.”
To what extent the programs work is difficult to gauge in a society that mounts seemingly endless campaigns against gambling, corruption, greed and impure thoughts. The fact that China is trying so hard to counter this erosion of traditional values, however, suggests how great it views the threat, sociologists say.
If carrots and model citizen campaigns don’t work, there’s always the bamboo rod. Adults who don’t support their parents face the prospect of several years in jail under Chinese law, although courts prefer a mediated solution when possible. For example, a woman was sentenced to eight months in prison in 2000 for refusing to support her mother-in-law, who later committed suicide. In 2003, a man who refused to support his parents and struck them during a fight landed in jail for a year.
Guo Shuizhang, a seventysomething rice farmer in Zhangjianong village in the southeastern province of Zhejiang, has sued his children four times. About a decade ago, he went out with his son to cut wood for his coffin, a local tradition. In a somewhat ghoulish twist of fate, he almost died when the tree fell on him, inflicting severe injuries and ending his ability to work.
Guo’s son and four daughters refused to support him financially, pay for his medical care or let him live with them. So the head of the village women’s organization, Guo Yejuan, urged him to go to court. Things got pretty nasty. At one point, the court padlocked his son’s house for nonsupport. Another time, his daughter-in-law told the aging farmer he should have died in the accident.
“Some villagers think he’s a bit crazy for taking his own kids to court,” Guo Yejuan said. “They dubbed him ‘legal eagle.’ But the son is paying now, and things have settled down.”
Compared with many Western societies, China remains a very filial society. Older people command great respect. In many rural families, three or more generations live under the same roof, and the idea of moving the elderly into senior homes is not widely embraced. Only 1% of Chinese older than 80 are in elder care facilities, compared with 20% in the U.S., according to the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.
But the trend is worrisome, say population specialists. As traditional support erodes, there are few safety nets to replace it. This is particularly true in the countryside, where just 6% of senior citizens have pensions, compared with 60% in big cities.
As social planners fret over lawsuits, pensions and safety nets, others bemoan the loss of family values once considered second nature.
“You shouldn’t need contracts,” said Liu Shiwang, the local Communist Party secretary in Hebei province’s Dongqinlan village, who helped more than 30 senior citizens draft documents laying out their offspring’s responsibilities.
“Children should want to help their parents. After all, they don’t spring from rocks,” Liu said.
Hao Maishou, a former sociology professor from Tianjin who quotes Marx, Lenin and Rousseau in equal measure, has taken a different approach. He signed a contract when his son was 20 years old that essentially read: I won’t coddle you, find you a job, hunt for your wife or pay for more education, and you won’t have to take care of me in my old age. Initially taken aback by his father’s action, Hao’s son now says it has made him more independent and confident.
“Chinese often regard raising children as an investment,” said the younger Hao in his two-bedroom apartment decorated with miniature terra-cotta warriors and his father’s calligraphy. “Filial piety is an old concept that only suits a particular period, and now it’s no longer relevant.”
The idea that children are independent entities worthy of respect in their own right is a relatively recent concept in China, where parents traditionally have absolute moral authority.
“Filial sons come from beating,” says one Chinese proverb.
Strict adherence to hierarchy had a broader purpose, social scientists said: It discouraged upstarts and supported the status quo.
“To protect the order of the clan head is ultimately to protect the emperor, seen as the highest father,” said Ge Chenhong, a professor at People’s University in Beijing.
In recent decades, however, improved status has made women less willing to blindly serve their in-laws. The one-child campaign has given younger people more family clout, even as globalization and rapid innovation have diminished the perceived wisdom of elders. Nuclear families have replaced extended families, particularly in cities.
“In nuclear families, couples create a love nest,” said Kwan Yui-Huen, a sociology professor at the City University of Hong Kong who surveyed residents of seven Chinese cities on filial piety. “And they don’t want old birds in the nest.”
Some also blame the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, when Confucianism came under attack and, in extreme cases, children were encouraged to report on their parents’ misdeeds, even disown them, if they came from the landlord class or had “bad roots.”
“Children were forced to draw a line,” said Zhai Yuhe, a National People’s Congress deputy who released a nationwide survey last month that found 52% of respondents believed their grown children showed callous disregard for their welfare. “It exacted an emotional toll.”
At the Chrysanthemum Study school in Suzhou outside Shanghai, primary school children sit cross-legged at traditional foot-high desks, brush and inkstand at the ready. Their teacher, dressed in a Han dynasty robe with long hanging sleeves, instructs them in Confucian precepts. Respect your parents. Eschew bad habits. Show deference.
But this is very much a 21st century China. Pink sneakers peek out from under the tables and glittery pins adorn heads as the children shout, laugh and talk back.
But teacher Zhang Zhiyi takes it all in stride.
“The last century has seen a lot of change in China, including the loss of some virtues,” he said. “Filial piety may change and adapt, but it won’t disappear.”
Even college students are required to take morality and parental respect classes.
In addition to writing and calling home more often, 21-year-old Liaocheng University student Wang Yanfang got another assignment just before Chinese New Year.
“The teacher asked us to wash our parents’ feet,” said Wang, an engineering major.
After some initial hesitation, she took the plunge and is glad she did.
“It’s a way of saying ‘I’m grown up, I care about you, I’ll take care of you,’ ” Wang said in a soft voice. “Afterward, I could tell they were very happy.”
Not everyone is quite so enthused. Half of Wang’s class balked, claiming that they’d forgotten. Several high school students given a similar assignment in fast-paced Shanghai called the exercise “inhumane.”
“I think it’s a bit outdated,” said Dong Hang, 13, a student in Jiangsu province, who also washed her parents’ feet at her teacher’s urging.
Dong said she preferred other forms of respect, like getting good grades.
“Parents can go to foot massage salons themselves if they really want,” she added. “They don’t need us to do it.”
Yin Lijin in The Times’ Beijing Bureau contributed to this report.