Filial Piety: An Endangered Tradition in 21st Century China?

Family structure holds a significant level of importance in Chinese culture, even in today’s changing, modernized society. This concept of maintaining a high regard for family, most importantly elders, and making sure they are cared for is known as “Filial Piety.” Basically, the theory is that parents spent their lives taking care of their children, including feeding them, educating them, and teaching them respect and obedience, so when the children are adults, it becomes their job to pay back the parents. Nevertheless, obvious differences in the tradition exist between the older Chinese societies and the more urban areas that have given in to the modernization of the 21st century. This transformative time in Chinese history is reshaping the traditional culture’s concept of filial piety, to the point where the Chinese government is altering the concept to fit the demands of a new society.

An illustration to *The Classic of Filial Piety*

An illustration to *The Classic of Filial Piety*

During the past in China, virtues and customs were very strong, highly regarded, and often times very few citizens strayed from the cultural norms. Filial piety was seen as the most well respected Chinese virtue by many, if not all. In school, children learned of filial piety and grew up knowing a greater sense of respect and obedience, therefore understanding the importance of family hierarchy. The stories told showed the children in the Chinese society that when given the choice, parents come first no matter what. Not all people, especially many Westerners in today’s world, comprehend the importance and value of filial piety.

To better recognize the worth of this virtue, one can look at the book of stories depicting filial tales, called The Twenty-Four Paragons of Filial Piety, which was taught in schools. One tale, the story of a man named Guo Ju, clarifies the issue. Guo Ju buried his son in order to save his mother. His mother lived with him, his wife, and their one son, as was typical. However, the struggle for money and food became too strong. Guo Ju was a good filial son and told his wife they could always have another child but could not replace his mother, so he chose to dig a grave in the yard for his son. To his surprise, Guo Ju’s filial behaviors paid off, and when digging the grave, he was rewarded with a vase full of gold that was buried in the ground, said to be a gift from Heaven for the action he was about to take. The highest level of gratitude and honor in traditional Chinese society was always given to the parents, even over the spouse or children.

The story of Xiao Yixin tells of traditional morality and etiquette, the bonds of family, mutual respect between husband and wife, and mutual support in time of need—essential principles that were cherished in ancient China. (Xixinxing, Photos.com)

The story of Xiao Yixin tells of traditional morality and etiquette, the bonds of family, mutual respect between husband and wife, and mutual support in time of need—essential principles that were cherished in ancient China. (Xixinxing, Photos.com)

As times change in China, along with the rest of the world, traditional practices are affected. Several obstacles stand in the way of keeping old-fashioned virtues exactly the same. The most major of those hurdles is the one-child policy implemented in the 1970s. Although this policy has recently seen some slight changes, the decades it was in place without a doubt did damage to traditional filial piety. For the reason of parents being limited to one child, other factors besides respect and obedience have become more important when raising children. Parents of the last few decades spoil the only child much more, and the greatest concerns often revolve around making sure the child remains happy along with obtaining an education. These children grow up in a more modern, technology-focused environment, along with learning different values to life than what was taught in the past.

Similarly, since education and technology hold a higher level of importance now and the focus on family has seen a decline, outcomes reflect these changes as the children of China get older. Aging children choose to further their educations and seek successful jobs, which results in a much greater increase in mobility. In 2011, the state news agency, Xinhua, reported that “nearly half of the 185 million people age 60 and older live apart from their children.” Decades earlier, it was common for generations of family to live together under one roof. Now, the younger generations are choosing to move inward to the cities because of the increased economy, or even move all the way to the United States to achieve greater success. When the children leave their rural homes in the villages, their parents are left to take care of themselves.

When the effects of modernization are coupled with the changing population, a bigger problem is created. The population in China, for instance, now consists of more elderly Chinese citizens than any other age group. Estimates project that by the year 2050 nearly half of China’s population (about 636 million people) will be over the age of 50, which is twice the amount reported in 2010. The problem already created as a result of these population trends is that there are too many elderly people in China and not enough children to adequately care for them. Young adults are burdened with the responsibility of caring for their parents, themselves, and their own children, which proves too much to handle.

Wong, Associated Press

Wong, Associated Press

In some cases, the weight is so great for the children to carry that the parents take the issue to the courts. Many children have stopped financially and emotionally supporting their parents, often times because they claim they lack money or they live too far away. The courts now allow some of these elderly citizens to sue their children for support. In one case, a 94-year-old woman sued her children and the court ruled that the children must take turns caring for their mother, and also that one of the children pay her $10 each month. Unfortunately for this woman, she has not seen any of the money, and although she now lives with one of the children, the living conditions are barely tolerable. Although the government cannot force a family to change, the officials continue trying to instill in young adults a better sense of family importance.

Recently, the Chinese government took a huge step in trying to bring back some level of filial piety to their changing society. Just recently in the summer of 2013, a law was passed designed to force adult children to visit their aging parents. The law is called “Protection of the Rights and Interests of Elderly People.” The details of the new law involve the duties and obligations of the children regarding their parents and even goes as far as to state that children should go home regularly to visit parents. The Chinese view mental, emotional, and physical support all as part of elderly citizens’ rights, and the government has recognized that these rights need protection from today’s new society in China.

Unlike the past, the tales of filial piety and the knowledge passed down from parents are not enough to keep the virtue alive. Similar to every culture, times have changed, affecting all the new generations across the globe. China is no different in the sense that modernization now plays a key role in their lives and economy. The once treasured virtues of parental regard and family hierarchy have now become a matter to be addressed by government officials in order for them to hold significance in today’s generation. Filial piety has seen many changes since it was adopted by the culture centuries ago, and we’ll have to wait and see if it will continue to play a role in the lives of the Chinese people, whether they like it or not.