Institutionalising ‘filial piety’ in China’s ageing population

Filial piety has had a major influence on China’s past and will in the future

Will Zou

Society and culture | Asia, East Asia

10 July 2014

Will Zou analyses the Law of Protection of Rights and Interests of Elderly People which was passed in China last year, arguing that the formal institutionalization of ‘filial piety’ (xiao, 孝) further signals the state is returning to past imperial ruling methods.

Mr. Dong stumbled into a police station earlier this year, raving, “I’m denouncing my son in the name of righteousness! I’m denouncing my son in the name of righteousness! (大義滅親!)” In July last year, a mother successfully sued her daughter in a Wuxi court for neglect. The court ruled that the daughter had to visit her mother at least once every two months, and must financially support her. These stories are not disparate cases, but are a result of a law recently enacted by the National People’s Congress on July 1st 2013. The Law of Protection of Rights and Interests of Elderly People (老年人權益保障法), gives parents over the age of sixty the right to sue their children on the grounds of neglect, including those who do not visit their parents.[1]

This law, however, is not new to China. As early as its first empire, the Qin, parents have been able to denounce their children on the grounds of neglect. The Tang emperor Tang Xuanzong  (唐玄宗) personally wrote a commentary on the seminal text on filial piety: the ‘Classic of Filial Piety’ (Xiaojing, 孝經).  The text considered filial piety to be “the vein of heaven” (孝,天之經也). Right up until a hundred years ago, memorising this text was the basic requirement of all students hopeful of attaining civil service positions.

Whilst filial piety and Confucianism became the target of mainstream political campaigns during the tumultuous Cultural Revolution years, now it appears this fundamental concept in Chinese culture is being re-habilitated. Modern policy makers are increasingly reverting back to the past to find future solutions. One only has to look around Beijing street corners to find ever more crimson red banners trumpeting ritual and courtesy: 不學禮, 無以立.

Behind the rhetoric, however, practical considerations guide the policy. With over 200 million people over the age of 60, or 15% of the population, and mainly single children looking after them, the state is faced with a rapidly ageing population.[2] Problems such an overburdened health care system and a pension fund deficit are complex issues the state must deal with. Clearly, part of the solution is asking Generation Y to shoulder the burden of their parents’ retirement and old age, to share the common destiny if you will. Perhaps this is a true case of ‘modernity with Chinese characteristics’, 中國現代化.

There, of course, will be both opportunities and challenges. A reverence to parents has long being believed to build more selfless individuals. By bringing back one of the cardinal virtues of traditional China into public discourse, the notion could, arguably, temper the destructive competitiveness in the current push for marketisation and entrepreneurialism. On the other hand, the current generation of single child “little emperors” will suffer the burden as their parents age. Not only will they face a hyper-inflated real estate market and elevated costs of living, but they will also have to fork out money and time to take care of their parents.

Mr. Dong’s words reflect the age-old debate among Chinese intellectuals: to serve one’s kin or to serve one’s state. The state is sending a strong message: children can serve the state by serving their parents; parents can serve the state by denouncing their children if they refuse to share the burden. Whilst China returns to an ancient sanctum, in doing so it might throw out another – keeping family matters strictly private affairs. Filial piety has had a major influence on China’s past, and this law’s resurface is certainly one to watch for.





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