Editors Note: This is part 1 of a 5-part series that explores the opinions of young Chinese through essays they wrote in Peter Vernezze’s philosophy class.
What do you get when you assign a group of one hundred Chinese graduate students an extended argumentative essay on a moral issue of their own choosing? More plagiarism than you bargained for, grammatical constructions you could not have possibly imagined, and, when the semester is done, a pile of writing that provides a unique snapshot of how the world looks to the post-eighties generation of young Chinese. I like to consider myself at least somewhat knowledgeable on this last topic.
A few years ago, I wrote a book about a weekly philosophical discussion group I held with my Chinese undergraduates while serving as a Peace Corps volunteer at Sichuan Normal University. The book, Socrates in Sichuan: Chinese Students Search for Truth, Justice and the Chinese Way, attempted to portray the Chinese mind in a way that hadn’t been done before, exploring the animating values and beliefs of young Chinese in their own words.
Despite devoting a couple of years to acquainting myself with the worldview of these students, I knew I had only scratched the surface. So when the opportunity recently arose to return to China and teach, among other things, an argumentative writing course to Chinese graduate students at Sichuan University, I took it, in part because it offered the perfect opportunity to continue the project I had begun with Socrates in Sichuan.
Here, then, is the first of my five major takeaways from this experience, the most important things I learned from my students that semester about how they see the world and what the implications are for the rest of us.
Looming Crisis of the Elderly
During my previous stint teaching in China, students used to hold out their nation as an ideal place in which to grow old, at least in comparison to my native country.
America, they would say, is a paradise for the young and hell for the elderly. I didn’t disagree with their assessment of my homeland, even if the rosy depiction of the Middle Kingdom in its current state didn’t necessarily jibe with my experience. I am, after all, a guest.
This time around, the students seemed much more apprehensive about the status of the elderly in their society, and not without reason. Indeed, given China’s aging population—the fact that people above the age of 60 now account for 13.3% of China’s total population and the number is still rising — it is no surprise that topics involving the elderly were the most popular, with students offering essays on euthanasia, nursing homes, and the retirement age.
It wasn’t merely the fact that four out of the five essays submitted on the topic supported euthanasia that should have the elderly in China worried. Just because you favor legalizing euthanasia does not mean you want grandma or grandpa (yeye or nainai) to immediately undergo it. What was potentially more threatening was the justification provided for favoring the practice of mercy killing.
Each of those who wrote in support of legalization mentioned the expense of maintaining an elderly patient and the financial relief promised by legalized euthanasia. In a country where there is no guarantee of universal medical care for the aged, and the lion’s share of financial burden falls on the family, this is understandable. Still, one would have to think that that the head that wears the breathing mask must lie at least a little uneasy.
On Nursing Homes
Of course, the topic of the burden that the elderly can impose on their family raises the issues of nursing homes. Here, too, the attitude seemed to have shifted from my previous visit.
At the time students viewed these institutions in a universally negative way — something only barbarians like Americans would send their parents to. Given the Confucian tradition, which claims one cannot be a good person unless one is first a good child, this reaction is understandable. So I was somewhat surprised this time around to find that every paper on nursing homes spoke favorably about these institutions.
As in the case of euthanasia, the issue was primarily viewed through the impact the activity would have on the younger generation. In this case, the hectic life of young couples in today’s China and the 4-2-1 phenomenon were invoked as the justification for the necessity of nursing homes. I’m sure at least Ayn Rand would have been glad to see rational self-interest trumping two thousand year old ethics.
As if being viewed as a financial and temporal burden to their family were not enough of an indignity, the final blow involved the young viewing the elderly desire for retirement as an unreasonable demand. Given the high unemployment rate among college graduates, I would have thought students would have been opposed to increasing the retirement age, since doing so would seem to result in fewer jobs.
The Search for a Solution
As one of my students explained to his economics-challenged professor, while the number of jobs is not static but could theoretically rise in a growing economy, the pension burden of a retiree is forever. So rather than cutting grandma and grandpa a break with a reasonable retirement before sending to prematurely to oblivion or off to a nursing home, students who wrote on the topic were universally in favor of increasing the retirement age.
Retire at a different age than you thought, to a different place than you had planned and, if you get ill, think about a graceful exit for the sake of the family. These could not be encouraging words for the elderly to hear, if they were listening. Of course, I am not sure things are any different in America.
What do you think?