Modern Chinese Youth on Filial Piety

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.

Filial Piety Statues
“Filial Piety is the root of all virtue” – Confucius

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

Traditional Chinese values of filial piety

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.

Many modern Chinese youth are exercising the right to fun that many of their parents were never offered

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?

14 thoughts on “Modern Chinese Youth on Filial Piety”

  1. Great article. Did four out of five students in the class really support euthanasia? That is a crazy number. This is definitely a serious issue that effects everyone across the board, one we Americans can relate to. Not only does the looming prospect of raising the retirement age seem almost inevitable, but the unpleasantness and “burden” of being old reflect a philosophy the Chinese have largely absorbed from the West over these last three decades. It says a lot about our outlook as well as theirs. But wouldn’t there be any other reasonable solution on the discussion table? What about partial retirement, and affordable elderly housing along the lines of the Section 8 development we have in the U.S.? Difficult option in a country with a population anywhere near as large as China’s, probably Just wondering from a practical side of things how this issue is being tackled.

    • A good question, whither goes China on this one. My guess is for a massive increase in nursing home type facilities. Many of those who wrote the essays seemed to believe that such places were veritible paradises for the elderly, where they could spend time around those their own age. I wanted to wake them up by tellng them of the conditions of such institutions in the United States. But they seemed to believe China was immune to such abuse. The current situation wher the elderly remain integrated into the community and the family seems so much healthier that I hate to see it disappear. But that is what seems inevitable.

      • It seems like China’s growing economic status would have an impact on this as well. Post 80’s and 90’s Chinese in their 20’s and 30’s have more potentially lucrative careers than ever before and less time to care for family. I imagine this factor is further amplified in major cities like Beijing and Shanghai, where professional demands rise with each year as the domestic economy matures.

        I’m just taking a guess here, but I would assume the attitudes on euthanasia and filial piety to be more in line with traditional Chinese values in small provincial cities in Sichuan like Yibin or Zigong. The times, they are a-changin’.

    • I believe that the attitudes are just following mathematical reality. A generation or 2 ago most parents had a large brood to share the time and expense of caring for them. Today one couple simply cannot care for two sets of aging parents and possibly 4 sets of grandparents, along with the increased expectations of what they must provide for their child. Impossible!

  2. Great article, thank you.

    Some interesting views from the post-80’s generation. But surely you’ve spoken to post-90’s gen too?

    I just feel that the idea of filial piety is rapidly being lost in Chinese culture. My wife is Chinese and she has said to me ‘Don’t believe that all Chinese people are good to their parents’.

    In later generations I think they have become massively self-entitled and this will definitely affect how the older generation are treated.

    Also China is getting older. I live in Shanghai and it is a serious issue here. People are living longer and are healthier than before. Who is going to look after them?

    • Since this was a year ago and they were all graduate students, I think the group technically qualifies as post-80s, although some might be on the cusp. Still, yes, I have spoken to many in the post-90s generation. And I do agree the idea of filial piety is taking a nosedive, though perhaps not as steep a one in Chengdu as in Beijing.

  3. The Chinese, above everything else, are practical. Filial piety (or social contract perhaps) is just an extension of this: Parents: we will support you (even buy your house,car, cover your business debts etc.) but you will always obey us and finally, support us. Sure love and family bonds come into play, but at the end of the day, like most things in China, it all comes down to being practical….

    • But if you look at is a sort of contract it is a very odd one in that one side does not have to meet their end of the bargain for thirty or forty years after the first side meets theirs. And a contract has an enforecment mechanism or it’s not really a contract. But there is no true enforcement mechanism to get the young to meet their part of the bargain.

  4. Sure there is: the fear of being ostracised as a “bad child” or not conforming to mainstream Chinese tradition is stronger than any written contract…

  5. I think these misguided youth will be singing a very different tune when they reach, say, their 40’s. By that point I imagine they will realize just how damn short life truly is and will want to, like the elderly they’d so easily send to the gas chambers today, want to live as long as possible.

  6. Not sure things are any different in America? I strongly suspect that given the same assignment to an even larger number of graduate students at virtually any college or university here in the States, the suggestion of euthanasia for the elderly for the reasons cited by these Chinese grad students would hardly be mentioned because it’s so appalling. My laoshi in my putonghua class is a native Beijinger who wants more than anything to become a US citizen, who finds Americans far more compassionate than her generation (90后) back home. She told me how, in the aftermath of the recent Boston Marathon Bombing, the Chinese social websites were full of comments about how the young Chinese grad student who was among those killed “deserved it” and how so many young Chinese actually said they were “happy” she died. She is very saddened by what she described as a rise of “coldness” and “selfishness” and “class resentment” in young Chinese these days. She shook her head sadly as she said “Americans don’t say that kind of thing. Americans felt bad for her”. What does this say about the state of values and morals in modern China, looking to the future?


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