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Vincent Capone

Why Are Chinese Parents Hiding Bad News From Their Children?

Wu Minxia: What sacrifices are behind the winning smiles of athletes like her?

Chinese Olympic diver Wu Minxia must have been feeling ecstatic after winning her third consecutive Olympic gold in the women’s synchronized 3-meter springboard competition on Sunday, July 29th. But when the competition ended, the young Olympian’s father approached her with shocking news: Wu’s grandparents had already been dead for a year.

If that wasn’t jarring enough, Wu also learned, for the first time, about her mother’s eight-year battle with breast cancer, which is now in remission. Wu’s experience has led to stark criticism on the Chinese Internet of China’s Olympic win-at-all-costs mentality.

However, Wu’s story is not unique. After the national college entrance exam (the “gaokao,” 高考) ended on June 2, Shen Fei left the exam only to learn that his mother and father had been in a terrible car accident twelve days prior, killing his mother and fatally injuring his father. His relatives and school hid the news so that he would not be distracted as he took his test.

Parental desire for students to do well on the national exam is so great that parents even postpone filing for divorce until after their child completes the exam. Once the pressure is off, parents file for divorce at a rate 2.3 times higher than periods before and during the exam.  

While these stories are harrowing, it’s important to note that the underlying events—cancer, car accidents, a loved one dying, parents divorcing—are in no way unique to China. Instead, what strikes observers as unique, even bizarre, is the extent to which Chinese parents hide these traumatic events in an effort to ensure their child’s success. What lies at the root of this mentality? 

Studying the Classics was one of the very few ways of social advancement in imperial China (By Ma Haifang)

Similar to modern-day Olympians, scholars in China’s imperial times embarked on a quest of personal and career improvement through the merit-based national examination system. As a result, some scholars became distanced from family members as they leave their hometowns to take exams at the county, provincial and national levels, in hopes of earning the coveted rank of scholar-official. The modern experience for elite Chinese athletes is much the same, with many taken away from their families to train rigorously for most of their teenage years. Take it from Wu Minxia’s mother, Wu Jueming, who commented that “It’s been like this for so many years. We long ago realized that our daughter doesn’t belong to us completely.” 

Or take the case of twenty-three year-old Oympian Lin Qingfeng, who had been away from his parents for six years training as an Olympic weight lifter. His father, Lin Zhiren, recently admitted that he didn’t recognize his own son on television until he heard his son’s name mentioned.

However, while dedication to scholarship has infused Chinese culture for centuries, the call to sacrifice one’s own family ties is something new. Confucian tradition has always emphasized the importance of familial harmony and filial piety. Concealing the death of a parent or a grandparent, resulting in an inability to participate in proper mourning rituals, would likely not have been acceptable to a Confucian scholar. In fact, a system was created in 600 A.D. to give a 27-month leave to officials in case of death of parents or grandparents. Chinese emperors punished officials who concealed their parents’ passing in order to remain in office.

Most netizens on China’s social media agreed: Family should come first. They disagreed with the decision to conceal bad news from Wu Minxia, blaming it on an over-zealous and over-protective parenting style that shows mistrust of children’s ability to handle bad news. 

Others like attorney Wang Kan (@王侃律师) blame decades of Communist propaganda that emphasized achievements over human emotions. On Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter, Wang tweeted, “People of Wu’s parents’ generation are used to this kind of thinking, but this kind of behavior makes modern people sick; it is like the propaganda about someone who sacrificed his life to protect a leader’s portrait back in the day. What is sick is this kind of inhumane education, and the propaganda guidelines that advocate this behavior and make it into a paragon.” {{1}}[[1]]以为他们这年代的人习惯了这种思维,但这中行为又让现代思维的人感到恶心,就像为保护一个领袖画像而牺牲掉生命结果却在全国颂扬一样,恶心的是这种无人性的教育,恶心的是还为这种行为鼓吹、树立典型的宣传思维 [[1]]

Is expectation of advancement enough of an excuse to hide bad news from one's children?

@sevenhells- told his personal story, “When I finished final exam in 10th grade, it was five days after my grandfather died. My family did not tell me because they were afraid that it would affect my performance. I came home and saw funeral wreaths, and was totally confused. I threw away my bookbag and had a huge fight with my father.” {{2}}[[2]]高一期末考,记得那是腊月十六吧,腊月十一爷爷去世,怕影响我考试,家里也没跟我说。待回家那天,过了拐角看到院门外倚着花圈、遍地鞭炮屑,当下蒙了,丢下书包就跟爸干了一架。[[2]]

Instead of keeping young in the dark, netizens feel they should be given the chance to face their pain. @海龟妈妈玩教育 cited the example of Joannie Rochette, the Canadian figure skater who found out about her mother’s passing just days before she was set to compete in the Vancouver Winter Olympics. The bereaved Rochette continued with the competition and won a bronze medal. “That was truly moving and admirable,” tweeted @海龟妈妈玩教育.  

So what truly lies at the root of some high-profile Chinese parents’ inclination to conceal bad news, besides the natural aversion to telling a loved one what they don’t want to hear? This may be what happens when a longstanding reverence for education, proto-Communist values of sacrifice for the state, and American-style helicopter parenting collide. But one thing is for certain: It’s not what Confucius would have wanted.

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Vincent Capone

  • http://www.facebook.com/oloyax Oloya Xavier

    It is important to hold other shocking informations from other people because the information might cause a very bad result to some one. Like me, in 2008, I lost my newly born baby at the time I was about to sit for my afternoon paper (Visual Basics). Unfortunately a friend of mind who works at a radio station in my town, got the news that my child died some minutes ago. He called me on phone and said, “Xavi, very unfortunate what happened to you. Your baby has just died.” I did not answer him, but sat for my paper. I reached home and found the body of my baby wrapped and people are mourning. I cried like never before and that was the end of my university. Phsycologically some things can break your spiritual strengths and mental power. But a secret should not be kept from you for too long because you will loose touch with facts and realities and you will have a sense of something important being hidden away from you every day.

    • eeeee

      Wow, that is a very hard and heartbreaking story. So incredibly sorry to hear! Yeah these things are never easy…from personal experience though I do get the sense that people experience disclosure and bluntness in very culturally different ways…

  • http://www.facebook.com/oloyax Oloya Xavier

    It is important to hold other shocking informations from other people because the information might cause a very bad result to some one. Like me, in 2008, I lost my newly born baby at the time I was about to sit for my afternoon paper (Visual Basics). Unfortunately a friend of mind who works at a radio station in my town, got the news that my child died some minutes ago. He called me on phone and said, “Xavi, very unfortunate what happened to you. Your baby has just died.” I did not answer him, but sat for my paper. I reached home and found the body of my baby wrapped and people are mourning. I cried like never before and that was the end of my university. Phsycologically some things can break your spiritual strengths and mental power. But a secret should not be kept from you for too long because you will loose touch with facts and realities and you will have a sense of something important being hidden away from you every day.

    • eeeee

      Wow, that is a very hard and heartbreaking story. So incredibly sorry to hear! Yeah these things are never easy…from personal experience though I do get the sense that people experience disclosure and bluntness in very culturally different ways…

  • Lotus

    This is not restricted to bad news for students or athletes; it also applies to telling sick relatives the truth about their medical condition. The belief that others know better than you what you need and make decisions for you seems deeply ingrained in the Chinese psyche. Is it all part of the process of keeping the population in an immature, child-like level of development?

    • aka

      Risking sounding like an apologist here, but perhaps the priority on disclosure and truth is a Western cultural development just as priority on getting along is a Chinese cultural development. While we in the West believe that knowing is always better than not knowing, but in the East I can imagine someone saying, hey what’s the point of knowing something, if it screws things up for people? Isn’t the point of knowing something to make things better for people? A dying grandfather, is it really necessary to tell him what diseases he’s dying from? I don’t know.

  • Lotus

    This is not restricted to bad news for students or athletes; it also applies to telling sick relatives the truth about their medical condition. The belief that others know better than you what you need and make decisions for you seems deeply ingrained in the Chinese psyche. Is it all part of the process of keeping the population in an immature, child-like level of development?

    • aka

      Risking sounding like an apologist here, but perhaps the priority on disclosure and truth is a Western cultural development just as priority on getting along is a Chinese cultural development. While we in the West believe that knowing is always better than not knowing, but in the East I can imagine someone saying, hey what’s the point of knowing something, if it screws things up for people? Isn’t the point of knowing something to make things better for people? A dying grandfather, is it really necessary to tell him what diseases he’s dying from? I don’t know.

  • Sky

    my daughter was away at boarding school, when she came home for the holidays I told her her auntie passed away. I did not want her to have this news alone and far way from home. We went straight to the cemetery, Sad but reality. Yes, I am Chinese.

  • Sky

    my daughter was away at boarding school, when she came home for the holidays I told her her auntie passed away. I did not want her to have this news alone and far way from home. We went straight to the cemetery, Sad but reality. Yes, I am Chinese.

  • http://www.postlinearity.com gregorylent

    if you go back far enough china is a culture based on consciousness and its relationship with nature…. intention is what accomplishes things, and it is thwarted by self-concept… so, the reasons this article reports on are natural

    • http://www.facebook.com/vincent.capone Vincent Capone

      But if you go back far enough in almost every culture, including western civ, culture is based on relationships with nature. Yet other cultures have evolved a mindset where people are entitled to information pertinent to themselves.

  • http://www.postlinearity.com gregorylent

    if you go back far enough china is a culture based on consciousness and its relationship with nature…. intention is what accomplishes things, and it is thwarted by self-concept… so, the reasons this article reports on are natural

    • http://www.facebook.com/vincent.capone Vincent Capone

      But if you go back far enough in almost every culture, including western civ, culture is based on relationships with nature. Yet other cultures have evolved a mindset where people are entitled to information pertinent to themselves.