Jessica Levine

From Mao to Now: China Attempts to Revive Once-criticized Confucian Values with Filial Piety Law

(Via Flickr/Wunkai)
(Via Flickr/Wunkai)

Times have changed. What were once allegorical tenets bound in Confucian principle, school teachings about deference and respect—a son strangles a tiger to save his father搤虎救父, a daughter stows oranges to give to her mother怀橘遗亲 — have become prosecutable mandates in China.

On July 1, the government revised its Law for the Protection of the Rights and Interests of Elderly People, newly stipulating the obligation of adult children to obey, please and, tend to the “spiritual” and financial needs of their parents. It’s already drawn blood: a local court in Wuxi, Jiangsu province ordered a daughter and her husband visit her elderly mother at least once every two months or face fines and detention.

Once known as unswerving obedience illustrated by the son shouldering rice over mountains to feed his parents, the practice of filial piety has undergone a 21st century revamp: the son, tucked away in his Shanghai cubicle, must call home on weekends and, with loving patience, teach his mom how to use the Internet.

The undermining of fundamental values that date the 1200s began with the communist rise to power in 1949. Confucius’ admonition of “venerating [only] the venerable尊尊” was supplanted by an allegiance to a collective ideology—the result of Mao Zedong’s tearing-down of parental authority.

Mao had mobilized the country’s youth — a signature of dictators the world over — by framing the patriarchal, feudalist family as old and stale. Left, then, in a vacuum without a core belief system, kids turned an unblinking gaze on Beijing. In the worst cases, this now broken parent-child loyalty led to unthinkable acts like Zhang Honbing’s.

In 1968, 16-year-old Zhang was transfixed by Mao’s sweeping promises of reform. When Red Guards destroyed relics and burned books in the street, he believed it to be “great – an unprecedented moment in history.” Zhang even went as far as changing his given name, Tiefu, to Hongbing or “red soldier” to demonstrate his absolute devotion to the cause.

And, when his mother denounced Mao in favor of China’s more moderate leaders, Zhang turned her in to authorities, pledging to “smash [her] dog head.” He last saw her alive on a platform moments before her public execution. Today, haunted by his betrayal, Zhang calls himself a son “who could not even be compared to animals.”

Though Zhang’s story is uncommon, such tragic consequences exemplify the violent disruption of family life that lasted until Mao’s death in 1978. Cultural Revolution repudiated, and order restored, China’s economy surged—and filial piety, shifting the emphasis off of state-run factories, farms, and shops in favor of intergenerational businesses, was once again deemed a cornerstone of national prosperity.

By the same token, these economic reforms posed a whole new set of sociological challenges. For one, noted Harvard sociology professor Martin King Whyte, personal wealth strengthens the sense of individualism and equally weakens filial ties—no longer did aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents need to squeeze under a single roof. Younger generations began moving in mass exodus to cities for better opportunities.

Adding to the mix was the One-Child Policy, which spelled an end to China’s long history large nuclear families and ensured that a generation of aging parents would not have enough kids to care for them. Indeed, the number of people aged 60 and above in China is expected to jump from the current 185 million to 487 million by 2053.

Filial piety, traditionally about demonstrative gratitude, evolved to become a legal contract between family members with less room for “spontaneous” affection: in 1996, the Law on the Protection of the Rights and Interests of the Elderly was written into the Chinese constitution.

This latest revision, put into motion by President Hu Jintao at the end of his tenure last year, works to “incorporate the aging population into the overall economic and social development plan and ensure that funds are available” Translation: the country can’t afford its elderly.

For some sons and daughters, that new responsibility’s brought about a startling realization: Too few visits home, and I’m breaking the law. Author Yu Hua points out the irony:

The official media have been extolling those exemplary workers who stay at their posts during the Spring Festival,” he writes. “With the implementation of the new law, they ask sarcastically, are these model workers going to end up in jail? It’s just a joke, of course.

A joke that masks no laughing matter this mandate is suggestive of a challenged national conscience.

“Filial piety should be a natural thing,” writes a user on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter. “Why does the government have to use laws to force us to visit our parents? Maybe that’s the tragedy of our generation.”

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Jessica Levine

Jessica Levine is a Johns Hopkins University graduate student with an emphasis in digital communication. Based in Michigan, her research focuses on the social and political implications of China’s Internet.
  • Ryan Chylinski

    I’m continually fascinated by large scale examples of social engineering and the resulting unintended consequences. I was shocked to learn that decency behaviors in China that used to be natural, and as pointed out unswervingly natural within this culture, now require a government mandate to encourage beyond the wayside. I was tempted to continue wagging my finger but then I thought about the treatment of the elderly in the West? Financially there seems to be more care but is this only because we’ve outsourced our family responsibilities to the government ala Social Security and Medicare? How often do we really visit and listen? I want to think we do often but I’m not sure. The idea of a national conscience is extremely fascinating….. I’m off now to write my grandmother a letter and see when I can take her out to breakfast. Great article Jessica!

    • Kay Poon

      As a teenager in Hong Kong, Liberal Studies lessons made me realise how bizarre it is that China is reviving Confucianism, especially under the Central government’s lead. I mean, back then in Mao’s time, sure, all the disruption of filial piety and Confucian legacies, yet there were numerous discreet preservations of such values. It cannot be denied that a country’s ideology and propaganda are magnified instead of what really lies at the heart of its people, but I do not quite like the notion that China’s tactic now serves to smooth out the rough edges of China’s image. Well one thing I am sure tho, I like your immediate awakening! (: