Filial piety in China: When virtue becomes law

WHAT happens when looking after your parents becomes a legal obligation? Cassie Shi ponders the consequences of China’s new law, which seeks to enforce the cultural virtue of ‘filial piety’.


Growing up, I was once told a childhood fable. In a village, there was a poor family made up of three generations: a young couple, their little son and their invalid grandfather, who the other family members considered a burden.

One day the couple made a bold decision. Putting the grandfather in a big bamboo basket, they carried him to the desolate mountains. As they were about to abandon the old man and head back, their little son who went along asked his parents, “Why don’t we take the basket back too?”

“That basket is old and broken, it’s useless,” said the father.

To which his son replied, “But without the basket, what am I going to use to carry you to the mountains in the future?”

On July 1 this year, a new piece of legislation concerning aged care took effect in China, provoking widespread debate. The new law takes the traditional notion of ‘filial piety’ – the virtue of respecting one’s elders – to a new level, by allowing parents to sue their children for neglecting to visit them.

There are some who support this piece of legislation, saying that it shines a light on the welfare of elderly people in Chinese society.

Professor Qiao Xinsheng from Zhongnan University of Economics and Law believes that legislating to protect the elderly is a necessary breakthrough for a country like China, in which the number of the disabled elderly is estimated to reach one billion by 2050.

However, opponents have argued that enforcing filial piety blurs the boundary between moral values and legal responsibilities.

Chinese netizen ‘Wu Chu Mu Shan’ noted that “visiting one’s ageing parents is a question of morality which shouldn’t be regulated.”

“Legislating (on such issues) devalues the relationship between the parent and child. For those unwilling, a visit to their parent would mean very little beyond meeting a legal requirement,” he said.


Some have also pointed out that the ambiguous wording of the legislation could cause misunderstandings about the scope of the legislation.

Ding Zhaolin, a public management scholar at Harvard University said while the law came with good intentions, it was not rigorous enough to be practical or effective. According to Ding, the legislation is likely to end up losing its significance when it became clear that everyone had violated the law at some point.

“You need to have a very strict and rigorous definition with which to specify the situation,” he said.

For a culture with deeply ingrained notions of filial respect, the existence of this new legislation hints at deep seated problems in the social fabric of contemporary Chinese society.

Despite the country’s impressive economic growth, the truth is that young people in China today still find themselves struggling with the pressures of a highly competitive society, while the elderly are denied the care and attention they have been traditionally afforded.

Aged care is a universal issue. Even in Australia, which can boast a well-established welfare system by comparison, the government sometimes struggles with providing services for the elderly. For China, the challenge lies in making sure its citizens can keep up with the rapid pace of urbanisation, while maintaining the traditional values which have survived for thousands of years.

There are 2 comments

  1. Lester

    This article is awesome! Actually when some of the people from western society noticed this news, they just shocked because they did not understand why China needs to come out this law. The thing is there is a culture difference between estern culture and western culture. China has a large population and the amount of aged people will be even higher in the future. How to take care of these aged people is really important. This law will works for some cases that sometimes when young guys inherited the house or wealfare from their parents, they just abandoned their parents and dont look after them. at this moment, these poor parents will have the right to sue these bad kids to get their basic living conditions. This law has many issues to discuss but I think it is important in China to let young guys to know their responsibilities to take care their parents. This is our culture! If you think parents are too selfish, i just can tell you that you can not judge a culture by your understanding.

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