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Filial piety in China: When virtue becomes law

Meld Magazine

Fri Jul 26 2013


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.