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Home  /  Inside China  /  Where the youngest child becomes an emperor – Does filial piety exist in 21st century China?
Where the youngest child becomes an emperor – Does filial piety exist in 21st century China? print version
Reverse filial piety or maintaining the value of xiao in the only possible manner - What is a more accurate description to the spoiled, though full of high expectations, lifestyle many young Chinese experience? Although the 'little emperor' phenomenon would probably leave Confucius speechless, perhaps such conducts are in fact the only way to preserve filial piety under the conditions of modern Chinese society.
The birth control policies are one of the biggest motifs of post-socialist China and a drastic step away from traditional China. Confucianist values were put behind throughout the 20th century, since the 1919 4th May movement, and through the Mao Zedong regime, trying to create a new modern identity for China and let go of traditional 'backward' ideas.

If traditional values promoted having many offspring, preferring sons over daughters (重男轻女 zhong nan qing nu) and having obedient kids who show respect and support towards their parents, then since the one-child policy was introduced in the late 1970's, values seem to be reversed and family structures and corresponding behaviors are waving tradition an indifferent goodbye.

Much has been discussed about social phenomena which are linked to the post 80's (balinghou 80后) Chinese single-children generation (see a related article which discussed balinghou-associated stereotypes). Growing up under 4-2-1 conditions (4 grandparents, 2 parents, 1 child), being indulged by parents, both financially and emotionally, not participating in housework and other attributes, suggest that Chinese singletons have a quite easy childhood. 'Little emperors' (xiaohuangdi 小皇帝) is perhaps the climax of this terminology, and is an ironic term in the light of the traditional Confucianist tradition, where children where of very low status even within their family, not to mention within the macro sphere of the entire society. 

Along with the privileges Chinese single children enjoy, there are also disadvantages to their role. Besides adjusting difficulties which many children experience, in school or work, not managing to become assertive, independent or competitive individuals, the Chinese public discourse also acknowledged the more objective pressure which the balinghou carry on their shoulders. The pressure of the gaokao (college entrance examination), the difficulties in finding a good job , the rising prices within the real-estate market, or all not in favor of Chinese youngsters. Furthermore, being the only hope of their parents for a successful family future (as the single child's achievements could be the only key for socioeconomic mobility or to preserve the current wealth), as well as being the only care provider for the elder parents a few decades down the road, is a heavy load to carry.

Thus, when recalling the Confucianist value of xiao (filial piety), perhaps there is also a place to consider whether the indulging attitude and high expectations which parents express towards their offspring do not undermine xiao after all. What could be a more traditional alternative within single-child families?! Having the children assist in household tasks, keeping their status low, and not allowing them to demand anything from their parents is hardly adaptable to the modern Chinese society. Except for the fact that modern-western values are penetrating every corner of China's society, making it hard to practice traditional customs, the fact that most parents have only one child requires them to keep their child satisfied for their own well-being as well as for the child's sake.

As the single-child is the only possible future care-giver for parents in most cases, the practice of filial piety is delayed to some extent, to a time when parents will certainly depend on child support. Moreover, a child could practice this care to the maximum if he or she are well-off economically and healthy. Having the youngster focus on one's studies is a good insurance for old age and though it doesn't suit the Confucianist view of xiao, it is perhaps its adaptation to 21st century China.

Furthermore, in quite a few old texts from imperial China there are motifs of youngsters protecting their own well-being, as a manifestation of xiao. One's body is often perceived as a possession of one's parents, therefore taking good care of it could be seen as a practice of filial piety.

Using this view, it could be suggested that a youngster which cares about one's own success, even in a selfish manner, by focusing on one's studies, being a 'modern' consumer and using up one's family's support, is practicing xiao to some extent. Perhaps this is the 'deal' between parents and children in contemporary China: 'We will indulge you when you are young, you take care of us when we are old'.

This doesn't imply that every Chinese singleton is spoiled. Nor does it suggest that parents don't occasionally wish that their kids were more obedient (tinghuo 听话) or expressing filial piety. Still, it is worthwhile to discuss to what extent filial piety is reversed or non-existing in modern Chinese society and to what extent it is transformed and being expressed in new ways.

gil hizi

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