As China Ages, Beijing Turns to Morality Tales to Spur Filial Devotion

NYT ANDREW JACOBS and ADAM CENTURY September 5, 2012

BEIJING — Reading it now, six centuries after Guo Jujing wrote this paean to parental devotion, “The 24 Paragons of Filial Piety” comes off as a collection of scary bedtime stories. There is the woman who cut out her own liver to feed her sick mother, the boy who sat awake shirtless all night to draw mosquitoes away from his slumbering parents and the man who sold himself into servitude to pay for a father’s funeral.

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While the parables are even more familiar to most Chinese than Grimms’ Fairy Tales are to Americans — the text remains a mainstay of educational curriculum here — they have understandably lost much of their motivational punch.

But when the government, in an effort to address the book’s glaring obsolescence, issued an updated version last month in the hope that the book would encourage more Chinese to turn away from their increasingly self-centered ways and perhaps phone home once in a while, it wasn’t quite prepared for the backlash.

Compared with its predecessor, the new book brims with down-to-earth suggestions for keeping parents happy in their golden years. Readers are urged to teach them how to surf the Internet, take Mom to a classic film and buy health insurance for retired parents.

“Family is the nucleus of society,” intoned Cui Shuhui, the director of the All-China Women’s Federation, which, along with the China National Committee on Aging, published the new guidelines after two years of interviews with older Chinese. “We need family in order to advance Chinese society and improve our economic situation.”

So far, those good intentions appear to have prompted mostly ridicule. But they have also unintentionally kicked up a debate on whether the government, not overextended children, should be looking after China’s ballooning population of retirees.

In a fast-aging nation where hundreds of millions of people have left their former homes in the countryside in search of jobs, “The New 24 Paragons of Filial Piety” strikes many as nearly as out of touch with the problems of modern China as the old parables.

Take, for example, the responsibility to “take one’s parents traveling frequently.” While feasible for successful professionals, the obligation is all but impossible for working people, especially the nation’s roughly 252 million migrant workers, few of whom have ever experienced the joys of leisure travel.

According to the National Bureau of Statistics, their numbers are rising 4.4 percent annually, meaning that nearly 11 million rural migrants arrived in Chinese cities last year alone — and most likely left their aging parents behind.

Zhang Yang, a fruit vendor in Beijing, scoffed at the suggestion that he should take his parents on vacation, noting that he rarely stops working or has time to visit them in their hometown in Henan Province, roughly 400 miles south of the capital.

“One time I didn’t get to go home for four years,” he said sheepishly. “Business here is good, but I feel guilty for not being with my parents.”

Li Ji, a popular columnist at the state-run Legal Daily newspaper, lashed out at the new guidelines, arguing that they would not be necessary if the government provided better care for its citizens. “If the national health insurance was up to par, children wouldn’t have to worry so much about their parents’ health, and if companies were required to provide a certain number of vacation days, children would be able to go home more often,” he wrote.

Despite the demands of an increasingly fast-paced society, the Confucian idea of filial devotion is deeply embedded in Chinese society. Tradition dictates that children live with their parents and care for them in their old age, a convention that historically provided a safety net.

But the custom is rapidly fraying as children struggle with the logistical and financial burdens of caring for their aged parents.

This has proved particularly challenging in recent years to the huge numbers of only children born after the introduction of strict family-planning rules in the late 1970s. One result, demographers say, is a skyrocketing number of so-called empty nests filled by older people who live alone while their children build their own roosts in distant cities.

According to the Ministry of Civil Affairs, empty nests now account for more than 50 percent of all Chinese households; in some urban areas the figure has reached 70 percent. A 2011 report by the official Xinhua news agency said that nearly half of the 185 million people age 60 and older live apart from their children — a phenomenon unheard of a generation ago.

Like many young Chinese, Chen Xuena, who works for a public relations company in Beijing, said she was torn between chasing a career and tending to her parents in far-off Zhejiang Province.

“Every time I visit home I see signs that my parents are getting older, and it really brings me down,” said Ms. Chen, sitting at one of the capital’s coffee bars. “But once you get used to the opportunities and culture of Beijing, it’s hard to leave.”

Such angst will only continue to grow, and not just because China still lacks a meaningful social safety net for the elderly. Demographers estimate that the population of those over 60 will triple before 2050; around the same time, projections show the median age of Chinese will be higher than that of Americans, but with perhaps one-third of the average income, adjusted for the cost of living.

Such figures help explain the sense of urgency that is beginning to grip the governing Communist Party. Last year, in an attempt to ease the impact from so much atomized living, the National People’s Congress, China’s legislature, proposed a law that obliges sons and daughters to “return home to visit their parents frequently.”

The legislation would enable neglected parents to sue their children for infractions, though the vagueness of the law — it does not spell out the frequency of visits — has raised some doubts about its enforceability.

“The New 24 Paragons of Filial Piety,” despite its ham-handedness, tries to address the root causes of loneliness.

It urges children to throw their parents a birthday party each year and listen attentively to their stories from the past. It even asks that children help widowed parents remarry, a task that some parents found objectionable.

“I would be really embarrassed if my son tried to help me remarry,” said Xu Zhihao, a retiree who was sunning himself with friends in a Beijing park on Wednesday. “That’s not part of Chinese tradition.”

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