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China's Honor Code

In a society where caring for parents is no longer a given, the state has stepped in. Shirkers face public shaming, fines, even prison.

April 15, 2006|Mark Magnier | Times Staff Writer

BEIJING — "You don't call. You never write. You won't eat my dumplings anymore!"

Chinese mothers will not have to utter those words again if the powers that be have their way.

In Shanghai, the Nanjing East Road Neighborhood Committee recently took to public shaming to ensure that people attend to their aging parents. Anyone who doesn't visit at least once every three months faces having his or her name posted on a community signboard.

Members of a nearby senior community announced a different approach: They would fine offspring $5 if they didn't invite their parents home for Chinese New Year.

And then there's the Chinese government itself: Shirkers face five years in prison for failing to support or take care of their parents.

In the battle to safeguard the tradition of filial piety, China's social watchdogs are employing many weapons: shame, fines, bribery, guilt and flattery.

Respect for parents and clan elders has been a cornerstone of Chinese culture for thousands of years, part of a defining social contract in which parents cared for their children while they were young and children supported their parents in their dotage.

But something happened on the way to the 21st century. The fundamental glue that bound generations through dynasties, wars and famines started coming unstuck in the face of rapid economic and social change. Add it up, traditionalists fear, and the very definition of what it means to be Chinese is under threat.

Perhaps only in China will you find best-child contests. Wang Xinjun, 47, a resident of the central province of Shanxi, beams with pride. She was recently named a Model Filial Daughter-in-Law of the year, one of eight selected from her community.

Although she acknowledges having a few fights with her mother-in-law early on, she has cheerfully cared for her father-in-law, two disabled siblings, three children and a nephew for two decades. She won a $60 prize and hopes to compete in next year's county-level filial finals.

Grabbing the national spotlight can be a bit more difficult: China Person of the Year recipient Tian Shiguo gave his mother one of his kidneys without telling her it was his.

"My contribution to my mother does not compare to what she has given me," the Guangzhou lawyer told reporters.

China is promoting piety on the airwaves as well, with televised ads that show the crestfallen face of an elderly woman waiting to have dinner with her grown children as each calls to say they're too busy. These are complemented by dramas on state-run television with filial piety themes, including "Nine Daughters at Home" and "My Old Parents."

To what extent the programs work is difficult to gauge in a society that mounts seemingly endless campaigns against gambling, corruption, greed and impure thoughts. The fact that China is trying so hard to counter this erosion of traditional values, however, suggests how great it views the threat, sociologists say.

If carrots and model citizen campaigns don't work, there's always the bamboo rod. Adults who don't support their parents face the prospect of several years in jail under Chinese law, although courts prefer a mediated solution when possible. For example, a woman was sentenced to eight months in prison in 2000 for refusing to support her mother-in-law, who later committed suicide. In 2003, a man who refused to support his parents and struck them during a fight landed in jail for a year.

Guo Shuizhang, a seventysomething rice farmer in Zhangjianong village in the southeastern province of Zhejiang, has sued his children four times. About a decade ago, he went out with his son to cut wood for his coffin, a local tradition. In a somewhat ghoulish twist of fate, he almost died when the tree fell on him, inflicting severe injuries and ending his ability to work.

Guo's son and four daughters refused to support him financially, pay for his medical care or let him live with them. So the head of the village women's organization, Guo Yejuan, urged him to go to court. Things got pretty nasty. At one point, the court padlocked his son's house for nonsupport. Another time, his daughter-in-law told the aging farmer he should have died in the accident.

"Some villagers think he's a bit crazy for taking his own kids to court," Guo Yejuan said. "They dubbed him 'legal eagle.' But the son is paying now, and things have settled down."

Compared with many Western societies, China remains a very filial society. Older people command great respect. In many rural families, three or more generations live under the same roof, and the idea of moving the elderly into senior homes is not widely embraced. Only 1% of Chinese older than 80 are in elder care facilities, compared with 20% in the U.S., according to the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

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