How do parents and children really get on in China? I was intrigued by this question, since so many elderly live with their offspring. The thought of my mother – no matter how much I love her – or indeed both our mothers living with us is enough to give me the most dreadful nightmares. So how do they manage in China?
To begin with, the Confucian virtue of ‘filial piety’ (xiao) plays a crucial role. This is the cultural assumption that children of whatever age will show respect and deference to their parents, indeed any elders. Even a brief visit to China will soon evince the great respect and admiration shown for the very old. Of course, people complain that it is breaking down (that kind of narrative is trotted out about every young generation), but it is really as strong as ever. (I have often expressed the wish that my four children would show me more filial piety …)
Intrigued about all of this, I asked a friend whose mother lives with her: ‘what is it like? Does your mother still tell you what to do, like mine?’
‘No, she doesn’t need to’, was the response.
‘What do you mean?’ I said.
‘I know what I should do’, she said.
‘So your mother doesn’t tell you what you are doing wrong, ask where you have been, tell you should be doing something else?’
‘No’, she said.
‘But do you do what you are supposed to do?’ I asked.
‘Not always’, she said.
‘How does that work?’ I asked.
She went on to explain that even though she knows what she should do in respect to her mother, and even though her mother assumes that she is doing what she should do, she doesn’t always do it. Her mother never asks, and she never tells her mother, each one assuming that they are following the unwritten rules, while simultaneously knowing that they don’t.
Got it? It took me a while to figure out this deeper meaning of filial piety (xiao). But it makes sense, for in no other way would it be possible to live for years with one’s parents in the same place.
Come to think of it, here is a value we might want to appropriate elsewhere.