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.

Each time I go to China I enjoy it all the more, so much so that it is one of the places in the world where I can easily imagine living

This time we received something of a rock-star welcome to the Nishan Forum at Confucius’ home town:

The nuance was perhaps not clear to all … but more was to come:

When one drew near, they ushered one in:

At a few moments, I was able to catch the excited teenagers beneath:

Being the official Australian VIP representative at an event that was as political as it was intellectual, I made a mental note to let Julia G know I had not put in one good word for her.

Which means:

But after a few days of rubbing shoulders with former presidents, advisers, ambassadors and communist government officials, of police escorts and road closures wherever we went, of a massive press battery filming and snapping, of being mobbed for endless photos with students (I kid you not), I had had enough.

I was keen on more ordinary life, whether with a group of old musos in a park at night:

Some local Shandong food from around the lake::

A lift in a beaten up motorised tricycle (the only suspension on them is what flesh you might have on your bum, although they will soon be a thing of the past):

Or indeed a glorious squat toilet on the slow overnight train I took from Jinan to Xi’an:

I was after some decent Chinglish:

The more esoteric, the better:

At one moment I realised I could no longer rely on pinyin, for in a quiet corner I found a toilet and stood bamboozled. No pinyin, no symbol for male and female; only Chinese characters. I guess you always have a 50% chance of being right, but I’d prefer to be able to read that script.

I must admit that I pondered whether the chubby ruling class women of the Tang Dynasty of 618-907 (for that was the aesthetic then) had very flat ears after sleeping on pillows like this:

By this time I was in the old imperial city of Xi’an, where I had to sing for my supper and accommodation at Shaanxi Normal University:

Supper consisted of a comprehensive walk along the endless ‘snack street’ – street food steaming, boiling, frying in all manner of fashions. Hadn’t dared until now, but my hosts tucked in. So I did too.

Finally I met an old friend who reassured me it was all perfectly good for you:

A new piece after yet another trip to China, this time on the tensions of Confucius – over at Political Theology.