By Toivo Kai Yan Siu

On the 10th February, the few hours after dark marked the approaching end of this year’s Chinese New Year celebration. Train stations were packed with migrant workers—274 million in 2015 (China Labour Bulletin)—on a journey back to the urban, industrial city they now work and live in.

The stark images of one migrant worker prostrating to his parents in a kau tau position—kneeling and bowing so low that one’s head touches the ground—sparked a national discussion about the most important virtue in Chinese tradition: filial piety.

Zhang Jinli kneeling down in front of his parents. Photo: imastv.

Kneeling on the floor of Zibo Train Station in Shandong province is 46-year-old Zhang Jinli, a worker at a pharmaceutical company in Beijing. Ashamed of not being able to return home for four years, tearful Zhang was begging for forgiveness from his grey-haired parents, who had come to see him off. Lost in emotions, he even missed his train.

While filial piety is known to be the bedrock social and moral value that predated Confucianism, the question raised by thousands of internet users online concerns the more modern place of the concept in China today—is it being eroded by the country’s rapid economic growth?

Photo: Reuters/Aly Song

The answer seems to be “No.” Although some deemed Zhang’s act “a bit much” and “attention-grabbing”, most praised the scene as a “touching” display of absolute respect to elders. “You can miss the train, but filial piety cannot wait!” said one user, receiving more than a thousand likes. Many have expressed sympathy for Zhang’s struggle in the tension between finding better-paid work in cities far away from home and the ever-pressing duty to look after their parents.

In fact, filial piety has become a legal issue since the new Chinese Elderly Protection Law came into effect in 2013—“Family members who live apart from their parents should often visit or send regards to their parents.” Unfilial children, including Zhang, may find themselves prosecuted by the state. However, as with many other Chinese laws, its definition and enforcement have been criticized as “vague” and “not feasible.”

While the law is a bizarre attempt by the Chinese government to issue guidelines governing its people’s private affairs, it reflects the increasing demand for better care of elderly people, in the reality of an ageing society—the result of a lower mortality rate and the recently abandoned “one-child policy.”

Social security support for the elderly is minimal in China today. The debate about filial piety, perhaps seen as old-fashioned in Western cultures, is still a vital one.

Toivo is a dissatisfied law graduate, riddim lover, hard-edged sports player and an aspiring philosophy student obsessed with recycling and all things green. Currently an editorial intern at ArtAsiaPacific, she writes about culture, society and art.


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