Filial Piety

24 Feb 2006

I recently learned that a grad student at my university worked hard over the CNY vacation and earned 8000 rmb. That’s about US$1000. That might not seem like a lot if you don’t live in China, but that is quite an impressive sum for a college student to earn in two months. To put it in perspective, my university teaching job in Hangzhou got me only 3000 rmb per month to start. Many Chinese laborers earn less than 1000 rmb per month.

The student earned the money as a Chinese tutor. The going rate in Shanghai for grad student tutors is 50 rmb per hour. That means she put in 160 hours of teaching during her vacation.

She earned the money not because she really needs it (although she has supported herself through her entire college education–something which very few Chinese college students do). Here’s the kicker: she worked so hard to earn money so that she could send her parents on a nice vacation. She just really wanted to do that for them.

This kind of thing blows me away. Even a Chinese friend of mine marveled at her behavior, calling it the definition of : the Confucian virtue of filial piety. It’s stories like those that still give me a little jolt of culture shock. I mean, sure, I’d like to do something like that for my parents too, but I’d never consider it as a self-supporting grad student.

Filial piety, hard work… they may not be universal in China, but these values are still very much alive and well here. (Take a guess as to whether it’s significant that the student is not from Shanghai…)

Share

John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.

Comments

  1. You wouldn’t believe some of the expensive gifts I’ve been given as a teacher. That stuff just wouldn’t happen back home.

  2. I have been working in China nearly three years solely to raise money to send my parents on a three-day antiquing tour of Iowa.

  3. i don’t think it’s related to from which region s/he comes. a lot of shanghainese are very traditional compared to people from other provinces of china

  4. i think bingfeng is from shanghai;)

    don’t the words “shanghai” and “traditional” look peculiar in the same sentence?

    very nice, heartwarming story!

  5. Not really relevant, but… which region of China are you from, Bingfeng?

  6. john,
    my father is from shanghai and mother from northern china. spent some years living in the north.

  7. No filial piety in Shanghai, huh? Guess we better start saving for our own vacation then. 😉 (jk)

  8. Hmm… so I guess the optimal adaptation to this situation is to settle down in China to ahve children, but make sure you raise them OUTSIDE of Shanghai.

  9. “Filial piety, hard work… they may not be universal in China, but these values are still very much alive and well here.” Agree. But similar situation like your grad friend is kind of universal among the grad student group in my university,at least among my classmates (I’m a grad student in ECNU). I have classmates supporting their brothers or sisters to get educated with their part-time earnings; I have classmate sending all his savings by doing tutor to his grandma in hospital; I also have classmates keeping their savings for their parents to get health insurance or other insurances~~~~~~ If you understand how Chinese parents sacrifice for their kids, perhaps it will be easier for you to understand your grad friend or the filial peity.

  10. Jessica: If you understand how Chinese parents sacrifice for their kids, perhaps it will be easier for you to understand your grad friend or the filial peity.

    American parents sacrifice much more for their kids – most don’t have any retirement savings after paying for their childrens’ education. The difference is that American kids aren’t expected to reciprocate their parents’ huge financial and emotional investments. If they were, there would be far fewer American ESL teachers in China. Americans dote on their children, but there isn’t the same sense of them as an investment as there is in China. Americans spend all this money and attention, and all they want in return is for their children to be happy. I suspect all of it relates to inherited European cultural traditions, since the Judaic (and Semitic) tradition is that children must obey (and support) their parents.

  11. Stateside, parents are expected to sacrifice everything, including their lives, if necessary, for their kids. In China, kids are expected to sacrifice everything, including their lives, if necessary, for their parents. This actually translates into the political realm, as well. Stateside, the state provides a great deal to its citizens, and has certainly governed well enough to enable the creation of the wealthiest economy in the world. But American citizens are not expected to be grateful to Uncle Sam – he has merely done what he is expected to, as a servant of the people. In China, the state has had a mixed record in providing for its citizens, which it treats as subjects, intruding into things like what they’re allowed to say or discuss, how many children they’re allowed to have, what dialects they’re allowed to broadcast, etc. And yet Chinese citizens are expected to be grateful to the state, which is praised for its “parental” concern for the people.

  12. Nice turn around Zhang Fei. My experience has been the same – Chinese parents expect a return on their investment, some even come out and say so explicitly. Western parents needn’t take too many lessons from Confucian tradition.

  13. Zhang Fei:”American parents sacrifice much more for their kids – most don’t have any retirement savings after paying for their childrens’ education. The difference is that American kids aren’t expected to reciprocate their parents’ huge financial and emotional investments. “

    Well, I’m not quite know about how American parents sacrifice for their kids and neither do I know whether they expect financial and emotional returns from their kids or not. But I doubt your statement on this part. A good example is the spread of “Thanksgiving day” proving that everybody expects a return in certain form.

  14. @ Jassica I’m genuinely interested to hear your view, but if as you say, you don’t know about ‘American parental sacrifice’ or ‘children’s reciprocity’, which part of the statement you quoted do you doubt and on what grounds? Also, I’m not clear on the Thanksgiving day point – but then I’m not American.

  15. xhmdb: Also, I’m not clear on the Thanksgiving day point – but then I’m not American.

    Thanksgiving is when families get together once a year to give thanks for their blessings (being alive, in good health, etc). It commemorates the survival of the pilgrims who established the first British colony on American soil. This was the starting point of what became a continental-sized country (kind of like the small Chinese kingdom on the banks of the Yellow River thousands of years ago). The occasion is marked with a meal that includes a roast turkey (home-roasted or purchased from a grocery store) and accompanying side dishes. No gifts are given or received.

    Christmas is the season of gift-giving. That is when parents give large gifts to the kids and receive token gifts in return.

  16. Thanksgiving kind of works for atheists, as well. They can count their blessings – i.e. reflect on all the good things that happened to them in the past year, as well as all the bad things that did not happen. Ultimately, Thanksgiving is a quasi-religious occasion, and a lot of people show up in church or temple. (I have no clue about whether it is one for Buddhists or Muslims, though).

  17. Zhang Fei,

    you paint with broad strokes.

    I am american and your description of american families’ sacrifice for their children doesn’t apply to my parents.

    My situation is similar to that of another friend of mine, where the parents do not pay for the education.

    Also, I think you are wrong about americans not being expected to be grateful to Uncle Sam. If this is the case, then why do draft dodgers get such a hard time? why is being called “unpatriotic” such a big insult these days?

  18. JR: Also, I think you are wrong about americans not being expected to be grateful to Uncle Sam. If this is the case, then why do draft dodgers get such a hard time? why is being called “unpatriotic” such a big insult these days?

    First off, we have had two draft dodger presidents – Clinton and Bush – so it’s pretty clear that draft dodgers not only don’t get a hard time – they are perhaps given a place of honor in American society. In fact, these two presidents were not simply the only Vietnam-draft eligible presidents we’ve ever had – they also ran against veterans twice, so we’re 4 for 4. Pretty much the entire Hollywood establishment dodged the draft, but we watch their movies, don’t we? Most of Congress dodged the draft, but we elect them to office, don’t we? Where’s the persecution?

    As to being called unpatriotic, this is an exchange of opinions among private individuals. Michael Moore believes that the Bush administration betrayed America’s interests to the Taliban and the Saudi government. The Democratic Party in Minnesota has made statements suggesting that veterans who placed ads supportive of the war in Iraq are unpatriotic. But nowhere in this situation has the government jumped in and prevented Michael Moore from making his statements by preventing the airing of his movies or arrested the leaders of the Democratic Party in Minnesota.

    When the Chinese government believes that someone is saying unpatriotic things, muzzling them is the least of the things it does – it arrests them and puts them in jail or executes them. It is in this non-trivial way that it expects them to be grateful to the government. Or else. And real kicker is that the Chinese public would support these actions.

  19. JRZhang Fei, you paint with broad strokes. I am american and your description of american families’ sacrifice for their children doesn’t apply to my parents.

    And vice versa. Believe it or not, there are many Chinese parents who don’t pay for their kids’ education – probably many more proportionately than American parents who don’t do so. 2/3 of the American population has some college. Do you think they are putting themselves through college?

    Of my college classmates, I was the only person putting himself through college – tuition, room and board and textbooks – everything. Did your parents pay for room and board? If so they helped put you through college. Many Chinese students go through the same kind of thing – they get only partial support – the rest is up to them. This is counted as putting them through college, in exchange for which they are expected to provide their parents monthly stipends when they graduate. Heck, even when their parents don’t put them through college, they are expected to give their parents monthly stipends when they start working – adjusted, of course, for the fact that non-college grads make less money. Like I said, Chinese traditions are quite different from American ones.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *