Visit Your Parents or Else…: What’s Behind China’s Filial Piety Law?

Visit Your Parents or Else…: What’s Behind China’s Filial Piety Law?
Jul 22, 2013 By Bo Brennan ,

China recently introduced a law stating that Chinese children must visit or send greetings to their parents often, or else…well…everyone is still working on that part. The parents could possibly sue the children for neglect, but that seems rather confrontational. Alternatively, and hypothetically, the children could be fined by the government for failing to provide care for their aging parents. They are still hammering the logistics of it out, so we shall await developments with abated breath.

The real question is how did we all manage to wind up in this not-visit-your-parents-go-to-jail predicament anyway? I mean, there might be some folks who don’t get on well with their old folks, but does China really need to pass a sweeping law mandating that Chinese people trek back to their hometown every Spring Festival?

 law to visit elderly parents

Historical context

This goes back to old Confucius’ idea of filial piety (孝顺- xiào shùn). According to Chinese rules of filial piety, you’re supposed to –among other things—respect and be courteous to your parents, don’t be a wild child, ensure male heirs(?), and most importantly for us, support them in their old age. So, since China has 5,000 years of history, this is still clearly applicable today (here’s the pdf of an academic paper on the subject). This is why so many generations still live under one roof in China. Chinese people not only have an obligation to look after their offspring, but a cultural impetus to care for their aging parents. So, the kids are taken care of by their parents and 30 years later they switch positions and then the whole conga line repeats for generations into infinity. However, like most things in modern day China, this has come screeching directly into a wall of modernity and globalization.

Kid’s side

So the kids break their backs as students only to graduate from university and continue to break their backs in the workplace so they can earn a high salary and support their aging parents. It’s no secret that overtime in many cities in China is not only common, but expected and this means working through many holidays as well. This isn’t so much of an issue if you live in the same city as your folks, but the major cities in China are inundated with people from all over the country coming to make more money to send back to their parents. This is not even mentioning the Chinese people who move overseas to study or work. It’s just not logistically possible for most people to come back from America or Europe or wherever and visit your parents twice a month. The younger generations of Chinese people are becoming worldlier and more independent, so these ancient Confucian ideals are causing quite a bit of friction with China’s prosperity on the global stage.

Now to be fair, as pointed out by this New York Times article, the word “should”, as written in the law, doesn’t necessarily mean that you will be punished for not visiting but China is full of wacky lawsuits over various bits of nonsense, so you never know when the courts might arbitrarily decide to implement this particular rule.

Parent’s side

Now, there are some actual cases of neglect, like this one where an old lady sued her son and his wife for failing to provide “mental support”. Besides whatever the definition of “mental support” is, very old people living by themselves in any country are subject to falling and seriously injuring themselves without anyone to look after their wellbeing. Somebody does need to take care of the elderly, it’s just that now the debate is focused on who needs to be looking after the old folks.

One consequence of China’s one-child policy is that the country’s demographics are now remarkably skewed. Between this and advancements in healthcare, there is a glut of old people hanging over the younger generations. Charts comparing the population data between young and old look like inverted pyramids. There are a large number of old people and China’s social security system is simply not able to adequately provide the funds and resources for every old person to live above the poverty line. So, many parents have the distinct possibility of becoming a significant financial burden on their children, but there isn’t much many can do about it now. Nursing homes in China aren’t very popular due the aforementioned filial piety issue, so turning to their children is their most obvious choice. 

So, the thing is, parents have to rely on their children to get by with a relatively decent standard of living. In their eyes, they dumped tons of money into their children’s education for this specific reason – it was an investment. Sure, this sounds cold-hearted and calculated, but hell, it’s better than being a hundred years old and sleeping in a pigsty.

An Interesting Side Effect

If you don’t think this crippling social issue can’t be wellsprings of entrepreneurship, well, you’re just not looking in the right places. Take, for example, these plucky Taobao shop owners. For a measly hundred RMB an hour – plus extra for gifts and whatnot – these  dudes will go and visit your parents for birthdays, Spring Festivals, or a good, old fashioned surprise visit from your favorite stranger trying to fill the gaping void in your soul left by your estranged son or daughter. 

Wrap up

It speaks to the seriousness of the issue that it was written down into law. The Chinese government is worried about the social and economic implications of having a huge group of people dependent on state resources. This could lead to a rise in private nursing homes, but, again, this institution faces some serious cultural hurdles to succeed in the Chinese market. Regardless of what markets might spring to life, younger Chinese people are already one of the most stressed groups of people in the world so threatening them with the word of law might be more detrimental than originally intended.

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Keywords: China’s filial piety law Chinese children must visit parents


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no matter how bad Chinese people say that foreigners are and how irresponsible for family, we don't have law to send a child to jail for not saying "Hi" to Mum as 99.99% of us do all the time as we are civilised people in the west as we base the family on Gods love not the love of men and the love money as they do in China that's why less and less children in China respect the family even more then other countries as they are too busy trying to make that next million RMB. china is a victim of your own culture

Jul 26, 2013 01:25 Report Abuse



Shit is this a spoof? From Deng Xiao Ping old people were effectively "legislated" out of the community. He instituted flat out capitalism and the devil take the hind most,including parents. But I guess in a fscist state all sorts of holes will try to be plugged by an out of touch party.

Jul 24, 2013 16:17 Report Abuse