Aging in Japan and Across Asia

Fomenting Filial Piety amid Changing Lifestyles in China


Gathering to celebrate the Spring Festival (lunar new year) and other celebrations as a family is a longstanding Chinese tradition, but an increasing number of people in major cities do not go home for the holidays at all. The Chinese Law on Protection of the Rights and Interest of the Elderly aims to halt this trend and promote filial piety by making regular visits to parents a legal obligation, but will this strategy succeed?

Promoting “Emotional Filial Piety”: Ideal and Reality

As the aging of China’s population grows more severe, contexts for filial piety are changing both within and outside the home. In particular, during the boom years of the 1980s that followed the economic reforms beginning in the late 1970s, vast numbers of young Chinese people moved to the cities for work. This has resulted in an increasing number of elderly-only “empty nest” households today. According to the 2015 China Family Development Report, there are 110 million empty nesters in the country, accounting for more than half of its total elderly population. Roughly 10% of all of that total live alone, while 41.9% live with a spouse only. Meanwhile, data from 2010 revealed that the proportion of single Chinese people aged 30 and up who live apart from their parents is 43.2%, rising to 45.4% in the cities.

Lawmakers recognized the increasing loneliness and emotional distress among the elderly arising from these trends, responding in July 2013 with an amendment to the Chinese Law on Protection of the Rights and Interests of the Elderly, as discussed in the previous article in this series. Children living apart from elderly parents were now required to “regularly return to the family home and visit them” in an attempt to encourage adult children to support their parents emotionally as well as materially. Critics of the amended law, however, have called it ineffective and difficult to enforce. For many people, regularly visiting their parents is unrealistic for work-related or financial reasons, or due simply to differences in values.

Almost Half No Longer Returning Home

Long-standing tradition in China requires families to gather for certain days of celebration. The most important of these is known as the Spring Festival, or the lunar new year. In times past, children would spend the Spring Festival by their parents’ side in the family home, but in recent years this has started to change. According to the BigData Records: Lifestyle Changes in the Spring Festival 2016 released by the Central China BigData Exchange (CCBDE) on February 15, 2016, while 53.4% of Chinese people living away from their parents returned home for the festival in 2016, 34.3% remained in the area where they work, and 12.2% spent the holiday somewhere else. In other words, almost half of people living apart from their parents did not make the trip to the family home—which means that they did not see their parents at all.

Looking in particular at married respondents’ travel choices during the Spring Festival, further patterns emerge. The husband’s parents’ home was the destination for 49.5% of travelers who made the trip, while 28.1% went to the wife’s parents’ home and 22.4% traveled somewhere else. In other words, the number of couples who visited the wife’s parents on the most important holiday on the Chinese calendar was only half the number who visited the husband’s. With gender equality so strongly emphasized in contemporary China, and women thought to wield more power within the home, many appear to have been surprised by this result.

The Chinese cities with the highest proportion of married couples who went “somewhere else” for Spring Festival were Beijing (44.0% of resident couples), Shanghai (37.4%), and Tianjin (35.2%). All three figures are well above the national average of 22.4% for couples. From this it can be seen that compared to residents of medium-sized and small cities, residents of big cities are more likely to believe it unnecessary to visit their parents even on the most important holiday of the year. Most of those who chose not to join their parents for the holiday spent it traveling. With residents of major coastal enjoy relatively high incomes, it seems that demand for travel over the long Spring Festival holiday is rising.

Fomenting Filial Piety Throughout Chinese Society

Professor Zhang Xiaoyi appears on a television program airing expert opinions on the new Shanghai law.

Zhang Xiaoyi, professor and vice-dean of Shanghai Jiao Tong University’s School of International and Public Affairs and a specialist in comparative social welfare policies and elderly care, has made television appearances to speak about Shanghai’s own Elderly Rights and Interests Protection Law. In particular, regarding the new requirement for “regular visits” to parents, she has the following to say:

“Traditionally, children and families going home regularly to their ancestral home to see their parents, which you might call ‘emotional filial piety,’ is considered part of cultured and virtuous behavior. Making it a legal obligation will help more children and families to realize this. The goal of these new laws and regulations is not simply to get people to go through the motions of visiting their parents. It is to encourage them to communicate with the parents they live away from—to promote caring for the elderly in an emotional as well as a material sense. It is to be hoped that these laws and regulations will promote attitudes conducive to filial piety in families, communities, and society as a whole.”

The Issues and Implications of Aging Asian Population Project (Global Frontier Fund, Sasakawa Peace Foundation)

(Originally written in Japanese. Banner photo: Travelers crowd Nanking Lukou International Airport during the holiday season. © Imaginechina/Jiji.)

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