In the three years I lived in mainland China, I never met even one Chinese college or university student who didn’t say that chief (indeed, usually first) among career ambitions was the desire and the duty to repay parents for their devotion and sacrifices (which were considerable for the impoverished rural families many of these students came from).

Duty and desire to repay parents? When was the last time you heard that in a job interview, a casual conversation or anywhere else, for that matter?

In my experience, such virtually universal filial gratitude has been unique (even though I can cite numerous examples of intense family devotion in the many Asian countries I have visited or lived in, including Japan, and some here in the West).

Cultural Factors: Generational Contrasts, Confucian Piety and “The Rectification of Names”

Among the reasons for that career goal and extreme loyalty and gratitude to parents are

  • Stark lifestyle contrasts between parent and child: Many of those struggling parents (like those in these home photos taken by one university scholarship student, “Miya”, whom I came to know) did and do have to get up at 3 a.m. and leave their simple cottages, in all weather, to wearily cart and sell vegetables by the side of some road, hoping to cobble together enough of an income to clothe and educate their children.

When not on the road, those parents are in the fields or in their Spartan, often no more than two-room house (plus hearth), doing what must be done and making do with what little they have, which may include a lot of plain porridge and rice, but rarely fresh meat or vegetables.

The average rural Chinese family income?  $200 per month, for a lifestyle that, in very many instances, still lacks indoor toilets, any bath, central heating, real roads, private space or a real stove—not to mention any car, HDTV screen, take-out pizza, Apple computers or summers at poolside for the kids or anyone else in the family.


Gratitude of children toward parents is far likelier when it is so painfully and movingly obvious that the child—like so many of the Chinese students whom I got to know—is enjoying a faraway urban university lifestyle that her countryside parents can only dream of, and then only for their children.

Ironically and in contrast, because so many baby-boomer Western parents have enjoyed home-owning and vacationing lifestyles that their two-job, student-loan burdened, underemployed graduate offspring can now only dream of, many modern kids and job seekers may feel that there are fewer, if any, parental sacrifices to acknowledge and repay.

This suggests that instead of complaining that some modern kid or employee in the West is an ingrate for not making parental payback a high priority, we take comfort in knowing that at least many more of their parents were able to raise them without the kinds of crushing sacrifices that Chinese peasant parents have had to make.

(Cynics will take their comfort in the view that all “parental investment”, however burdensome, is undertaken with some payoff expected—in the form of grandchildren or retirement care. But, let’s not go there, here.)

  • Confucian emphasis on filial duty, rather than on rights: It may be argued that one reason China has been accused of lagging in recognition and enforcement of human and other rights is that its Confucian culture has traditionally emphasized duty over rights, in particular, the duty of children toward parents and the duty of the individual to his or her family.  What counts, in that scheme of things, are an individual’s duties, not his or her rights.—a view that makes sense in a traditionally purely agrarian society characterized by close-knit family farming.

This emphasis on duties does, on the positive side of the ethical and cultural ledger, have one edifying aspect: In many interactions, the Chinese—like the Japanese—are more likely to get and exchange what they want by packaging interactions with others as exercises in obligations, rather than as an exercise of rights.

For example, consider how we, here at home in the West, get what we want: I have a CD that you really like; you have one that I’d like to have. So, we trade in a simple deal between friends. My giving you my CD entitles me to yours, in what we agree is a fair exchange.

Now shift the deal to the Far East: the same two CDs, but this time, because “harmony”, “duty” and “sacrifice” are highly valued, a Chinese or Japanese is far more likely to offer to give you the CD. The second party, having the same code of behavior and feelings, will also offer to give his or hers as a no-strings gift..

Materially, both the Western and Far Eastern deal-makers have gotten what they wanted: someone else’s CD. Psychologically, however, the two deals couldn’t be more different:

The Westerner has, through an exercise of his or her rights, namely, entitlement to something in a fair exchange, gotten what was wanted and owed.  The Asian, through fulfillment of his or her duty, as an obligation to consider the wants and needs of others, got what (s)he wanted, by giving demanded only by conscience, not by the contractual, enforceable expectations of the other party.

The Asian gets a bonus with the CD: the warm feeling that someone has chosen to give something because it was the right and caring thing to do, not because it was expected as contractual fulfillment and exercise of self-asserted rights, with sanctions for non-compliance.

When duties (such as the obligation to refrain from smoking), rather than rights (such as the right to demand that someone stop smoking) drive interactions, both parties are left with something to feel good about: I did my duty and feel good about that; you admire and respect me for it.

Nothing remotely like that happens when we Westerners merely assert, defend and exercise our rights as exercises in self-interest.

  • The “Rectification of Names”: Reinforcing this Confucian devotion to parents is a second Confucian doctrine: “the rectification of names” (“??”—“zheng ming”). This second pillar of Confucianism is the belief that, for the purpose of social and cosmic order, we must act in conformity to and live up to our names, titles and labels. A daughter or son who does not revere and honor his or her parents fails to live up to the expectations of the family name or the designation “daughter” or “son”.

Hence, it should not be so surprising that Chinese children more readily and gladly acknowledge a duty to repay their parents than their Western counterparts. Failure to do so means failing to live up to one’s name and label—which makes the child a living contradiction. Try suggesting to your kids that they have obligations to do housework, finish homework or to make repaying you a high priority merely in virtue of being sons and daughters who are called “son” or “daughter”.


As a tool of moral, political and social control and guidance, the rectification of names is brilliant and akin to getting people to do what you want by telling them they are the kind of people who would do precisely that—as R.D. Laing, the U.K. psychiatrist, pointed out.

If you want someone to work hard, don’t beg or threaten—just tell him he is such a hardworking employee and that you appreciate that very much. Just tell your son that he is your son, who, as such, will do all that is expected.

In the workplace, comparable labels will accomplish the rest and eliminate the middleman (you) by getting the title or label, e.g., “employee” (which properly connotes “hardworking” and “diligent”), to exact compliance.

Perhaps the closest Western approximation to the Chinese concept of the rectification of names in connection with “filial piety” is the Mafia’s code of “family” honor.  Interestingly, in both the Mafia and Chinese culture, family piety is closely linked to something else: corruption.

The Price of Piety

Like everything else, such gratitude toward parents or your Mafia family as a form of filial piety comes at a price. Let’s say that such a sense of filial duty is largely a “good thing” and a personal and cultural strength. On the negative side of the ledger, however, is the consideration that the same Confucianism that undergirds such Chinese family devotion and respect of elders, like Mafia “family” devotion, has its dark aspect.

In his insightful and enduring 1922 book, The Problem of China (free PDF), the British philosopher, mathematical logician, pacifist and Nobel Laureate Bertrand Russell suggested what that dark side has been.

He argued that extreme devotion to family in China, a nation and culture he otherwise greatly admired, has fueled political and business corruption (as a means of ensuring the family’s well being and as a consequence of duty to it above all else). How can bribery and cheating others be bad when it is for the good of the family–Sicilian or Chinese?

(By contrast, Russell, lamenting the carnage of WW I and presciently fearful of the coming of WW II, maintained that the Western counterpart to family values has been patriotism, with the homicide of battle between nations filling in for corruption within one.)

Such family-inspired proclivity to corruption does teach us a lesson: It proves that sometimes not only do good intentions (to, above all, take care of one’s family, including one’s parents or extended “family”) have bad consequences (shafting everybody else, when necessary), but also that among these consequences are bad intentions (to shaft everybody else, when necessary).

Here in the West, even if many kids, corrupt or not, are not sufficiently grateful to their parents to make repaying them their highest priority, these kids may still be grateful for one thing…

…that their parents have been affluent enough to afford their children’s college educations and buy distractions from their kids’ ingratitude.


(Note: All family and home photos were provided by  “Miya”, devoted daughter and very bright Chinese university scholarship student, who never saw a train until she took one to go to her university to begin her freshman year. The old family home shown in the photo, was, with government assistance, replaced in 2011 with a brand-new, huge and much more modern brick one.)

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