An Act of Filial Piety at Zibo Railway Station

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Much debate about the meaning of filial piety sparked by hashtag  #StationManKneelstoParents

A picture published earlier this month by a local paper, the Qilu Evening Post, in Shandong province, showed a 40-year-old son kneeling at the feet of his aged parents in a railway station. This has moved many people to discuss online the relevance and place of the Confucian value of ‘filial piety’ in modern China.

Filial piety or Xiao is a core teaching of Confucianism; a virtue from which all other virtues emanate.  As David Yau-Fai Ho defines it, Filial Piety “goes far beyond the demand of simply obeying and honouring one’s parents. It makes other demands that are no less stringent: providing for the material and mental well-being of one’s aged parents, performing ceremonial duties of ancestral worship, taking care to avoid harm to one’s own body, ensuring the continuity of the family line, and in general to conduct oneself so as to bring honour and not disgrace to the family name”.[1]

The newspaper People’s Daily Online reported that Zhang Jinli, a Beijing worker that visited his parents in Zibo, east China, after a four year absence, kowtowed (bowing down until the forefront touches the ground) in front of his parents as he was saying once again goodbye, asking for forgiveness for not taking enough care of them. [2]

Station man
Picture published by the People’s Daily Online. Retrieved here. 

The image and its interesting story started bouncing almost immediately on many Chinese social networks, particularly, ‘Sina Weibo’ that launched the hashtag  #StationManKneelstoParents.

While the action of Mr Zhang touched many, some others have questioned whether his behaviour was exaggerated or even performed insincerely, only for the purpose of getting public praise.

“Filial piety can be expressed, but doing this in a large area with a crowd, I inevitably suspect him of grandstanding,” commented one of the users on Sina Weibo.[3]

“A kowtow is a symbolic act, you need to do something real for them,” agreed another Weibo user.[4]

This curious episode reflects a deeper struggle that many young Chinese are facing in fulfilling both the duty of care towards parents and the pressure of moving to larger cities, leaving the countryside and family, to find better job opportunities.

Accentuating this struggle is a law that makes filial piety a real legal issue: the Chinese Elderly Protection Law of 2013. The Hong Kong news agency HKFP reported that the law declares that “Family members who live apart from their parents should often visit or send regards to their parents.” By this definition,  Mr Zhang would be viewed as unfilial and could be prosecuted by the state, although the way such a law could be enforced remains vague. [5]

See also our earlier post: Fulfilling Filial Piety: Is there “Room” for Improvement?

[1] David Yau-Fai Ho (1994), Filial Piety, Authoritarian Moralism, and Cognitive Conservatism in Chinese Societies. Genetic, Social and General Psychology Monographs, 120 (3), Hong Kong.

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