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Role of ‘Filial Piety’ in China’s Social Welfare Development ‘Raising children up, to sustain one’s old age’ was once a common belief within Chinese society; but it is challenged by the rapid changes in China’s demographic and family structure. By Renee Chiu | December, 2010





(Chinese: xiào) has been regarded as an important virtue in Chinese traditional culture. It is a paramount concept derived from ‘Confucianism’ which stresses the importance of respect, concern, obedience and loyalty to one's parents in addition to provision of basic necessities for satisfying their physical needs. Under its influence, the obligation of taking care of elders falls primarily on the children. Taking care of elderly family members is a significant principle in Confucian philosophy. Confucius strongly believed that good family relationship was the key to reform a society while ‘filial piety’ was a fundamental principle to form a good family. This Confucian ideal was being reemphasized and reinforced in China’s social and legal policies. It served as a moral protection of the China welfare system to a certain extent. According to Palmer (1995), the criminal law of China in 1979 stated that an adult child may be imprisoned for up to five years for refusing to support an aged family member. Further promotion of reciprocal family obligations was specified in the Article 49 of 1982 Constitution of China stating that ‘Parents have the duty to rear and educate their children who are minors, and children who have come of age have the duty to support

and assist their parents’. Furthermore, a law was enacted in accordance with the 1996 Constitution to protect the legal rights and welfare of the elderly; and to promote the Chinese people's virtues of respecting and providing for the elderly. For those childless or disabled elders, they were granted assistance from the government or the collectives of the rural communes1 before China’s recent pension reforms. Meanwhile, the government also implemented eight developmental plans 2 on community and state levels in order to strengthen the social status of elderly in both rural and urban areas regarding their physical, social and economical wellbeings. 1

Unlike elders in urban areas who can receive social security directly from the government, elders in rural areas are guaranteed food, clothing, medical care, housing and burial expenses by the collectives of the rural communes. 2

According to X. Xie, Y. Xia & X. Liu (2007), the eight development plan included: 1) Expedite the passing of the laws on population aging that would protect the rights of elderly; 2) Establish and improve the social security system for the elderly; 3) Vigorously develop medical and health services to facilitate self-care ability of elderly; 4) Promote the health of elderly and encourage their socioeconomic participation on a voluntary basic; 5) Create opportunity for continued education of the elderly; 6) Create elderly recreational centers; 7) Develop social welfare programs for the financial and material support of the aged; 8) Intensify theoretical and applied scientific research on issues related to the elderly.








Confucian tradition of family support for the elderly, especially in rural areas where a well-established system for farmers was absent before 2009. Family members

is weakening. This is primarily due to increasing rural-urban migration3 of the young generation, with an existence of huge socioeconomic gap between rural and urban areas. 4 Due to the economic growth in urban areas, more and more young people move to urban areas to earn a better living and elderly are getting left behind. ‘Filial piety’ is no longer an absolute practice and it is affected by different factors, particularly the ability for children to support their old parents. 3

remain the primary source of economic support to the elderly. However, though the concept of ‘filial piety’ is still relevant to Chinese communities that people continue to feel a responsibility to support their old parents, its influence is on the decline. Due to China’s socio-economic and demographic transformation, the traditional family’s structure is under a contemporary transition. The extended family is increasingly becoming geographically distant, especially in rural areas where family support for the elderly

The ‘household registration system’ (The hukou system), which was originated in 1951, has a huge impact on China’s pension and social security development. It served as an instrument to control mobility of people between rural and urban areas. Several reforms of the system (refer to Table 1) had been taken in order to meet the increasing demand for cheap labour in urban areas and increasing social pressure on rural-urban inequality. 4

According to K. W. Chan and L. Zhang (1996), China placed high priority on industrialization under the influence of the Soviet model. In order to finance the expansion of heavy industry, the state underpriced agricultural products and overpriced industrial products which contributed to unequal exchange between the two sectors. The ‘hukou system’ was created to block free flows of resources (including labor) between rural and urban areas in order to maintain a social and economic configuration.



ince the enforcement of ‘One-child

policy’ of China in 1979, the Confucian tradition of children taking care of their parents has faced significant strains. The policy limits the majority of couples to have only one child thus they will have less children to support them in their old age. For those whose children are unable


or unwilling to provide support, they may encounter old age poverty.5 The ‘One-child policy’ puts great financial pressure on the only-child generation whom are supposed to support their two parents and even four grandparents solely, forming the ‘4-2-1’ (four grandparents, two parents and one child) family structure. Meanwhile, they may also need to take care of their own children and even have to save for their own retirement. The term ‘Sandwich Generation’ is used to describe this middle generation who ‘oftentimes must simultaneously care for both younger and older generation’ (Zhang and Goza, 2006). Since Chinese people have an earlier retirement age and longer life expectancy, the sandwich generation has to bear both the caring and the financial burden longer. Several researches revealed that children of this generation showing declining ability and willingness to care for their old parents, mainly due to great financial stress and weakening family bonds. Lee and Xiao (1998) remarked that ‘while the obligation to support one’s 5 China’s old-age social security system has long left the elderly in rural areas with no publicfinanced social security, assistance for the rural population is far from adequate. Wang and Zhang (2005) made estimation on elderly poverty at the national level based on 2000 China Urban and Rural Elder survey, the aggregate quantity of elderly poverty population is 9.21-11.68 million with a poverty incidence of 7.1-9.0 percent, of which urban elderly poverty population is 1.85-2.46 million with a poverty incidence of 4.2-5.5 percent, and rural elderly poverty population is 7.36-9.22 million with a poverty incidence of 8.6-10.8 percent.

parents was generally felt by the children, action was only taken when the parents were in need.’ Besides, it was also found that ‘the practice of ‘filial piety’ in Asian Chinese communities is mainly confined to the mere satisfaction of parents’ physical needs and comforts.’ Li and Tracy in their review also noted that ‘the ideological implication that the younger generation should respect the seniors and take care of their parents remains strong in rural China, where support and services from outside the family are extremely limited’. With the investment in education, job mobility and career competition, children may choose to look for a more promising future by leaving their parents behind. According to Zhan (2004), children from one-child families were less committed to taking care of their parents when there was a ‘job and care conflict’ than those from multiple children families. Those results did not imply the unimportance of ‘filial piety’, but a tendency that children have to look for ways to reduce their burdens in order to fulfill their filial responsibility. Obviously, there is a tendency for families to turn to the government for assistance in meeting their caring and financial stresses. Since the current social security system is characterized by fragmentation and decentralized administration, it is necessary for the government to establish a sustainable social security system, as well as to develop long-term care services to meet the rapid aging population.

FADING OF FILIAL PIETY AND ITS IMPACT ON SOCIAL WELFARE DEVELOPMENT to support their parents, could be recognized and upheld by the public by he influence of ‘Filial piety’ has incorporating the values into moral clearly diminished but it is still observed in education of the public. Without a fully Chinese communities, which helps to developed state funded pension system, the regulate the behaviour and attitude of government always reiterates the children towards their parents. This sense importance role of family in elder care. of responsibility, children feeling obliged However, the value should be used only as



a basic for social welfare development instead of being over-emphasized to a degree by imposing the burden upon children to provide support for their parents. The family contribution to elderly care should be assisted by both formal services and governmental assistance, in view of the overwhelming burden of the ‘sandwich generation’ and the increasing demand for long-term care due to aging population. Although the government has decided to provide a one-child old age care subsidy when they reach retirement age, supportive services of elderly care is still insufficient to adjust the caring stress of the children at their early age.

weakened due to socio-economical and demographic changes. Therefore, the need for comprehensive pension coverage and long-term care service development will be increasingly important in the years ahead. Since ‘filial piety’ still remains a significant value in Chinese family, its sentimental impact can be used as a foundation of a community care approach, combining contributions from both informal and formal forms of care-taking. For example, the Norway government provides financial assistance for caregivers (mainly women) through tax deduction or subsidy and also to include women in the formal workforce.

In China, institutional care is often the sole form of long-term care service, and it is being treated as the last resort for children who are unable to take care of their parents. Traditionally, it is experienced as a disgrace for elders to spend their final years in an elderly institution. However, the role of family support has been

‘Filial piety’ has an important implication on the development of China’s future social welfare for elderly. The development of social security and community services is fundamental to help children to practise the values of ‘filial piety’, in order to prevent this Chinese virtue from eroding.

References: Palmer, Michael (1995), The Re-emergence of Family Law in Post-Mao China: Marriage, Divorce and Reproduction. China Quarterly 141:110-134. Lee YJ, Xiao Z. (1998), Children’s support for elderly parents in urban and rural China: results from a national survey. J. Cross Cult Gerontol 13:39-62. Joseph AE, Phillips DR. (1999), Aging in rural China: impacts of increasing diversity in family and community resources. J Cross Cult Gerontol 14:153-168. Li H, Tracy MB (1999), Family support, financial needs, and health care needs of rural elderly in China: a field study. J Cross Cult Gerontol 14:357-371. Zhan, H. J. (2004). Socialization or social structure: Investigating predictors of attitudes toward filial responsibility in China. Marriage and Family Renview, 36 (1/2), 175-200. Wang D, Zhang K. (2005). What and how the elderly lives under poverty in China. Journal of Chinese Population Science, No.1. Y. Zhang, F. W. Goza (2006), Who will care for the elderly in China? A Review of the problems caused by China’s one child policy and their potential solutions. Journal of aging Studies volume, 20(2): 151-164 Desai V. , Tye M. (2009). Critically Understanding Asian Perspectives on Ageing. Third World Quarterly, 30(5), 1007-1025.



Feature Story:

‘Children are my whole-life investment’ By Renee Chiu | November, 2010

Madam Wong, 73, a mother of four children in the city of Chiuzhou, in Guangdong Province.

Madam Wong: Each of my four children has only one child and they could spend more on their children’s development with the improved living standard. I live separated from them and my elder daughter has even resided in Hong Kong with her husband and daughter. However, our relationship has never been deteriorated by being apart. My two sons are working in a private architecture company and a governmental ‘work unit’ of immigration respectively. They support me financially with RMB 2500 monthly all together. My elder daughter in Hong Kong also sends me money periodically and my younger daughter is responsible for taking care of me, especially during my sick time. Though I had a hard time in bringing them up, they are worth all my investment as they are filial to me, not only in tern of finances but also in their concern and care that surrounds me.

Madam Lo, 55, the elder daughter of Madam Wong, who lives in Hong Kong with her husband and daughter.

Madam Wong: My husband died when I was 45. Since then, I have to take care of my four children solely. Fortunately, some of them already reached their twenties at that time and were capable to take care of themselves and have even been supportive to me. Life is never easy to me by taking care of four children on my own. I was not entitled to any welfare as a housewife; majority of welfare was benefited to people with work that they could get assistance from their ‘work units’. I had to sell drinks and snacks on the street. I was indebted with my elder daughter as she gave up her chance to study in order to do sewing work at home to earn money for our living and let her two elder brothers to enter school. My youngest daughter also stayed at home and helped doing housework. Madam Lo: It was really a difficult time for all of us. I had to do sewing work from early in the morning until midnight. My grandfather sometimes bought me a sweet potato for compensation and he did it secretly for me by not letting my siblings know about it. My childhood was harsh and it was always a pity not having a chance to study. Therefore, I invested a lot in my only-daughter, especially on her education. Unlike my generation, in which I have my sister and brothers to share the care responsibilities for our mother, my daughter will be all alone without any sibling support. This is something my husband and I worry a lot about when we think of the day that we will no longer with her.

Madam Lo: It was never easy for our mother to bring us up; we all know she barely has her own savings. It is our obligations to provide her with a better living in her old age. ‘Filial piety’ to me is more a sentiment than a rule of itself. By thinking how hard our mother has been working for us, we could never make it up to her. I wish my daughter would also recognize our effort on bringing her up, however, I understand it will be difficult for her to be responsible for our old age solely, in view of financial or practical care. My husband and I have been buying our own life and health insurance in order to alleviate her future financial burden. Of course, we also pay a lot of attention to our health in order to prevent placing too much care responsibilities on her. We wish her to have her own family and children and we will not being a burden for her too. It is crucial for us to make our own non-traditional and independent plans for our old age, but our investment in our daughter and responsibilities for our parents always comes first before our own retirement plan.

Role of filial piety in China Social Welfare Development  

This paper focuses on the development of China's traditional social welfare system, where the children take care of their parents. Called 'f...

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