Mod­ern Chi­nese cul­ture must up­date tra­di­tion

The China Post - - COMMENTARY -

Hun­dreds of mil­lions of peo­ple ob­served Tomb Sweep­ing Day last week, the big­gest re­minder of fil­ial piety in a cul­ture that is all about fil­ial piety.

The cul­ture of the Chi­nese-speak­ing peo­ple is one that con­stantly prides it­self on old morals and virtues that have been up­held for the past few mil­len­nia. Over the course of a long his­tory, the Chi­nese fam­ily has been proudly united in a strict set of rules that gov­erns the dy­namic be­tween fam­ily mem­bers.

Sim­i­lar as­pects can be ob­served in other East Asian cul­tures such as those of Ja­pan and the Korean Penin­su­lar, which are heav­ily in­flu­enced by Chi­nese Con­fu­cian cul­ture.

Like some other cul­tures in his­tory, the Chi­nese fam­ily has sub­jected it­self to the pres­ence of a lead­ing pa­tri­arch or ma­tri­arch who has, over the course of his or her life, gained the author­ity to me­di­ate dif­fer­ences and is­sue com­mands on how a fam­ily must work. But is the strict Chi­nese tra­di­tion still ap­pli­ca­ble to­day? Or is it do­ing more harm than good?

There is noth­ing wrong with ob­serv­ing tra­di­tions, es­pe­cially ones that have sur­vived the test of time. But un­der close ob­ser­va­tion, the said “morals” such as fil­ial piety have been twisted into a tool that leads to a gen­er­a­tion of un­happy peo­ple.

In the past, tra­di­tions such as fil­ial piety and the cul­ture in which an el­der male sib­ling is given the birthright to in­herit both the fam­ily heir­looms and man­tle of power were im­ple­mented so a fam­ily could stay to­gether united un­der the lead­er­ship of one who has the most ex­pe­ri­ence in life, in a time when ed­u­ca­tion was a priv­i­lege granted to those who could af­ford it.

But with ed­u­ca­tion be­ing a hu­man right to al­most all to­day, as well as the rapid growth of the hu­man race thanks to med­i­cal and tech­no­log­i­cal ad­vance­ments, such val­ues do not have a place in the mod­ern world. Not when peo­ple now know how to think, and are at the lib­erty, or at least should be, to pur­sue their own ide­al­is­tic self with­out the bur­den of re­spon­si­bil­ity.

For ex­am­ple, as med­i­cal care and ed­u­ca­tion were lux­u­ries in the past, it made sense to ob­serve fil­ial piety by car­ing for one’s par­ents and not pur­su­ing one’s dreams.

But when ap­plied to mod­ern Chi­nese so­ci­ety, par­ents strip away per­sonal space from their chil­dren, and even the right to grow in cer­tain cases. To­day, Chi­nese par­ents as­sume that it is their re­spon­si­bil­ity to be with their chil­dren, and cor­re­spond­ingly pre­pare the ne­ces­si­ties of daily life both ma­te­ri­al­is­ti­cally and fi­nan­cially. Such in­di­vid­u­als are not only de­pen­dent on their par­ents, they are prac­ti­cally stripped of the op­por­tu­nity to de­velop into an adult. In Tai­wan, the lack of in­de­pen­dence of such adults — also known as “Ma Bao” (mom’s baby) — has be­come a com­mon topic for co­me­di­ans and busi­ness lead­ers alike.

While one can ar­gue that more peo­ple from West­ern cul­tures are start­ing to move in with par­ents as is the Eastern norm — in no small part due to the hard­ships the young face in the post-re­ces­sion world — the un­der­ly­ing un­der­stand­ing of per­sonal space re­mains dras­ti­cally dif­fer­ent.

With peo­ple be­ing able to think for them­selves, Chi­nese cul­tures should choose to adopt an up­dated ver­sion of the tra­di­tional val­ues, sim­ply be­cause the old dy­nam­ics just don’t work any­more. In­stead of stay­ing strong as a fam­ily unit, the old Chi­nese norms now serve as an ob­sta­cle that traps both par­ents and chil­dren, who have no room for self dis­cov­ery and growth.

As much as peo­ple would like to be­lieve it, Chi­nese tra­di­tions are not un­change­able. Chil­dren in an­cient China mourned for their de­ceased par­ents for 3 years, dur­ing which time they had to put on mourn­ing cloth at all times and ba­si­cally ab­stain from all worldly ac­tiv­i­ties in­clud­ing work. Such tra­di­tions sim­ply did not fit in an in­creas­ing com­mer­cial world. In mod­ern times, the du­ra­tion of the mourn­ing pe­riod is re­duced and peo­ple mainly avoid only happy ac­tiv­i­ties such as en­ter­tain­ment and wed­dings in that pe­riod.

In­stead of stress­ing the strict ob­ser­vance of cul­tural norms, some­times updating them is ac­tu­ally the bet­ter way to pre­serve the spirit in which they were cre­ated.

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