Modern Chinese culture must update tradition
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.