I recently went back to China to visit family and attend weddings, and from that trip I learned quite a bit. In particular, I see that filial piety still reigns supreme as the utmost mark of good moral standing. Growing up in that culture, it has often been commented to me by people in Canada that Canada had a similar value system where they respect the elderly, especially those in the family. I find that the root of the issue lies with differing views of human worth.
In the west, it appears that children are assumed to have a lot of value. This is even reinforced with the in-vogue education trend of trying to ‘tease out’ the knowledge of children, rather than instilling knowledge. The basic assumption is that every child is destined for greatness if you just let them succeed, instead of suffocating them with ‘molds’ that don’t fit. Every child has unbounded potential and can reach that potential if you just let them succeed.
When it comes to the elderly, it is often assumed they are invalids. Age has rotted their brain and they are to be treated as worthless. It doesn’t matter that they have a life time’s worth of experience because who cares? It’s a different world now. They have no more potential for anything; if they would’ve done something they would’ve done it already. The only thing left is to wait for them to die.
On the contrary, Chinese culture is different. Children are born worthless; because they know nothing and have nothing except for what their parents gave them. Even wealthy parents constantly worry about their children being out-competed. Unlike in Canada, where the land is vast and the people few, Chinese children don’t have room to be special snowflakes. 15 million of them are born each year and only the best among them will be able to get into the good schools (primary, secondary, and post-secondary), and only those who attend the best universities have good job prospects. The intense pressure and competition simply doesn’t allow for coddling; it is sink and swim practically from birth.
This is not to say that Chinese people are cold-hearted and don’t love their children. On the contrary, Chinese families on average adore their children more than most places, due to our traditional value system steeped in emphasis on family. But no one is expected to think highly of a child, even within the family, unless the child is indeed worthy of praise. Failures were treated as failures. Parents pushed their children hard because anything less would mean their kids would fall behind in the race with 15 million other children, not because they are callous.
So what does this have to do with how Chinese people treat the elderly? Unlike children, the elderly have already accomplished something. They have a life time’s worth of achievements, and usually the most important achievement of all: having an established family. This mountain of feats is worthy of anyone’s respect.
Personally, I like the way I was raised. Respect those who have accomplished and push those who haven’t to accomplish something. The notion of ‘inherent worth’ has to be taken carefully.