Filial piety is now the law of the land and Seniors Day will be celebrated tomorrow — for the first time as an official festival. Zhang Qian looks at the challenge of senior care in a rapidly aging society.
For several thousand years, filial piety — including respect and care for the elderly — has been a fundamental virtue governing Chinese society.
The saying goes, "Filial piety comes before all virtues."
But the esteemed position of the elderly and guarantees of their care have been eroded in a rapidly changing society as traditional family structures are weakened, people are mobile and separated, and many couples have only one child to care for them.
Caring for the elderly and establishing an effective caring system have become a major social problem.
Tomorrow is Chong Yang Jie (重阳节), the Double Ninth Festival, a day for showing respect to the elderly in China. This year it seems exceptionally special as the "Day for the Aged" has been written into law, a result of the amended "Law on the Protection of Rights and Interests of the Aged," which went into effect in July.
The amended law, commonly called the filial piety law, also suggests that family members should care for the spiritual needs of the elderly throughout the year.
Those who do not live together with aged parents should visit them often or send regards, according to the law.
Article 17 also prohibits family members from "overlooking or neglecting the elderly."
No penalties are specified.
Obliging children to visit their parents is considered absurd and unenforceable by many people, an attempt to legislate personal morality.
"Filial piety is the most important of all virtues and visiting and caring for parents are the basic requirement for a Chinese. I don't feel good that such basic ethical behavior is regulated by law," says 29-year-old Jess Wang, a Shanghai local working for a foreign-invested company.
Lisa Jia, a 32-year-old new Shanghai resident from northeast China's Liaoning Province, says that she will always visit her retired parents or have them live with her in Shanghai for one or two months every year. But she understands those who cannot visit. "It is not easy to spare the time in the fast-paced work environment of Shanghai," Jia says.
"You cannot simply travel all the way home, have a glance at your parents and then travel back to Shanghai. Surely it's more difficult after you get married and have two sides of the family," she adds.
Socialist Gu Xiaoming considers the law a way to encourage young people to care for the elderly, since the law cannot measure filial piety or punish impiety.
"We cannot take the term ‘visit' as simply a visit, but a chance for us to help the elderly solve their problems and meet their needs as they did when we were young," says Gu. "These are such trifles compared with what Chinese traditional values required of children."