Filial pursuit: China museum displays family values campaign

Filial pursuit: China museum displays family values campaign
This picture taken on February 2, 2015 shows people walking past the Modern Filial Piety Culture Museum in Qionglai, southwest China's Sichuan province

GUYI, China - What makes a good son or daughter? At China's first museum dedicated to the topic of "filial piety", the answer seems to be: almost superhuman levels of devotion and sacrifice.

Respect for family elders has been a cornerstone of Chinese culture for millennia, but many believe it is being eroded by the country's rapid economic growth.

The Modern Filial Piety Culture Museum, which cost more than $1 million, is part of government-backed efforts to "pass on the value" - as a banner over the entrance exhorts.

In a grey brick courtyard building inspired by traditional Chinese architecture, slick panels and exhibits in gleaming glass cases tell of more than a dozen modern-day filial role models.

One is policeman Wang Chunlai, who provided his bedridden parents with years of medical care, giving them injections and blood transfusions.

"This man is a classic example of filial piety," said museum volunteer Zeng Yan, in front of the Wangs' tattered beds and discoloured bedpans, donated after their demise.

Others include an eight-year-old girl who provided constant care for her paralysed mother, and a schoolteacher who took his Alzheimer's-afflicted mother everywhere he went.

Among the artefacts are a blue and yellow cart - something between a fairytale carriage and a wheelbarrow - in which two sons pulled their mother to more than 600 towns and cities across China to fulfil her dying wish to travel.

They wore out 12 pairs of shoes in the process, several of them on display beside the carriage in the museum in the southwestern province of Sichuan.

"I think that people often don't consider their parents' dreams. That's the meaning of the exhibit," Zeng added.

Paragons of piety

Filial piety was the core value of China's ancient sage Confucius, and outlandish tales have been used for centuries to spur readers to greater heights of parental devotion.

One of the country's most renowned literary works is the "Twenty-four Paragons of Filial Piety", written during the Yuan dynasty 600 years ago.

It includes a woman who breastfeeds her toothless step-mother, a son who tastes his father's excrement to test for illness, and another man who sits naked at his parents' bedside to prevent them being bitten by mosquitoes.

But China's three decades of rapid economic growth have put families under unprecedented strains, with hundreds of millions leaving their parents behind as they migrate to find work.

Suicide rates among elderly people in some rural areas have increased five-fold over the last two decades, state-run media have reported, with family neglect seen as a major cause.

Projections show that 350 million Chinese - one in four of the population - will be aged 60 or older by 2030, almost twice as many as now.

At the same time "one-child policy" family planning rules mean the burden of care will usually fall on a single offspring.

A 2012 law requiring adult children to visit their aged parents "often", or risk repercussions, has been seen as unenforceable.

Instead, Beijing has fallen back on celebrating examples of the virtue, with local bureaucrats holding competitions to find "filial children".

State-run media have run pictures of hundreds of schoolchildren kow-towing before their parents to show their obedience - although social media commentators said such ceremonies discouraged independent thinking among children.

The museum, on a riverbank in the Sichuan backwater of Guyi, opened four months ago and local authorities provided at least a quarter of its eight million yuan ($1.3 million) construction costs, its businessman founder Liao Lin told AFP.

An introductory panel features equal-sized portraits of Confucius and President Xi Jinping, with a quote from the current Communist chief urging officials to read the "Standards for Being a Good Pupil and Child", a collection of Confucian sayings which emphasise filial piety.

'They may feel guilty'

But the official drive has been criticised as a way for the state to shirk its duty to provide elderly care.

China's civil affairs minister said last year that there were just 25 care beds for every 1,000 senior citizens, while health insurance rarely covers the costs of major procedures.

"Many Chinese families, facing smaller family size and family separation, are anxiously searching for new ways of fulfilling filial piety," said Hong Zhang, a researcher at Colby College in the US.

"If the government is promoting the filial tradition, people can be cynical and see it as the government's effort to find an excuse of not doing its job." Museum founder Liao, a tea and liquor magnate, admitted that heroic acts of filial piety alone were not enough. "China's social security system is still lacking," he said.

Liao - whose own daughter is at boarding school and hopes to study abroad - said he "thought a lot" about his parents, and "did my best to serve them", but would not give details.

"People will see these perfect examples, and be inspired to do even better," he said of his exhibits.

"They may feel guilty that they don't care enough for their parents, and return home to wash their parents' feet. That's the kind of result we are hoping for."

 

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