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1.11 The Challenge of Confucian Values

In the past 30 years, two broad events have profoundly influenced China. First is the country’s rapid growth and change after the government launched its “Open Door Policy” in 1978. Second is the profound change brought about by globalization, largely thanks to increasing levels of trade between countries and the expansion of multinational corporations. China has been a key contributor to the globalization trend. This trend also presents substantial challenges to traditional values in China.

The challenge is seen almost in every aspect that we have discussed. The marriage relationship between husband and wife is going through a rapid change. The traditional family structure, in which the husband works to provide for the family while the wife works at home to make the home and raise the children is rarely seen in today’s China. It is much more common for both the husband and wife to work, with the child cared for by the grandparents or a daycare. An increasing number of women do not see marriage as the means to a livelihood. They are less tolerant of a bad husband and can seek divorce, or they become more selective in their choice of when and whom to marry.

The value of filial piety also faces challenges. According to traditional values, it is common for children to live together with the parents and try their best to improve the quality of life of their parents. The new generation, however, does not necessarily share this view. It is not uncommon today for children to move out and live separately from their parents. Some children only pay an annual visit to their parents, or visit when needed.

Some of the challenges are even more worrisome. Respect for elders has long been a traditional Confucian value. However, in recent years, there has been growing concern that fewer people are willing to help the aged. A lack of trust impedes the willingness of the young to help the elderly, particularly when the elderly are not well known to the young.

Other traditional Confucian values have more or less been abandoned. Loyalty is an important aspect of Confucian values. Loyalty has traditionally been expressed as one’s willingness to sacrifice for the emperor. In corporate China, loyalty is expressed by one’s emotional link to his or her employer. Nowadays, however, rapid job jumping is the norm rather than the exception. If a person was to be loyal to an employer for decades, they would be regarded as unwise, rather than respected for embodying the value of loyalty.

In recent years, there have been more and more voices calling for a “Universal Value”12 in Chinese society, as opposed to a return to traditional values. Universal Value refers to a value system that can be accepted by all, not just people in China or not just people from the West. For example, values such as integrity, empathy, patriotism, the pursuit of freedom and loyalty to one’s family are arguably universal, not just specific to China. The Universal Value movement in China could be seen as being part of China’s process of integration into the world, which is also part of the globalization process. With these challenges and alternative value systems emerging, it remains to be seen how several thousand years of traditional values, as rooted in a Confucian ethos, will emerge in the next few decades in China.

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