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1.5 Children and Parents

Confucian values cover a wide range of standards and expectations in the relationship between children and parents. The distribution of family wealth, lineage and the responsibilities of, and benefits to, individual children depending on birth order are all covered by these values.

The eldest son is expected to have a child, preferably male, to perpetuate the family name. The eldest son and his wife are expected to care for his parents in their old age as well. Younger siblings are expected to defer to their seniors. If the eldest son has siblings, the wealth of the family will traditionally go to the boys and any daughters will be excluded. The Confucian reasoning for this is that daughters leave the family and marry into another, taking their husband’s surname and helping to perpetuate their new family. In this, women again appear to receive short thrift, since they are expected to be subservient to their mothers-in-law when they join their husband’s family. In China, the western mother-in-law joke and the traditional animosity between a husband and his wife’s mother are translated into the relationship between the wife and her mother-in-law.

These traditional family values have come under considerable pressure in recent years, given the success of the One Child Policy. With the implementation of this policy in the 1970s, most families (especially in the cities) have had but one child to inherit. Selective abortion has led to a disparity between male and female births, with 120 boys now born for every 100 girls, a situation that some experts describe as a demographic time bomb.

More women work outside the home now, since fewer children means less responsibility at home. More women inherit from their parents as well, since despite the gender gap at birth there are many more single-daughter families now than in the past. The combination of these two trends means even more conflict between modern women and their mothers-in-law, with many modern women (who now have money of their own) resisting the subservient role of the past. This conflict has become a popular theme in Chinese entertainment.

Confucian values also help define the relationship between fathers and sons. Sons are expected to never directly confront their fathers, but to gently make suggestions or propose alternatives when in disagreement. Disobeying a father or acting against a father’s will runs the risk that a son will be seen by society as lacking in filial piety.

Family interests trump all other interests under Confucian philosophy, even those of a legal nature. Should family members be faced with a choice between following the law and remaining loyal to the family, society will be sympathetic toward those who choose the latter course and hostile toward those who choose the former. Family values are paramount.

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