A sadly familiar story - the declining amount of time and attention younger Chinese people can and do spend with their aging parents and grandparents - was in the news again this week. On Sunday, Reuters ran a piece: "Greying China taps rural elderly to care for those even older." And this was matched by a CRI English report dated the same day (not sure who should be credited with the scoop): "Old-Age care recommended for China's rural elderly"
In both cases the story is the same: migration of young people from countryside to cities, in search of better jobs and lives, have left many older Chinese folks alone in rural villages with only other less elderly old folks to take care of them. The impersonal forces of modernization thus erode traditional notions of filial piety. From the Reuters article:
More than 95 percent of China's rural elderly still adhere to the traditional practice of seeking old-age care within their families, Wang said. But families are no longer able to cope, with youth and even middle-aged people heading to cities to find work, leaving the elderly behind to fend for themselves.
The old Confucian notion of extended family care and integrity seems to hang on - that's how I would interpret the "95%" figure, which should not be taken as completely precise. But reality has changed: "...leaving the elderly behind to fend for themselves."
And this from the CRI piece:
"Because the farmers are going to other areas to find work and make money, our village ended up with left-behind, lonely elderly people. They are alone and they feel unhappy. In this situation, according to the needs of the villagers, we organized the elderly people to get together to live to old age, to help and support one another."
An admirable pragmatism seems to be emerging from this heartbreaking set of circumstances: even as they struggle with their familial loneliness, the elderly are coming together in mutual aid. The less old among them care for the more old. And that is shaping up to be a "model" for elder care (Reuters):
Surrounded by green wheat fields that stretch across a flat plain, Qiantun [Hebei] is unremarkable among countless rural Chinese communities, but its old-age care model is now a prototype cited by central government as a solution to the daunting challenge of caring for a vast and rapidly greying rural population.
Yet even if this should prove to be a relatively efficient means to solve a growing problem, we need to note the obvious: this is yet another example of how China is moving away from its Confucian past.
I take a rather broad view of what "Confucianism" might be in the modern world. I have no expectation that, in order to fulfill a contemporary standard of "Confucian" behavior," all children must directly live with and care for their elderly parents. That may have been the expectation one hundred years ago (two hundred years ago?), but it is untenable in a modern, globalized economy. Younger workers have to go to where the jobs are. Many, struggling in hyper-competitive labor markets, will not secure sufficient wages and benefits to take care of their parents in their old age. What "Confucianism" would require in such circumstances, is that you do the best you can with what you've got.
But the state of elder care in China today suggests that many younger Chinese people, harried by the uncertainties of (post)modern life, just can't focus on their parents. They just can't live up to even a modified, contemporary Confucian expectation of actually enacting their obligations to their elders. And, so, the elderly must fend for themselves.
We could cite many different passages from the Analects here, but let's go with one of the most poignant ones:
Ziyou asked about filial conduct (xiao 孝). The Master replied: "Those today who are filial are considered so because they are able to provide for their parents. But even dogs and horses are given that much care. If you do not respect your parents, what is the difference?" (2.7 Ames and Rosemont)
Providing basic shelter and food and clothing and the like is insufficient. "Respect" is required. And, for Confucius, that entails a consistent, even daily, consideration of the wants and interests and happiness of the elderly. It's a tough job. The isolation and unhappiness of the rural elderly described in the stories above suggest that insufficient respect is being paid.
And, lest we think, this is a problem confined to the Chinese countryside, here is this story, from the All-China Women's Federation:
Across the whole country, there is now an
estimated demand of 8 million beds for the elderly but there are only
2.662 million beds in all the nursing homes in China, which doesn't meet
the demand at all.
In Beijing, half of the vacant beds are available in nursing homes located in remote suburban areas or are available in homes with poor facilities although they are located in more central areas. Vacant beds are not available in public nursing homes or in private nursing homes of good repute.
With the development of the economy and society and the changing of people's ideas on care-giving for the elderly, many families now have moved away from traditional ideas of taking care of the elderly at home, and prefer well-equipped nursing homes with good environment. Many elderly choose to live in nursing homes since their children are too busy or may be abroad and not able to take care of them.
This sounds very familiar to an American: children are too busy to care for parents; parents do not want to be a be a burden. And that is my point in mentioning all this. I in no way intend to demean contemporary Chinese experience. Rather, my purpose here is to suggest that the Chinese past is not the Chinese present, and that the Chinese present is becoming more similar to the American present than to the Chinese past.
I have on-going discussions with various friends and acquaintances on the extent to which we might be able to understand China as a "Confucian society." I think it is not. And the transformation of elder care is, I believe, a prime indicator that it is not. There may be conscientious individual Confucians (i.e. persons who really do fulfill something close to a Confucian morality in their personal lives) in China now but, for most, the competitive materialism of capital-eque society and economy and culture make Confucianism an anachronistic shadow of a lost time.