Face, Filial Piety and Work Motivation in Chinese Culture

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Civil service examination during the Song Dynasty (via Wikimedia Commons)

“Sometimes, kids feel that studying is hard and stressful because parents are over anxious and expect too much,” writes the Student Health Service website of Hong Kong‘s Department of Health. “If parents’ expectations go far beyond their kids’ ability, the kids would be discouraged and lose confidence as they are not able to meet their parents’ expectations … Avoid comparing your kids with others in their presence. Negative remarks, such as ‘You’re really good at nothing! Such poor marks! Look at your cousin. He’s always the top of the class every year.’ will only hurt them.”

The fact that a government department gives such advice to parents means that parental pressure on children is not only based on anecdotal evidence, but that it is a fact which affects the lives of a large number of Hong Kong children. In 2016 alone, 35 Hong Kong students committed suicide due to academic pressure.

Chinese parents’ insistence on academic performance is notorious. Studies have shown that Chinese students and adults have a high level of work motivation, which is often explained as a result of a “socially oriented”  drive to achieve success “not for personal glory, but for the good of one’s family, group, team, or nation” (Handbook of Chinese Organizational Behavior: Integrating Theory, Research and Practice, ed. by Xu Huang, Michael Harris Bond, 2012, p. 503).

In this article we shall analyse the particular connection between “face” (mianzi), filial piety and work motivation. We shall argue that the ancient Confucian tradition of subordinating children’s interests and desires to the needs and wishes of parents, and of sacrificing oneself to achieve “glory” for the sake of one’s parents, are a fundamental element of career drive in Chinese culture.

Confucian Values, Filial Piety and Work Ethics

According to the Classic of Filial Piety (孝經, pinyin: xiàojīng), a Confucian text written presumably in the early Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD), filial piety is the most important principle that governs human conduct and ethics:

The Master said, “(It was filial piety.) Now filial piety is the root of (all) virtue, and (the stem) out of which grows (all moral) teaching. Sit down again, and I will explain the subject to you. Our bodies – to every hair and bit of skin – are received by us from our parents, and we must not presume to injure or wound them. This is the beginning of filial piety. When we have established our character by the practice of the (filial) course, so as to make our name famous in future ages and thereby glorify our parents, this is the end of filial piety. It commences with the service of parents; it proceeds to the service of the ruler; it is completed by the establishment of character.

The Classic of Filial Piety was an influential text of the Confucian canon, included as one of the Seven Classics during the Han Dynasty and as one of the Thirteen Classics during the Song Dynasty (Lee Cheuk Yin: Emperor Chengzu and Imperial Filial Piety of the Ming Dynasty. In: Filial Piety in Chinese Thought and History, ed. Alan K. L. Chan and Sor-Hoon Tan, 2004, p. 145).

Its importance lies not only in the fact that it explains the concept of filial piety, but also in the fact that it broadens its significance so as to include both the private and the public sphere. The underlying idea of the Classic of Filial Piety is that filiality is the core principle of all human behaviour. A man who follows the precepts of filial piety is not only a good son, but also a good subject of the emperor, a good minister etc. (ibid., p. 146).

The implication of this idea is that filial piety works as a tool that motivates people to be respectful of family hierarchy and duties in the private sphere, and loyal to the ruler, peaceful, industrious in the public sphere. A child who has learnt to be filial through proper upbringing (or, one may say, through indoctrination), must “glorify” his parents; therefore, he must be a virtuous and successful member of society. Filial duty turns into civic duty.

The connection between filial piety, success and social obligations cannot be dismissed as an outdated concept that no longer matters nowadays. Asian politicians have repeatedly extolled the virtue of filial piety as a motive for achieving success. One of the most notable examples of this phenomenon was Lee Kuan Yew, former Prime Minister of Singapore, who developed a state ideology that can be described as Neo-Confucian. In a 1994 interview, he stated:

Eastern societies believe that the individual exists in the context of his family … [The Singapore government] used the family to push economic growth, factoring the ambitions of a person and his family into our planning … [We] were fortunate we had this cultural backdrop, the belief in thrift, hard work, filial piety and loyalty in the extended family …

Read also: Confucianism And The Law In Singapore And Taiwan

The strength of filial piety lies in the fact that all human behaviour can be reduced to one, simple principle that regulates the individual’s conduct and thinking in every sphere of social interaction. It establishes clear, unquestionable hierarchies, powerful motives for personal achievement, as well as deference to authority.

Lee Kuan Yew described a form of Confucianism in an era where authority is no longer represented by the emperor and glory no longer means becoming a scholar-official in the imperial bureaucracy. Yet while the circumstances have changed, Lee Kuan Yew stressed the importance of filial piety as the main source for personal ambition.

Work Motivation, “Face” and Parental Pressure

As we have already explained in a previous article about filial piety, taking care of one’s parents has always been regarded as one of the most important filial duties. Children are expected to repay parents for the care they received when they were too young to support themselves. The corollary to this is that material success becomes a precondition for fulfilling one’s filial obligations. A rich son is obviously more capable of taking care of his parents than a poor one. Discourse about filial piety in the Chinese-speaking world openly emphasizes the connection between hard work and filial piety. Let us look at one example from Taiwan‘s tabloid Apple Daily.

Last year a 31-year-old man surnamed Chu hit a McLaren while he was riding his scooter back home and was taken to hospital. What made the accident newsworthy was the fact that he had to pay 2.5 million Taiwan dollars to repair the luxury car.

This is how his mother described Mr. Chu to the newspaper:

Mrs. Chu pointed out that her son is a warehouse supervisor, his monthly salary is just between 20,000 and 30,000 Taiwan dollars. As soon as she learnt that the compensation for the damages to the McLaren would cost 2.5 million Taiwan dollars, she cried out: “How can we pay for it?” She said that her son is her second-born, that he’s very filial and hard-working …

褚母指出,兒子是名倉管,月薪約2、3萬元,獲知撞壞麥拉倫恐要賠200多萬元,褚母驚呼:「我們怎麼可能賠得起!」褚母說,兒子在家排行老二,相當孝順、努力工作 …

Mrs. Chu’s statements, which aimed at arousing the sympathy of the readers, focused on her son’s filial piety and diligence, the marks of a respectable adult.

While not all children can be successful, many Chinese parents have great hopes for their offspring, an idea that is expressed in the saying 望子成龍/望子成龙, 望女成鳳/望女成凤 (literally: hoping that one’s son will become a dragon and one’s daughter will become a phoenix). According to Kun Yan, Associate Professor at Tsinghua University’s Institute of Education:

Chinese students’ concerns about academic excellence are rooted in Chinese traditional cultural values, which emphasize education and hard work … Chinese parents typically attach great importance to their children’s academic achievement. Academic success of the child brings a sense of pride and joy to the entire family, while academic failure is perceived as letting one’s family down and causing them to lose face (Kun Yan: Chinese International Students’ Stressors and Coping Strategies in the United States, 2017, p. 72).

Chinese people care about their “face“, which depends not just on an individual’s achievement and conduct, but also on the “face” that one receives from others. In particular, as we have mentioned above, parents’ “face” very much rests on their children’s success and proper behaviour.

If you want to support our website, you might be interested in taking a look at our translations of Chinese literature on Amazon. Currently available is ‘Craven A and other Stories’ by Mu Shiying. Thank you for your support!

Here is how a teacher described parents’ excessive concern about “face”:

To this day Chinese people are fond of face (mianzi)

I have attended countless school meetings … When they are notified [that a meeting will be held] some parents make up excuses not to attend … Most of those who don’t attend are parents of children whose grades give them no face. But parents of children with outstanding grades will usually attend and praise the teachers …

When I was a child I had the highest grades among the students of the primary school in my remote mountain town. At every occasion the villagers would praise me and my parents with words full of admiration. Although I was still just a child, it was clear to me that I was gaining face on behalf of my parents, and the feeling of happiness was very strong.

中國人愛面子,自古至今

開了無數次班會 … 有些家長在接到通知後,就會以此為託辭不光臨會場 … 不參會者,大多是孩子的成績不給家長爭面子的。那些成績優秀的孩子的家長基本是到會的,甚讓師者感動敬佩 …

小學時,我的成績在我們偏僻的山區名列第一。鄉親們見我就夸,見我父母就贊。言語中流露出無限羨慕。當時年紀雖小,但已明顯感覺自己為父母掙足了面子,欣欣然之情甚為濃烈。

The deep-rooted concept of filial piety encourages parents to believe their children belong to them. Exerting constant pressure is a way to assert the primacy of parental authority. Therefore, Chinese parents try to influence children’s life, including academic performance, work and marriage. Here is one example from a mainland Chinese website:

I and my parents disagree on what kind of job I should look for, what should I do? 

I graduated this year, worked in an electric power company for three months and then resigned. Now I am looking for a new job, but I and my parents have different opinions. I wanted to go to Beijing, my parents first didn’t allow me to go, but later they said I could, on the condition that the company provides free accommodation. Recently I have found a few jobs, but my mother is worried, my parents did some research on Baidu and said no. (in fact, they don’t know much about these things. They’re simple peasants and are not well-educated, they just want me to find a stable job with free food and free accommodation, then find a partner and get married.)

I and my parents don’t agree, what to do? Besides, my mother is biased, my father is ill-tempered, if I say something he starts yelling at me. What to do?

自己找工作与父母意见不合怎么办?

我是今年应届的毕业生,5月份在一家电力公司公司工作了三个月辞职了。

现在面临找工作的问题,我和父母意见不合。我想去北京,父母开始不允许,后来同意的前提是公司必须包住才可以去。最近找了几个工作,母亲不放心,说让你爸给你查查。结果从从百度上看了看公司就说不行。(其实,他们也不一定懂,我父母也只是农民,没有接受过高等教育,他们就愿意我找一个稳当的工作,没什么事,包吃包住,以后找个好对象就嫁了。)

我和父母意见不合,怎么破。而且母亲比较偏执,父亲脾气不好,一句不和就破口大骂。怎么破

As we can see from the above story, the scope of parental authority comprises marriage as well as work. In ancient China, marriage wasn’t a matter between two individuals, but between two families. Parents usually arranged marriages without consulting their children, a custom that shocked even the 18th century English diplomat John Barrow. On the other hand, Wu Tingfang, Chinese ambassador to the US in the late 19th and early 20th century, was appalled by the fact that young Americans got engaged without their parents’ consent.

Read also: Western Values – Asian Values: A Chinese Revolutionary’s View on Western and Chinese Family

Nowadays the situation has changed and children have far more freedom to choose their future husband or wife. Yet parental control in mate selection is still strong.

However, we should not assume that parental control is unchallenged. In spite of the pervasiveness of family ideology, people in Chinese societies do question the way in which parents influence their children’s lives. Even governments, as we have shown at the beginning of this article, are aware that parental pressure may harm children.

The following post from a mainland Chinese website shows the tension between parental control and children’s own wishes:

The parents of a friend of mine, a pretty 30-year-old woman, arranged a meeting between her and a man who fulfilled the requirements for marriage. When she saw him, she wanted to reject. Her instinct told her something wasn’t right. But her parents put a lot of pressure on her, and the man was nice to her.

Ultimately they did get married. But not long after their wedding, she found out that his character wasn’t good, so she told him she wanted to divorce. He didn’t object. But her parents became hysterical, they cried and sobbed all day and said that she was bringing shame to the family and making them lose face. Not only had she married at such an old age, but after marrying she even wanted to divorce. Did our family deserve a daughter like you, they said, who has failed to live up to our expectations?

The main point is that the key motive behind her parents urging her to get married wasn’t her happiness, but their own face. They even admitted it themselves. Her parents emphasized that they couldn’t bear that “their” daughter would divorce, and that that would cause “them” to lose face. They were very clear about that. 

She asked them if they didn’t worry about her being together with a scary man like him. They answered that she was right, but why did she marry so old, why did she cause such scandal, and why should such disaster happen in our family! 

我一位朋友,三十岁美女,被父母安排和一个好条件的男人相亲,她见了一次就想拒绝,本能上对这个男人很抵触。但父母施加了很大压力,而该男也很会讨她欢心,最后结婚。但结婚后不久,就发现该男人品极有问题,她果断提出离婚。
该男倒没怎么为难她,但她父母却陷入了严重的歇斯底里中,可以号泣终日 —— 就是一整天了,然后辱骂她是家门的羞耻,丢尽了他们的老脸。不仅年纪这么大才结婚,结婚了还离婚,“我们家”怎么出了你这么不争气的女儿!!!

其次,更关键的是,这些父母们逼婚的动机,不是为了孩子的幸福,而是为了他们自己的面子。
他们也不避讳这一点。像我这位美女朋友,她父母就一再强调说,受不了“我”的女儿会离婚,这丢尽了“我”的脸。

他们脑子其实很清楚。
女儿问他们,我要是不离婚,你们难道不担心我的人生吗?这个男人难道不可怕吗?
他们说,是的,你说的对。可是,为什么你就这个时候才结婚,为什么就你闹出了离婚的丑事,我们家族为什么会遭这种孽!

We can observe that “face” plays a vital role in parents’ perception of their children’s filial behaviour. Parents will often put their own “face” and interests before the feelings of their children.

It is also important to note that in Chinese culture concern about money and concern about face are interdependent. This is demonstrated by the fact that in mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan it is common for parents to expect children to give them a portion of their monthly salary. It is no coincidence that many Chinese netizens ask online how much they should give their parents per month. Let’s look at one example:

How much money is it appropriate to give to parents each month? I’ve been thinking about it ever since I started to work. I am 26 years old, male, my parents are from Guangdong, my family circumstances are average … Every month I hand over to them half of my salary, but recently I’ve been feeling a lot of pressure because I’ve quit my job. I want to take a rest for a while … But my parents often tell me that they have no money, push me to find a job quickly, and say they wait for me to give them money.

It’s not that I’m not willing to do that. I used to make 1400 yuan a month and give them over 800 yuan, but the prices have been going up, and though I’m not so happy about it, I have always continued giving them money, because I know that my parents raised me and I should repay them …  This year I worked for eight months … and given my parents around 15000 yuan, and the money that’s left for me, including for for food and for buying various things, is not much, not to mention the fact that I can’t save enough to buy a flat and a car and get married! 

每月给父母多少钱合适呢? 我很疑惑,从我上班时候就开始了。如今我26岁,是个男孩,父母都是广东人,家庭条件一般 … 而且每个月工资都上交一半,最近感觉压力好大,因为刚辞职,想好好休息休息 … 可是我父母总是时常跟我说,家里没钱,让我赶紧找工作,等着我的钱救济。我不是不愿意给他们钱,我以前一个月1400元,都会给他们800多,全是工资对半花,可物价上涨,虽然自己也觉得特别不痛快,还是一直这么坚持,因为我知道父母养我,我应该回报 … 今年工作八个月 … 这八个月给父母的钱有15000左右,我自己剩下的钱包括吃饭,自己买东西都没攒下来多少。别更加说买房买车了,结婚都成问题啊!

From the above observations we may conclude that:

  1. The traditional concept of filial piety engenders in children the motivation to succeed
  2. Concern about face prompts parents to exert pressure on children to succeed and get married so as to have a “proper” and “respectable” life for which parents will be praised by society.
  3. Material and social interests coincide. Money and “face“ are both key component of parental expectations, and filial piety is the ideological element that allows parents to develop their children’s drive to success.

 

If you want to support our website, you might be interested in taking a look at our translations of Chinese literature on Amazon. Currently available is ‘Craven A and other Stories’ by Mu Shiying. Thank you for your support!

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