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The Kowtow of a Chinese Son and the Debate About Respect

Stark images of a Chinese man kowtowing to his elderly parents at a railway station has moved many online to debate the concept of filial piety and its place in modern China.

A virtue advocated by the ancient Chinese sage and philosopher Confucius, it promotes absolute respect to elders, particularly parents and ancestors.

On 10 February, Qilu Evening Post, a regional paper in eastern Shandong Province, shared pictures of 46-year-old Zhang Jinli, who works for a pharmaceutical company in Beijing, virtually prostrate on the station floor at his parents’ feet.

He was apparently begging his parents, who are both in their eighties, for forgiveness. The paper reported that Mr Zhang was “emotional, did not think that he had been a filial son, and believed that he had been unworthy to his parents”.

A statue of Confucius stands on display during a ceremony to mark his 2559th birth anniversary at the Changchun Confucian TempleA statue of Confucius at the Changchun Confucian Temple

Such an overt and profound display of filial piety was praised as a “touching scene” by many social media users, but some chimed in asking whether it was “a bit much”.

More than 7,500 users of Sina Weibo, a popular Chinese social media forum, used the hashtag #StationManKneelstoParents, discussing the importance of showing respect to your elders.

Filial piety

The concept of filial piety goes back to 400 BC and is a core virtue of Confucianism, described in the early works of China’s best-known philosopher.

Respect towards parents, elders and ancestors are considered key values in Chinese society and culture, and are commonly the subject of debate on Chinese social media.

In September, the hashtag #SaveMotherOrGirlfriend trended, with thousands of Sina Weibo users debating who they would save if one of the two were drowning.

The majority of users said that they would save their mother, saying that you can “always find another girlfriend”, or your partner might not be “the one”, showing how important the concept remains in contemporary Chinese society.

Detail from painting showing familial piety produced during the Chinese Song dynastyThis image showing familial piety was painted during the Chinese Song dynasty

But it has also been heavily contested following a string of incidents earlier in the year, which saw Chinese elders reacting violently to younger people not giving up their seats on public transport, with social media users asking whether the concept can be followed blindly without question.

In August, a middle-aged woman beat and stripped a younger girl on the Wuhan subway for not letting her sit down.

And in July, an elderly man in Harbin hit a young girl for not giving up her seat on a bus.

It has also has been a recurring theme in Chinese soap operas and dramas, with relationships tested because a mother cannot approve her child’s fiancée, and the boyfriend or girlfriend having to win their future in-law’s respect.

Online debate

Despite the Qilu Evening Post reporting that Zhang had not visited his parents in four years, by kneeling to his parents, he warmed the hearts of Chinese social media users.

Sina Weibo post showing a photo of a man kowtowing to his elderly parents, as published in the Qilu Evening PostThis Sina Weibo post commented on the kowtowing photo: ‘Station man kneels to parents’

Popular comments said that his conduct was a “good move” and commended him for his actions, which they said showed “the greatest courtesy”.

“You can miss the train, but filial piety cannot wait!” said one user, receiving more than 800 likes.

Another user said his behaviour was “indescribably sad”. “No one wants to leave home and their parents. We love them, really love them.” But he added that because the pressures of modern life to move away “life is not easy”.

Other users contested his behaviour and asked whether his behaviour was a bid to grab attention.

“Filial piety can be expressed,” said one user, “but doing this in a large area with a crowd, I inevitably suspect him of grandstanding”.

By KERRY ALLEN Feb. 12, 2016 on BBC News.

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