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Understanding Modern Chinese Immorality

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Understanding Modern Chinese Immorality

In my post last week, as part one in this series on Chinese Morality, I touched on some of the observations I’ve made while living in China.

These include an overall acceptance of things like prostitution (including prostituting daughters for income), while poverty is far more scorned upon than anything else.

This week I hope to further explore the cultural, political and philosophical reasoning behind a morality that may seem foreign or alien to many Western observers.

Confucianism in China

While all of the historical reasons I listed last week may account for part of the reason for apparent immorality in Chinese society, one also has to consider the role of the teachings of Confucianism and their effect on the morality of the Chinese of today, as well as the 24 paragons of filial piety.

While the teachings of Confucius are revered in China, there are many aspects thereto that may not be as wholesome as some wish to admit, but more on this later.

Confucius set up the hierarchy that to a certain extent still frames Chinese society today. In his words, all relationships were hierarchical, where one party was over the other. The rank order of relationship determined the level of respect one owed to another.

Sitting atop the Confucius pyramid were the ruler, and below this the father and eldest male son. Thus, the father, while set up as a figurehead, assumed a great amount of honor and respect and filial piety. One’s father was of paramount importance to Confucius.

The 24 Paragons of Filial Piety

Add to this the 24 paragons of filial piety and one can see how easily the rights of a child, especially a female child in a patrilineal society can be abused for the ‘good’ of the father and or family.

In the 24 paragons of filial piety, there are 24 stories of what it means to be a good or just child.

The stories come from the Yuan Dynasty, and each serves as a role model to Chinese youths.

Three such stories of note are the 4, the 11th and the 16th. While the fourth and sixteenth are noteworthy insofar as they teach a child that irrespective of how badly a parent treats him, out of respect to his father, he must not complain.

The sixteen while being quite graphic, talks about an honorable son who tastes the feces of his father in order to see if the man is ill.

While these stories may seem to break taboos, or go against the grain of western morality, it is the 11th story which may get to the heart of what an obedient child must do in China. In the 11th paragon, a boy allows mosquitoes to feast on his blood, all so that his parents can sleep.

The child, unbeknownst to his parents, in essence sacrifices his well-being for their comfort.

The image of a child undergoing such tortuous behavior may be as foreign as the notion of xiao- or filial piety is to a foreigner, but its spirit is still alive and well in China.

The Obedient Chinese Child

For instance, at Peking University, one China’s top schools, a student must adhere to the notions of xiao – or an obedient child – or else they may be restricted entry or even removed from school entirely.

From a personal point of view, it was nothing less then shocking when I came to China and was told by my University students that they must, upon graduation, give a portion of their salary to their parents.

Although not set in stone, they agreed that a figure of 20% was reasonable and expected of them, in order to be seen as “good children”.

A colleague of mine who hails from the vaunted Tshinghua has studied the impact of the teachings of Confucius, and along with others has gone so far as to decry the whole notion of xiao and its harmful effects on society.

According to this group, strict adherence to the notion of filial piety and the teachings of Confucianism gives rise to heinous practices, such as prostitution in China.

“When a child is expected to sacrifice his or her body for the good of their folks, then what real value does a child have?”

Glancing at China through this framework, one has to wonder if the justification of saving face is by sacrificing one’s daughter. In such a system, is it valid to bring honor to the poor family by sacrificing the body and mind of a small child?

A Culture that Promotes Prostitution

Is it honorable for a young girl to be sold to men for sexual gratification all in the name of providing for the comfort of a parent?

If so, then what is the role of a parent in such a society? Do the children become nothing more than a tool to achieve an end such as funds for retirement or an escape from misery?

Are the teachings of Confucius being bastardized to suit the morals for the times?

There is little doubt that this is not and can not be the answer, but at the same time one still has to ask the question – Why is it more shameful to be poor than to sell one’s own daughter?

Some might respond that all of the above are incorrect, and in essence China is no different than it was thousands of years ago. They would argue that prostitution has co-existed with China and is now more publicized but not more common.

They might even go so far as to argue in support for the choice of being a sex worker.

Chinese Sentiment Toward Prostitution

A recent article in a major Chinese newspaper revealed that women from some of China’s most exclusive universities have started to work as prostitutes to make extra money for school.

While the Party showed outrage at such a notion, the country at large did not seem to agree.

In an online poll, over half of the respondents in China showed their approval of women selling their bodies or working as mistresses to pay for school.

Maybe I am looking at this from the wrong perspective, being ethnocentric. Maybe there is something I am missing, a key element lost on me, a Westerner in this great land.

Looking again at Confucius for clarification, I found the following:  From the Analects:

“…after being told about a man who bore witness against his father for stealing sheep, Confucius said: ‘The honest men of my country are different from this. The father covers up for his son, the son covers up for his father…and there is honesty in that too.'”

In a society steeped in morality and values such as this, one has to wonder if it is ever possible for a Westerner to truly understand the land called China.

Brothels in China

The first type of brothels are ‘hair salons’, which have a soft pink interior or florescent lighting.

While they may be fronted by the spinning barber poles and a few tables with scissors for effect, the dozen or so mini-skirt clad women inside of such places have little to do with a good haircut.

These places are usually hard core brothels, where sex can be found for as little as 15 to twenty US dollars.

Secondly are the ‘massage parlors’ that double as soft porn stops. While a good massage can be had, its the ‘extra service’ that many pay for. Manual stimulation or ‘yellow massages’ at these places, plus a massage, can be had for around 30US.

Thirdly, there are the KTV houses. Like the massage parlors, they can be legitimate and a front to find prostitutes.

In a KTV, the patrons enter a karaoke room and then the madame produces upwards of 100 women from which a man can choose.

He will pay from 30 to 100 US dollars for the girl to sit and drink with him, and then it is not uncommon for them to finish off the night at a hotel.

Next Week: Chinese Morality Wide Open – Bribery and Corruption

Originally published on

  • Drewhempel

    Thanks for this excellent expose and fascinating analysis.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for your comment Drew. I am always intrigued every time WC sends in his latest article about living in China…it really is a fascinating perspective into a world that none of us living in the West really ever get to see in its entirety.

  • jim

    WC, -1 for complete B.S article.

    There is no scientific proof that Confucius promote prostitution.   On the other hand, I can have fact that use against your theory.  For example, Asian Americans commit 1/4 many crimes of that of  white Americans and in general Asian Americans are follow even more “Confucius” philosophy than that of China.    I guess that it must be Judo-Christine value that cause White Americans commit 4 times as many crimes as Asian Americans.”In an online poll, over half of the respondents in China showed their approval of women selling their bodies or working as mistresses to pay for school.”Great.  Your base your assumption on the online poll.  Furthermore, I guess that you don’t understand the different between attitude and action.  If those women selling their bodies, they won’t able to get married and they will dishonor their family.

    Also, it is so easy to call all other immorality as outsider, classic mistake in Psychology called “Self-serving bias” .  For those of us visit Las Vegas or LA, I guess that we can call American full of moral decay.

  • Anonymous

    That’s kind of funny, for you to try to compare citizen crimes with the issue of human rights that WC is referring to. I mean, there’s simply no denying China’s poor record. The following is from the U.S. Dept of State:

    “The State Department’s 2009 Human Rights Practices and International Religious Freedom Reports noted China’s well-documented and continuing abuses of human rights in violation of internationally recognized norms, stemming both from the authorities’ intolerance of dissent and the inadequacy of legal safeguards for basic freedoms. Abuses peaked around three high-profile events in 2009: the 50th anniversary of the Tibetan uprising, the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square incident, and the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. Reported abuses have included arbitrary and lengthy incommunicado detention, extrajudicial killings, executions without due process, forced confessions, torture, and mistreatment of prisoners as well as severe restrictions on freedom of speech, the press, assembly, association, religion, privacy, worker rights, and coercive birth limitation. China continues the monitoring, harassment, intimidation, and arrest of journalists, Internet writers, defense lawyers, religious activists, and political dissidents. The activities of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), especially those relating to the rule of law and expansion of judicial review, continue to be restricted. The Chinese Government recognizes five official religions–Buddhism, Islam, Taoism, Catholicism, and Protestantism–and seeks to regulate religious groups and worship. Religious believers who seek to practice their faith outside of state-controlled religious venues and unregistered religious groups and spiritual movements are subject to intimidation, harassment, and detention. In 2010, the Secretary of State again designated China as a “Country of Particular Concern” under the International Religious Freedom Act for particularly severe violations of religious freedom.”

    Who are you trying to kid, Jim?

  • jim

    rdube02, you got to be kidding, right?

    Can you at least read my statement before copying and pasting US report on China.  What’s that do with anything.
    I am not argue about Chinese government’s crime and I am not defend their actions.

    However, WC is attacking Confucius value, which I find very offensive and appalling.   He is basically attacking Chinese value system which many of us in Asian community in the US shared.  He basically twist the piece that fits his thesis.

  • Anonymous

    I understand that – but I’m sure you could equally find things wrong with Christian beliefs in the U.S. and would feel justified in stating them? Consider this – many Americans would actually be appalled by Confucianism supporting the concept that suicide can be morally allowed in some cases. You know this is true – is it so hard to understand how some people would find this immoral?

    There is much to be said for self-sacrifice and living life for others and for the community – I can absolutely appreciate and admire those values that make up the Chinese culture and community. However, I do think that WC makes an important point – that maybe it may be some of the outdated concepts regarding “honor” that lead to many of the decisions and actions that the rest of the world view as “immoral”?

    Regardless of my opinion though, I do want to tell you that I realize a lot of this comes down to cultural differences and understanding how and why those cultural values and beliefs exist. So I do want you to know that I truly appreciate and highly value the fact that you’ve taken the time to share your opinions and perspective here. I think many readers will be better able to look at these articles from the perspective of the Chinese-American community – so thank you.

  • Not Jim

    Jim, even if WC attacked Confucius values (which I do not believe he has done), so what? Does he not have a right to express himself as such? Is this not one of the tenets of living in free America, that one can express one’s beliefs? 
    In addition, it would appear that he said
    “Are the teachings of Confucius being bastardized to suit the morals for the times?”
    which would not be considered an attack on Confucianism. Possibly you may wish to put away your poisoned tipped arrows and read more carefully before launching an attack.

    In addition, I fail to see the logic in this statement, “… I guess that you don’t understand the different between attitude and action.  If those women selling their bodies, they won’t able to get married and they will dishonor their family…”
    Are you arguing WC’s point or against it?

“The thing about the truth is, not a lot of people can handle it.” -Conor McGregor

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