Is there a moral vacuum in modern China? It’s easy to wonder in a country where, during Chinese New Year, the most common greeting is “æå–œå‘è´¢” (congratulations on getting rich).
While perhaps what Ted Koppel has dubbed the “People’s Republic of Capitalism“, and its fixation on wealth accumulation, may have a hand in it, this explanation seems far too simplistic for such a large country with 1.3 billion and plenty of diversity behind it.
I should know, as my Chinese husband studied moral psychology in graduate school at Shanghai Normal University. According to his studies, values are influenced by our family environment and our upbringing, and the record is not good for Chinese families, even those from well to do families. One of his favorite books, titled æ•™å¸ˆä¸Žå®¶åºæ•™è‚² (Teacher and Family Education) listed common errors in parenting among Chinese families. At the top of the list was this one:
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Value children’s physical well-being, ignore their psychological well-being.
I have seen this reality play out time and time again in many Chinese families, including my own inlaws back in China, who seem to believe that it’s simply enough to feed, clothe and house their children. This is how many Chinese families show their love, and fulfill their duty to their household. But it’s often not enough.
My husband used to work with inner-city Chinese immigrant families in Cleveland, Ohio, and he saw the result of this error in action. These parents, usually high-school (or less) educated people from Guangdong, would keep their children well-fed and well-dressed, even buying them the latest shoes that they could barely afford on their meager salaries from restaurant or factory work. But the children were completely unsocialized and lacked any sense of morality. Many of them ended up dropping out of high school and becoming delinquent.Â Sure, it didn’t help that the kids were attending inner-city schools, but ultimately, if the parenting is proper, it can help to counteract these effects.
One could argue that this is a trend that came along in the age of the iPhone and BMW in a new, modern China. But the thing is, Pearl S. Buck wrote about this more than 60 years ago in a book titled The Pavillion of Women.
Madame Wu, a beauty even in middle age, is the perfect Chinese matron and head of household. She is conscientious about the Confucian hierarchy of every member of the family, giving appropriate obeisances to her husband’s mother, and making sure that her four sons and their wives are always afforded the housing and resources befitting their positions in life. She, too, understands the importance of fulfilling her duty to her household and her husband — so much so that, at the age of 40, she realizes that one duty (sleeping with her husband when he so demands it) could have such embarrassing circumstances (getting pregnant) that she decides to arrange for the perfect concubine for him, against his will, and even the will of the family.
No one understands, especially not her friend Madame Kang, whom she grew up with, and with whom Madame Wu shares a certain friendship of convenience. Madame Kang, unlike Madame Wu, is not attractive, and, with eleven children and their thirteen grandchildren (the small ones are allowed to urinate and defecate freely about the house, to the displeasure of Madame Wu on her visits), presides over a home without the peace of Madame Wu’s, even despite Madame Wu’s decision. When Madame Kang needs peace because of her visitor, once she bribes the children with an offer to have the maids and nurses buy them unshelled peanuts.
Buying an orphan girl, Chiuming, to lay with her husband truly turns Madame Wu’s house upside down. When the girl arrives, Madame Wu’s third son Fengmo accidentally sees her, and she falls in love with him, prompting a hasty and tumultuous union between him and Madame Kang’s daughter Linyi to help bury the incident. Chiuming feels unhappy in Mr. Wu’s bed, and even Mr. Wu, after she becomes pregnant, turns from her to instead find the easy, breezy pleasure of the flower house girls. Madame Wu must even endure complaints from Rulan (the wife of her second son Tsemo), who continues the harbor the belief that Madame Wu hates her for her modern ideas of educating women and having an equal partnership in marriage, as well as being older than Tsemo and older than the first son’s wife (embarrassing for the hierarchy of things).
It is Brother Andre, the priest who she engages to teach English to young Fengmo, in an effort to make him more marriagable, and later his wife Linyi, that finally sheds light on the error of Madame Wu’s ways — that she never considered the psychological and spiritual well-being of her family. It could easily have been a page from the Teachers and Family Education book of my husband’s. Brother Andre says:
“You have no considered that man is not entirely flesh….You have treated him with contempt.”
“You have considered only the filling of his stomach and the softness of his bed….And even worse than this, you have bought a young woman as you would buy a pound of pork. But a woman, any woman, is more than that, and of all women you should know it.”
Ultimately, there is more to running a family then simply providing for the basic needs, as many Chinese families do — there needs to be something much more. In the end, Madame Wu makes a stunning transformation, and discovers that duty is much more than feeding, clothing, housing and mating her family members.
Her own transformation restores peace and unity in the household, and provides Madame Wu with the greatest freedom of all.
Clearly, the issues of family education are nothing new in China, as Buck’s novel will attest to. But confronting them may be the key to making social transformation in China — and going beyond the “getting rich is glorious” emptiness of modern life in the Middle Kingdom.