As the year draws to a close, returning home has become a large collective act of filial piety for contemporary China, but the state of empty nests and abandoned villages has also become a topic which the media and society can’t avoid. Is it the height of filial piety that old people come live with their sons and daughters in the city? And is it lack of care if young people let the elderly live alone in the country?
Two days ago, based on my own experience, I recorded how my parents refused to move house: this was not to expose my private life online or something, but this seemingly trivial anecdote captured some of my thinking about the question of age care and rural areas. In the current state of universal ’empty nesting’ and ‘abandoned homes’ in rural areas, how will elderly people living in the villages be taken care of? How can children and grand-children behave with filial piety? This is a real problem which we cannot ignore.
The growing problem of rural children left behind and protecting the rights of women in rural areas has already attracted awareness and discussion from the media and society, although they have not been solved. But the white-haired ‘old people left behind’ from the families of migrant workers, their fatigue, difficulties, suffering and loneliness remain far from the concerns of our society.
After I published this post, a friend saw it, and immediately denounced my position as lack of filial piety from the children and grand-children: leaving your elderly parents alone in the old house while you live in a high-rise building, isn’t that heartless? Another friend had an even more intense reaction, saying even the sheep have the grace to kneel down. To say the truth, facing these criticism, not only did I not feel angry, but I even felt a kind of warmth.
From the parents’ perspective, to see your children and grand-children kneeling around you, and enjoying their company, who wouldn’t want that? And from the children and grand-children’s perspective, to hand out soup and water and demonstrate filial piety should be the duty of everyone. But the problem is, these traditional virtues of the Chinese nations, with social change, have become just memories.
When we open the book of the children left behind, the front page says that the parents heading for the big city think a lot about the grand-parents, and when we enter the construction sites of the big cities, we hear a lot of ‘filial piety’ laments. The old people who find it hard to leave the village on one side tell their sons and daughters to go out and make more money, to not make them lose face, while on the other side they secretely brush the tears off their face, hiding unexpressible bitterness in their hearts.
If we say that the fist generation of migrant workers who went to the cities to make money in the nineties did so to later return home and take care of the elderly, with the first decade of the twenty first century, the new wave of migrant workers no longer go to the city to supplement their income, but because they do not want to be bound any more to their ancestral plot of land. This profound social transformation has caused intense tremors and shocks to existing family, relatives and village structures. It has also had an enormous impact on the traditional ‘four generations under a roof’ model, and on the family ethics of filial piety.
As more and more young people leave, they also leave behind them increasingly barren and depressed homes. 在这令人盲然的历史交集时刻，乡村传统的家庭赡养模式已被无情的颠覆，原有的代际互动和情感链接已经在慢慢的断裂。那些留守老人所面对和承受的是一种怎样的生存状态？Helpless sons and daughters will push the burden of caring for their parents onto society, but in a highly centralised and 欺上瞒下 form of government system, we only see natural villages, but we do not see a fair and just society.
As for the left behind children and women, along with the improvement of living conditions and social developments, the choice to leave the village may not be bad; but as regards the left behind elderly, without even considering the emotional difficulty of leaving their homeland, the new conditions may simply not suit their living habits and modes of behaviour, and it may be tantamount to imprisoning them inside another cage. Many sons and daughters who bring their parents to the city don’t do so out of filial piety, but because it brings the household a free nanny.
Their lack of adaptation to city life, and the embarrassing reality of village life, this is not a problem that can be easily solved through care and filial piety. Some people say that the problem of elderly people left behind in the villages has no solution, it’s the necessary price to pay for industrialisation and urbanisation. If that is the case, then this generation experiencing social transition will, for all their lifetime, bear the heavy weight of guilt and repentance in confront to their family.
Actually, elderly people in rural areas are restless, labouring is their destiny, and a way for them to enjoy their old age. Respecting the wishes of parents, and not being bound by customs and bias, brings far more happiness than all living under the same roof. After all, compared to the ’empty homes’, the problem of old people’s ’empty hearts’ is far more pressing.