revising the classics, or confucius encounters neoliberalism

Shenzhen parents worry about education — it’s quality, content, methods, and test results. Indeed, I have yet to meet a parent unwilling to spend several hours discussing their child’s education, while activists raise social problems in terms of education.

I have recently received a revisinist version of the childhood classic, “Kong Rong Shares a Pear“. The rewrite is fun and illustrates one of the ways in which the United States (as a symbol) has been put to work in contemporary Chinese debates about the contradiction between a society that values an integrated whole at the expense of individual desire and a society that values individual desire at the expense of social integration.

Kong Rong Shares a Pear

For thousands of years, the moral tale of “Kong Rong Shares His Pear” has been told, becoming the standard for parents who want to teach their children manners. But how do American kids think about this story? Below is a transcript from a class of American students who are studying Chinese. The students range from 8-12 years old.

Teacher: When he was young, Kong Rong was an exceptionally bright student. When he was four, he could already recite many poems. He was polite and courteous. One day, his father’s friend brought a box of pears to the family. His father asked Kong Rong to share the pears with his brothers. Kong Rong took the smallest pear for himself, and the shared the pears based on age rank, giving the largest pear to the oldest, the second largest pear to the second oldest and so on. As he distributed the pears he said, ” I’m the youngest, so I should eat the smallest pear.” His proud father heard him and asked, “But you’re older than your baby brother. Why didn’t you give him the smallest pear?” Kong Rong said, “I am older than him, so I should give it to him.”

What do you think of this story?

Student: Why did the father’s friend give the Kong family pears?

Teacher: they were a gift.

Student: If it was a gift, then all the pears would be good. Why were there obviously big pears and small pears? Why weren’t they all the same size?

Teacher: Ahhh…

Student: Now, if there were big pears and little pears, why did the father put all that responsibility on a four year old’s shoulders? What would have happened if Kong Rong had made a mistake? Would the father have taken back the pears and distributed them correctly?

Teacher: Ahhh…

Student: Why did everyone have to eat a pear? Couldn’t alone leave the pears and let those who wanted a pear choose for themselves?

Teacher: That might have been unfair.

Student: But Kong Rong didn’t necessarily distribute the pears in a just manner. All the brothers had to accept whatever pear Kong Rong decided to give them. Their right to choose was violated. The brother who received the largest pear might have been the brother who hated pears.

Teacher: That’s correct. This story is based on the premise that everyone likes pears.

Student: Why did Kong Rong give pears to the oldest first? If he was going to use age rank, why not start with the youngest?

Teacher: He was being polite.

Student: But after he took the smallest for himself, he didn’t give anyone else a chance to be polite. Why didn’t he give anyone else a opportunity to share pears?

Teacher: So what do you think about Kong Rong?

Student: I don’t like him. What he did wasn’t fair to others, taking away their right to choose and their chance to be polite. Kong Rong isn’t sincere.

Teacher: Why?

Student: This matter is internally contradictory. What if Kong Rong didn’t like pears, so he chose the smallest for himself? Nevertheless, his behavior earned praise? This is hypocritical. On the other hand, if he really liked pears, he should have said so. Otherwise, giving the biggest pears away wouldn’t have made him happy. When we like something we should bravely say so.

I also didn’t like his father.

Teacher: Why not?

Student: He didn’t take responsibility and asked a four year old to do something he couldn’t do. Also, he had no standards, he praised Kong Rong for being polite, but we’ve already seen that Kong Rong was disinterested in sharing the pears.

Teacher: Ahh…

Student: This was a bad story. It encourages subjective standards and praises one for violating democratic rights. This kind of twisted logic story praises a child for developing unhealthy psychology.

Teacher: So what do you think Kong Rong should have done?

Student: Put the pears on the table and let people who wanted to eat pears take what they wanted.

Postscript: From the perspective of an American student, a Confucian classic becomes a tale of twisted psychological motivations. Where do you think the problem lies?

可怜天下父母心: generation 80 and 90 go abroad

I tend to think that middle class Chinese parents have it good. Grandparents take care of young children, elementary school children go to school and can generally be pressured into doing several hours of homework a night, and older children hang out with their parents, not only out of respect, but also because they acknowledge that being with children makes parents happy. In fact, a visit to any park or mall, or even an ordinary bus commute suggests how well behaved Chinese infants are. One or two fuss, but most sit calmly on their grandparents’ laps or play with a water bottle. School age children get themselves to and from campus, attend cram sessions, and organize their homework.

Even after graduating from college, middle class children take care of their parents’ well-being. I know more than one member of Generation 80, for example, who returns home for weekly meals. Working Chinese children also arrange for their parents and parental-in laws to live with or near them in order to attend to parental needs. So common is the assumption of parental care that throughout Shenzhen, hospitals and shopping malls market themselves as places where children can express care for parents — arranging a mother’s dental appointment or family dinner, for example. Certainly, facilitating migrant remittances from Shenzhen to neidi and family network phone plans are huge sections of the financial and service industries. In other words, my experience has shown me the extent to which middle class Chinese children — even members of Generation 80 and 90 —  remain remarkably filial. Or certainly seem so when compared with their age cohorts in the United States.

I realize that mine is a minority position. Commentators in both China and the West have focused on how China’s middle-class parents work exceedingly hard to provide the material conditions for their only child to live well. These parents sacrifice all sorts of ambitions and desires so that their child can go a famous university. They also point out that since promulgation in 1980, China’s one-child policy has produced not a few “little Emperors (小皇帝)”, who in common English are simply “spoilt brats”. Now it may be that when two sets of grandparents and often a nanny orbit the lone descendent, some children become unreasonable. But not all. And certainly not the majority, who study hours as long or longer than their parents work to achieve academic results that will make their elders proud. Indeed, I am still impressed by the number of young Chinese people who make their parents’ dreams (rather than their own) their lodestar.

As I have begun to gather stories about generations 80 and 90 abroad, however, my perspective has shifted. I am beginning to realize the extent to which their parents have made these young people their life’s purpose. It is not simply that middle class parents bask in the glory of their child’s accomplishments, but also and more importantly, that they have crafted lives out of raising this child. These parents often confuse high grades with success and low grades with failure, or interpret independent thinking as “rebellion” and “intransigence”. Nevertheless, once their child successfully matriculates in an overseas high school or college, these parents suffer acute ” empty nest” syndrome, as we call it in the States not only because they realize that they will no longer be able to direct their children’s development, but also because they finally understand, no matter what and how they dream for their child, ultimately they cannot give their child a smooth and carefree life.

Yesterday, I helped a mother read and understand US insurance documents. Her daughter is in California and was in a car accident. The other party has filed for damages, and the daughter’s insurance company has begun to negotiate with the claimant’s lawyer. Ironically, the mother sold her own car so that the daughter could purchase a car, which she explained, “is more necessary in California than Shenzhen.” The daughter whose English is fine, but not strong enough to feel confident about her understanding of documents in legal English sent her mother digital copies, asking for guidance. The mother does not read English and used half a day to find a connection to me to make an appointment. After I explained the content to her, we came up with a plan of action and contacted the daughter, who is no doubt figuring out what needs to be done and doing it. Her mother, however, is in Shenzhen managing the anxiety of helplessness; she deeply wants to help her daughter, but cannot.

All this to say that am hearing the expression “take pity on the hearts of the world’s parents (可怜天下父母心)” differently, and perhaps more accurately. I used to hear it as spoilt parent moaning about a child’s attempt to establish a bit of independence. Today, I am better able to pity parents, not because their child received poor grades or has a stubborn streak, but rather because they would do anything to make their child’s life smooth and happy. Of course, that is precisely what they cannot do, and so they suffer.

Interesting cultural postscript: in Chinese, empty nests refer to lonely grandparents and the phrase “empty nester” is translated as 孤寡老人. Thus, when their children go and remain abroad, Chinese parents not only become empty nesters in the US sense of “children have moved out”, but also potentially in the Chinese sense of “old person without a grandchild”.