China Has A Morality Crisis

NAM, Commentary, Xujun Eberlein Posted: Jan 23, 2008

Editor's Note: As the rules of traditional morality in China melt, author Xujun Eberlein reports on pundits who say they know the reasons why. Some even pose solutions.

At the turn of the New Year, a woman’s name, “Hu Ziwei,” became a synonym for China’s widespread marital crisis.

Hu Ziwei’s husband, Zhang Bin, is a famous sports announcer. On Dec. 28, Zhang was hosting a press conference to announce the renaming of China’s Central TV “Sports Channel,” when Hu walked onto the stage, interrupting his speech. She took over Zhang’s microphone, and sobbed to the astounded audience, “I just learned two hours ago that Mr. Zhang Bin has kept an improper relationship with another woman.”

When Zhang and his staff tried to stop her, Hu struggled and kept saying, “The Olympics will be here next year, the whole world pays great attention to China, but without a proper value system, China is far from a great country.”

This short scene has since been broadcast on YouTube and viewed by over 400,000 people around the world, and the so-called “Hu Ziwei phenomenon” has made a big stir on the Chinese Internet.



On the pressroom incident itself, there is more criticism (“She lost China’s face!”) than sympathy for Hu. In a broader context, however, the incident has raised a new wave of concern about China’s moral crisis.

If it weren’t for their high-profile nature, Hu’s actions would not have become such a focus of public scrutiny. Nowadays, extramarital affairs are probably one of the most common things in China, among middle-aged urban men. As one of my Chinese friends commented, young couples at least have fresh love; what is left between two middle-aged people if morality and responsibility are no longer a concern?

Another friend was shocked when she went to China to visit her brother, an honest-to-goodness family man, and heard him confess, “Nowadays all men in China enjoy prostitutes whenever an opportunity is provided. It doesn’t matter how properly behaved they are otherwise.”

In China, the so-called “bao er-nai,” a man housing a mistress in a different location from his home, seems fashionable. Novels and stories are written about it, movies and TV programs show it, and whenever Chinese friends gather, it is one of the perennial topics of conversation.

The fashion has also infected Chinese families overseas. If a husband makes frequent business trips to China and the wife stays in the United States, we expect to hear a scandal sooner or later, and usually we are not wrong. Many of my friends consider their families lucky because both spouses work in the United States.

As recently as two decades ago, such broad-scale immorality had been considered only an American patent. When I, as a graduate student in the Chengdu Branch of Chinese Academy of Sciences, married an American man in 1988, the director of the Education Department of the institute advised me to leave him.

“American men are notoriously unfaithful. He will abandon you in no time,” the director had said. He would be disappointed to learn that my marriage is still intact today, while I hear an increasing number of extramarital scandals from my Chinese acquaintances.

Over 26 years the number of divorces in China has increased from 341,000 in 1980 to 1,913,000 in 2006. The ratio of divorces to marriages has risen nearly seven-fold from 3 percent to 20 percent over the same time period.

It is no surprise that one of the most popular TV shows in recent years is “China Style Divorce.” No national figures can be found on the cause of divorce, but according to a report on China’s official media website, 60 percent of divorces in the city of Hangzhou were caused by extramarital affairs in 2001.

China’s moral crisis exists not only in marriage, but also in business practices. A representative case is the so-called “dark-heart milk powder” incident. In April 2004, the media exposed an infant food business in Anhui Province that had been selling counterfeit milk powder causing the deaths of 13 babies and permanent illness in 171 others. The incident enraged the entire nation, but unfortunately it was not an isolated case.

The Chinese expression “quede,” meaning “short of morality,” used to be one of the most vicious insults in verbal arguments. Nowadays, the expression seems to have lost its admonishing power and has simply become a portrait of reality. Last year, a Chinese blogger cyber-named “David” attempted to analyze this. In his widely read article “Why have Chinese become ‘quede’ now?” he lists a few representative views on the Chinese moral sphere: all citizens worship money; no more baselines exist for minimal morality; today is the worst time of moral degeneration in China’s history; China should return to its traditional values.

“David” has his own ideas on the reasons behind the moral degeneration: while China imports the Western-style market economy, it fails to establish corresponding ethics, and the traditional Chinese moral principles no longer apply in the completely new economy. He recommends Adam Smith’s “The Theory of Moral Sentiments,” but fails to suggest how to carry out such a theory.

An influential contemporary Confucian, Jiang Qing, has a more appealing proposal. To him the essential problem is the lack of state ideology and a corresponding political system. Since the Cultural Revolution led to the self-destruction of Communism, that once ideological monopoly has lost its past aureole, and common Chinese have been unable to find the ultimate meaning and value for their individual lives.

“The problem isn’t that people don’t follow moral standards; the problem is that there no longer exist moral standards,” says Jiang Qing. He attributes the loss of morality to five decades of atrophy under Communist political power, plus two decades of corrosion under the money and wealth brought by the Western market economy.

After many years of research and various attempts at commitment to promising ideologies, including Christianity and Buddhism, Jiang Qing concludes that Confucianism is the only ideological solution for Chinese people. He and his followers are pushing to restore Confucianism as China’s state ideology. There are signs that China’s national leaders are also increasingly promoting Confucianism, albeit for considerations different from Jiang Qing’s. How far the government is willing to go in this direction remains a big question.

But for rekindled Confucianism to flourish in modern China, Jiang Qing will have to address its male-dominant bias. A Confucius’ admonition that “among the three unfilial offenses, to not have a son is the biggest one” provided a rationale behind the feudal-time concubine tradition.

Xujun Eberlein writes for NAM and her story collection, "Apologies Forthcoming," to be published in May is available for pre-order on Amazon.com


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Xujun Eberlein on Jan 29, 2008 at 09:46:37 said:

Haaris, thanks for reading and commenting. Actually my upcoming book has nothing to do with this topic. At the risk of oversimplification, my story collection centers around the lasting impact of China's Cultural Revolution. (And thanks for giving me the chance to say this.)


Haaris Baig on Jan 28, 2008 at 22:35:17 said:

The author makes some good points in the article. I wonder if the real motive is to promote the upcoming book.


Xujun Eberlein on Jan 28, 2008 at 06:51:48 said:

Thank you, Y A Li. You are right that it was another great Confucian, Mencius (372-289 BC) who said "to not have a son is the biggest unfilial offense." I stand corrected. But Mencius was only about 200 years later than Confucius, not 2000 years.


Y A Li on Jan 25, 2008 at 22:40:55 said:

China's male bias does not originate from Confucius. He never taught, nor said, "not having a son (is the number one unfilial offense". That idea came some 2000 years later with neo-Confucians who also promoted bound feet. As an agrarian society depending on manual labour the more muscular sons are valued. Nevertheless, China now has a high number of women in leading government positions.

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