Filial Piety and its Discontents Variation in Evaluating Adult Children as “Filial” by Older Parents in Rural China

Filial piety—the Confucian dictate that children should provide care, support, respect, and obedience to their older parents—is a fundamental, normative expectation in East Asian societies. In this presentation, I examine variation in perceptions of filial piety of adult children by their older parents in rural China, focusing on the impact of co-residence and migration status and the compensatory behaviours of more distant children that mitigate assessments of them as less than “filial”. The data source is the 2021 wave of the Longitudinal Study of Older Adults in Anhui Province, China, which includes 1,489 parents aged 60 and older and their relationships with 3,934 adult children. Parents provided information about each child in terms of demographic characteristics, intergenerational exchanges, and the degree to which the child is perceived as being “filial”. Results affirm the importance of instrumental support and particularly monetary support in enhancing assessments of filial piety of more distant children relative to co-resident children. Parents with stronger normative expectations held their more distant children to a higher standard for being filial. Finally, functional impairment caused more distant children to be evaluated as less filial, ostensibly because those children were in a weaker position to respond to their parent’s elevated support needs. Overall, the results speak to the adaptable nature of filial piety when family change and migration put pressure on younger generations, which, in highly dynamic rural China, is causing concern about the viability of intergenerational support for older parents.

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