Column Date 2006-05-04

Mother's Day, improved in China

Once again, the Chinese have outdone us.

Bad enough that my video camera, my computer mouse, and even my new workout shorts all come from China, now they’re even showing us how to treat our mothers.

Think about it: in America, Mother’s Day comes once a year. The fancy restaurants are filled at brunch, the Hallmark cards have vanished from the stores, and the florists are scurrying around with last-minute deliveries.

Then, as suddenly as it all started, it’s gone for another year.

But not in China.

Filial piety is a centuries-old Chinese duty – a sacred duty, in fact (assuming, of course, that there are still things sacred in a communist society). It’s something you ought to do every day of the year.

And if you don’t, there can be serious consequences – the government can bring you to trial and you might wind up in prison for five years.

“Children should want to help their parents,” Liu Shiwang, a Communist Party Secretary in Hebei province, told the Los Angeles Times. “After all, they don’t spring from rocks.”

(To help get you in the mood, you can turn on state-run Chinese TV and watch shows like “Nine Daughters At Home,” and “My Old Parents.”)

Then there are books filled with classic stories of Chinese sons’ duty to their mothers (and fathers, too, by the way) – stories that are repeated, over and over again, to each new generation.

During the 4th century, one story goes, an eight-year-old boy named Wu Meng lived with his extremely poor family. How poor? Well, so poor that they couldn’t even afford a gauze mosquito net. So when clouds of mosquitoes descended on the family in the summer months, Wu Meng took off his shirt and let them swarm around his stomach to keep them away from his mother.

Not to mention the story of Lao Lai-tzu, a 70-year-old man who lived during the Chou Dynasty. To amuse his elderly parents, he wore brightly colored clothing and acted like an infant in front of them – falling down, spilling water, crying like a little child. Anything to get them laughing. (Today, I think we’d immediately call a therapist, but this was back around the 5th century.)

It seems that all older people in China, not just mothers, command great respect.

While we Americans race around madly in our search for eternal youth, while we gather and process enormous amounts of data and try to keep up with the “information revolution,” the Chinese think their elders are imbued with something called “wisdom.”

It’s a word you rarely see in the papers these days, and you certainly won’t hear it on TV, but wisdom is something that seems to happen when a person accumulates a bit of age, a bit of mileage, and some of the scars that everyone picks up going through life.

I think the Chinese are on to something. But you don’t have to believe me.

Ask your mother.

©2006 Peter Tannen