In the traditional Chinese family, the father is a stern figure. While the children might find genuine human affection with the mother, they feared the father’s watchfulness. The son, especially, was watched for correct expressions of concern, affection, and filial piety. He knew that to please his father he had to display that biaoxian (performance, expression, or attitude) appropriate to being a son. Furthermore, the son knew that not fulfilling these expectations would hurt the father, because it was through these expectations that the father expressed his concern for his son. Thus, doing a good job of playing the role or “game” of being the son was the key to the father’s approval, and since the father knew that the son knew this, and the son knew that the father knew this, there was consensus as to what constituted the success of their relationship. This Confucian, role-based morality had little place for what we value as sincerity. To be “sincere” was to do the best job of performing an outwardly “genuine” adherence to role-based standards of behavior, rather than what we see as the outward expression of an inner emotional reality.
Much has changed since the family was regulated in this way, but we still find much continuity in today’s China. Take, for example, the rush to get married to please the parents. Recent reports have exposed a market for “fake” boyfriends or girlfriends paid to accompany the son or daughter home for the Spring Festival, so as to show the parents progress in getting married. The child does this to alleviate the parents’ worry. The parents worry as an expression of parenthood. This expression of parenthood is considered love. We may personally know Chinese men or women in their thirties who have a plan to get married in the next year, mostly to please their parents. Ironically, they commit themselves to a lifelong partner, presumably based in part on the potential for love or matrimonial affection, because they love their parents and cannot bear to let their parents continue to worry about them.
Ideally, on this hypothetical trip home, the child and the boyfriend or girlfriend (whether fake or real) would try their best to show their happiness and suitability for marriage. This would put the parents’ hearts at ease and allow them to sleep peacefully at night. This need not be genuine. To the extent that the parents expect their child to show willingness to conform to their wishes, and the parents know that their child knows this, an entire vacation can be spent on this performance, with both the parents and the child knowing that this is a performance. The key is to have good biaoxian. This shows that the child cares about the parents’ wishes. The romantic pairing may in fact be an utter sham, but this does not at all mean that the effort to put forth a good performance is a sham, since time and energy has been expended for the sake of the parents. On the other hand, the romantic pairing could be genuine. No boyfriend or girlfriend has been “rented” in this case, and the two of them are truly in love and would be in love regardless of the parents’ wishes. Even if genuine, however, they are still locked in a game of expectations with the parents. The parents are likely to see their affections as a performance put on for them. Something genuine, in this case, is mistaken for something false, and the truth becomes a lie. In the extreme case, the question of whether their affections are true or false is completely irrelevant to parents who care most about filial biaoxian.
The radicals of the May 4th Movement decried the irrationalities and hypocrisies of Chinese society. Foot-binding, for example, was an evil, not only because it enslaved women, but because it was a sham. Progressive mothers did not, by the 20th century, truly believe in any ideological justification that would have them inflict what they suffered on their daughters, and patriotic fathers knew that foot-binding was backward and harmful to both their daughters and China. Yet it required the efforts of radicals to eradicate foot-binding, because the reality of its harm was less important to parents than the perception in good society that it distinguished the well-bred. Parents cared more about how others’ perceived the way they raised their daughters than they did about their daughters’ best interests. They packaged foot-binding as good for their daughters for public consumption, and a lie became the truth.
In the same way, we may ask whether today’s Chinese parents truly have their children’s best interests at heart. This is not a question of whether they think that marriage would be good for their children. This is rather a question of whether their children’s best interests are truly front and center in their considerations or they actually care more about their own peace of mind and that their children show appropriate concern for their well-being. What if the parents care more about good biaoxian than they care about their children getting married? Do they want marriage or obedience? And if it’s more obedience that they want, can it really be said that they have their children’s best interests at heart? In this tangled web of motivations, there is much potential for self-deception and hypocrisy on the part of parents. They may mistake their own interests for the interests of the child. Kant said that that the only standard of a morally good act is a good intention. If traditional society had given these parents the intellectual resources to cut through this mess, look into their hearts, and distinguish clearly between what they want for themselves and what they want for their children, they could better evaluate the purity of their intentions.
The above very specific focus on the issue of parent-child interactions in Chinese society generalizes to certain larger issues. First, hierarchical relations of all kinds in China, not just between parent and child, are characterized by a “checklist” of correct behaviors or biaoxian meant to convince the more powerful that they are respected. These need not reflect genuine feeling or belief. In the extreme case, both parties know that the checklist to which they ascribe is a sham, yet because correct behavior and attitudes in accordance with that checklist reaffirms the strength of that relationship, the sham still serves a useful purpose. Children thus make a show of respecting the parents’ wishes, while parents make a show of caring more about the children than themselves. Ordinary citizens thus make a show of respecting the CCP’s wishes, while the CCP makes a show of caring more about ordinary citizens than itself. Second, unlike in the West, the concept of “sincerity” in Chinese culture is characterized by the effort to act in accordance with a professed role relationship. Thus, the CCP says the U.S. is “insincere” when it sells arms to Taiwan because it violates its professed role of non-aggressor. (This is not to say that the U.S. is right, but that the CCP chooses to use this peculiar language, much like “hurting the feelings of the Chinese people.”) Finally, if Chinese continue to see the state as modeled on the family (father and son) and relations between states as also modeled on the family (elder brother and younger brother), we may then ask how the intermingling of truth and falsity inherent in biaoxian will influence how China deals with the world when it is global hegemon. Traditionally, tributary states like Korea and Vietnam made a show of acknowledging Chinese superiority by going through a checklist of attitudes appropriate to the inferior. This was in recognition of the magnanimity and professed concern of the Chinese state, which gave them tangible benefits in exchange only for the correct biaoxian. Will Westerners know the rules of the game and display the correct biaoxian? Will they know that they must pretend to acknowledge the moral goodness of China, just as China must pretend to care about the well-being of its inferiors? Will China have the clarity of mind to distinguish its own interests from those of its inferiors, or will it pursue its own interests “for the sake of others,” just as Chinese parents often force their own agenda “for the sake of their children?”