Many challenges in life come from the fact that people have ‘dignity’. In Maslow’s theory of needs, where needs come in five stages, dignity holds the fourth position; but obviously, the theory should not be understood as mechanical and arbitrary. But once a person’s basic physiological needs are met, together with their need for security and their social needs, if they have no need for dignity, then we’re not dealing with a ‘person’ – we can’t even call them an ‘animal’.
In the civil theories of modern civilisation, the first ranking concept is that of independant personality, and it may have to do with the importance that people attach to dignity.
People’s existence is not just a physical existence, it is also a spiritual existence. In relation to the spirit, people feel their physical existence more easily, but the difference between people and animals lies in that people don’t only experience things passively, but actively develop a spiritual world. 善于抽象思维的人们已经抽象出人的本质，建立起人与人的平等观念。I have to say, if you don’t understand people’s spiritual existence, you cannot understand the concept of equality between people. 某种程度上， 平均主义、均富思想就是忽视人的精神存在或者说偏重人的肉体存在的结果。
From chats with my friends these days, I’ve come to think that most young people in contemporary China live a broader and richer life than before, but I’m not sure that their happiness is higher than that of kids in the 80s and 90s. There is a very oppressive and unhappy aspect to their life, and that is the great difficulty of getting away from beneath the shadow of the previous generation.
Although the late 20th century was an era of important change for mainland China, there was still a great gap with the degree of openness and awakening we can see today. However, young people at that time could only rarely expect material support from the previous generation, and we of that generation basically started our life and our initiatives in extreme poverty. Many young people from my generation had feelings of guilt towards our parents: our parents had brought us up in a very difficult and unfortunate time; we were witness to their suffering, and so when we began to taste what rich life was like, we would always think of our parents’ hardships, and this would diminish our pleasure. However, in our projects and the conduct of our life, improving the life of our parents gave us a great sense of accomplishment and partially compensated for the guilt we felt towards our parents.
Our feelings of guilt towards our parents, for the larger part, are not normal, because not only should we not bear responsibility for the difficulties of that period when we were just children, but we were even among its victims. When I was a child, I once impulsively told my father: “You deserve it. Who told you to have me? You had me, and now you have to bring me up.” But I was never really relieved of that way of thinking, that I added to the burden of our parents with my own life, until several years later, when my sense of self had grown. Although we’re used to either regarding ourselves as a burden to others, or of others as a burden to ourselves, still, in those circumstances, we had to learn to rely on ourselves, and not expect anything from our parents: this partly helped us make our own decisions and be responsible for our own choices and decisions. Our independence is self-evident, and not forced by circumstances.
The young people of today are growing up in an environment very different from that of our generation. I admit that my understanding and observation of this generation of young people is very narrow and limited; however, overall, they ‘owe’ their parents more than my generation did because most of them are only children. Some parents put enormous amounts of energy into their children; many parents spend enormous amounts of money; they give their children everything they think is best, and some parents, after spending most of their savings on their daughter who studied overseas and, after graduation, married a Westerner and stayed over, sighed: “Life and wealth are both gone.” The social security system in mainland China is still far from perfect, pensioners still largely rely on their children and grand-children, and can’t fully expect anything from the social security system. Our generation, compared with those before, enjoyed limited freedom from the government, and if you add to that the previous abject poverty of all, whether at a personal or collective level, our wealth, in different ways, grew significantly, and we’re in a relatively favorable position to ensure pensions for our parents. But today’s young people, objectively, expect to have great difficulties taking care of their ageing parents.
My intention here is not to discuss China’s pension system; what I want to say is that the social environment has influenced the younger generation as they grew up. In the past few years, the press often reported on the phenomenon of “eating off the old”, and this also reflects the phenomenon of a younger generation which can’t be independent.
People are born with dignity. As people grow up, they naturally will demand independence. And so, why are some children still “eating off the old” after growing up? There are two sets of reasons for it. As we say, you can’t clap with one hand, and so there are reasons on the side of the giver, and reasons on the side of the receiver. There are some parents who, as their children grow up, cannot give them enough recognition and trust, interfere with them too much, and do not establish clear boundaries, which is actually the main reason why the children cannot become independent.
In Chinese style parenting, often, as the child is growing up, parents are either overly protective or negligent in their care and guidance, which limits the development of the child’s abilities, and so when the child has become an adult, they think that their child should have naturally developed these abilities they restricted and suppressed when the child was developing. In families where “biting the old” occurs, of course, harm is done to those bitten, but in fact, those who do the biting might suffer even more injuries and losses, which is not being independent, lacking self-esteem, and for that reason suffering from depression, fear and anxiety.
According to the philosophy of modern civilisation, it is the duty of parents to take care of their children while they grow up, and children should not feel indebted to their parents for that, but once the children are grown up, they must assume their responsibilities including their personal, family and social obligations. These are not imposed obligations, but rather part of a healthy personality. Mainland China is still a pre-modern society; the boundaries between parents and children are not clear, and when children are young, parents often overstep the boundary. When the child becomes an adult, parents are still unable to establish the necessary boundaries, so that they all overstep each other’s boundaries. This directly affects the possibility for children to develop an independent personality.
Some parents feel wronged: they think they have paid a lot, and are not getting an adequate return. But if you can move away from the “they’re self-centered” way of thinking, and are able to see things from the child’s perspective, isn’t it possible that the following situation exists: parents who give without taking the child’s feelings into account cause the child to become overwhelmed, weak, or ungrateful in order to avoid a sense of guilt?
In a talk about giving and receiving, I once mentioned that one way giving or receiving was imbalance, and this often leads to the recipient lacking dignity, and to compensate for this feeling of losing dignity, they may consciously or unconsciously treat what they receive as a due, and even think that the giver owes it to them, and so they will not only accept what is given to them as a matter of course, but even bear resentment towards the giver, in order to no longer feel that loss of dignity. Probably because of this insight about human nature, people have replaced one-way giving with mutual aid charity systems, thereby avoiding the shortcomings of human nature, and putting humanity’s spiritual part into play.
Between parents who are happy to sacrifice and children who are happy to or forced to accept this sacrifice, the relationship becomes unbalanced. Children who get used to receiving the sacrifice of their parents, will end up easily losing their sense of responsibility, and even in society, they will become ungrateful people used to making demands and never paying for them; but to the extent that children are forced to receive the sacrifices of their parents, they will be submitted to a lot of pressure, and will live in the shadow of their parents for the long term, and easily develop low self-esteem, inertia and dependence. No matter how it manifests itself, this relationship is not conducive to the establishment of a healthy and independent personality. Although it looks like the children take a short cut by relying on their parents, in the long term, because of their vulnerability and low self-esteem, they will find it difficult to face the inevitable difficulties and setbacks of life alone.
I sometimes admire women who become mothers. I admire their tenacity and self-confidence, and this kind of invincible spirit and perseverance they show towards their children. But there seem to be both benefits and shortcomings to it: they are often over confident and almost arrogant; they are not only convinced that they are in the right, but they often feel obliged to act as the child’s guiding light. At first, it undoubtedly constitutes a safe zone for minor children, it helps them build a sense of self-confidence and security in the face of a strange world, but later, it hinders the child’s independence so that they become weak and indecisive, or it makes for rebellious and obstinate children, and leads to a growing gap between mother and child, which can eventually lead to a lifetime of blocked communication.
Self-sacrifice no doubt reflects the spiritual part of humanity, but properly restraining passions is probably more important. Our generation is perhaps more fortunate than those before and after, and this will easily fuel our pride; looking at the world objectively, we should feel gratitude, but also display some humility. The next generation will probably go beyond some of our limitations, and we must stand behind them, rather than stand in their way, and become an obstacle in their life, preventing them from going their own way, and creating their own life.
What parents give their children has a strong influence on them, and often what has the most influence is not material wealth, but concepts and values. Humanity tends to more easily accept the most advanced tools and technology, but when it comes to new ideas that differ from traditional ethics, reactions are often very inconsistent. And generation after generation, the wrong ideas of the past have blocked the progress of civilisation in China, one of the world’s oldest and most populous nations. At least our generation should, while fully acknowledging traditional values, interrupt the intergenerational transmission of misconceptions, and among those, the traditional ethical concepts that hinder the development of an independent and healthy personality.