A Critical Review OF Respect For Elders In East And South Asian Culture!

Respect for elders has been a fundamental value of Asian cultures and societies across time.

Respect For Elders In East Asia

The word “filial” or ‘xiao’ in Chinese literally means ‘respectful to the mother’. The concept first spread from China and was later inherited by other nations and territories within the Sinosphere.

During the first millennium CE, the philosophy of Confucianism became tied to this strong sense of respect for parents and ancestors, as well as monastic discipline. As a result, there were strict rules regarding filial piety that helped define gender roles, kinship relations, and community expectations at large. In East Asia, these ideals can still be seen today in many families who eat together every single day at family tables.

The ideal of the filial son or daughter, who remains dutiful to their parents throughout life, is so strong in Chinese culture that it permeated through other cultural norms as well. When writing about traditional wedding ceremonies in China, for example, one could find references made to the wife’s ‘three subordinations’– first to her parents, second to her husband, and third to her children. As marriage was initially an arrangement between two families rather than two individuals, this deference towards the mother-in-law’s household carried forward into many aspects of married life.

Compared with the rest of Asia and the Middle East where they were traditionally more widespread, filial piety is most likely a relatively recent phenomenon in South Asia.

Respect For Elders In South Asia

However, during the colonial period, British administrators were highly critical of this perceived subservience to their own parents. Publicly demeaning Asian men as “effeminate” and lackadaisical in taking care of their parents was an effective way for the English authorities to win over the hearts and minds of native populations. As a result, many Indians felt conflicted between their sense of obligation towards respecting their forefathers’ wishes and resentment at being treated like children by continued subjugation under foreign rule.

Frictions between these two perspectives are still evident today within India, where some groups continue to hold traditional norms that value respect for elders, while others have adopted Westernized notions that prioritize individual freedom and choice.

This tension is best exemplified in the common slogan “ Yayati nahin jaati ” (“Yayati [an ancient Indian king] does not belong to any category”). The phrase refers to a man who has enough wealth that he doesn’t need a caste or social group identity, and can thus behave however he wants without being tied down by social norms. In other words, you could say he’s a bachelor! However, this label should not be equated with someone from a middle-class background who graduates from an Ivy League university and becomes successful in their career.

There are always slight variations of context when referring to respecting or caring for one’s parents, but generally speaking, nearly all Asian cultures would agree that it is one of the most important virtues a child can embody.

But although it’s widely acknowledged and taught, there is an alarming trend of apathy towards the elderly population in Asia.

A Brief Critical Analysis

In China, for example, where filial piety was once a pillar of social stability, the one-child policy has led to a demographic time bomb. With people having historically large families and living closely with their immediate blood relatives, taking care of aging parents was simply considered “what you did”. However, as young couples today increasingly plan their families to be small enough for them to provide all the material comforts they want before settling down and growing older together (working double shifts while still finding time for hobbies), this sense of duty towards looking after grandparents is quickly disappearing.

This problem is exacerbated by the fact that many Asian societies are now rapidly transforming into technological hubs. With peer pressure to own all the latest gadgets and devices, young people often feel they owe their parents nothing more than financial support during old age. They believe it’s both realistic for them to live independently with a “live-in” maid, as well as mandatory for them to have the latest iPhone so they can video chat with mom and dad every week.

It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that in some big cities today, there is almost no sense of community left among the population. And without any shared values or belief systems, what do you really have left?

A major theme highlighted at this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos was the need to strengthen our communities. With more people growing lonely and isolated, developing greater concern for their well-being seems like common sense.

Not just that, but the rapidly aging global population is becoming a greater concern for countries across Asia. The United Nations reports that by 2050, one out of every five Japanese citizens will be aged 60 or older. Similarly, South Korea has seven times as many citizens over 80 today as it did 50 years ago. And while this may be seen as an opportunity for Japan to tap into its long-storied tradition of respect for elders to mediate social problems, the reality is these issues are only expected to increase due to economic downturns and a rapidly shrinking workforce.

In India, an aging population may add significant strain to the economy just as it’s trying to rebound from a slowdown, while in China, millions of seniors rely on their children for financial support, even if they have moved away from home. This is further complicated by changing family structures, with more single-parent or two-working parent families having difficulty making ends meet.

While many members of the older generation grew up being provided everything they needed by their children, this will no longer be possible in the future due to economic pressures resulting from lower birth rates. Even without changing family dynamics, social planners are already struggling to figure out how to provide a dignified retirement for all citizens because historically, the elderly have been able to rely on their children for financial support.

As Asian societies become more modernized, it is critical that we pay attention to the needs of our older generations and make sure they are treated with dignity and respect. This may be challenging in fast-paced cities where many young people feel disconnected from their own families, or vice versa. It will require a collective effort by everyone, but if not addressed properly it will lead to further social problems that simply cannot be ignored.



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