Media Portrayal of the Chinese Cultural Norm of Filial Piety in a Chinese Magazine Targeted at the Older Population

Curator's Note

Filial piety (i.e., Xiao) is a Chinese traditional belief that older adults should be respected and supported. At the micro level, filial piety is a family-oriented norm that encompasses behaviors varying from obeying and respecting parents and grandparents to providing physical care and final (what’s final support?) support for them. At the macro level, filial piety has a broader meaning: older adults have, by virtue of their age, a higher social status than young people.  Some analytical, filed, and empirical studies have indicated that as a result of the norm of filial piety, aging is seen as positive and older adults’ experiences and knowledge are valued.  Ethno- linguistic vitality theory suggests that demographics, status and institutional support indicators index a group’s strength in a society. Mass media is among various important societal institutions that support group vitality. Group portrayals in the media provide insight into whether the group (e.g., the older group) is valued or devalued in society. The three pictures are chosen from a Chinese magazine targeted at the older population -  Laotongzhi Zhiyou (Friend of Old Comrades).  


With a current circulation of 450, 000, this magazine is a national monthly magazine in China whose target audience is retirees as well as organizations and governmental departments engaged in work related to the elderly.  The first picture depicts an ideal grandchild and grandparent relationship in the Chinese context. Children at an early age are educated to be filial. In the picture, the grandson is handing a cup of tea to his grandfather (First scene: Gandpa, have a cup of tea). Grandpa, on the other hand smiles and responds “Do you want Grandpa to tell you a story? (Second scene: Do you want Grandpa to tell you a story). The grandson then says “ I will wash your feet for you” (Third Scene), to which the Grandpa replies, “What a great kid!!” replies the Grandpa. Altogether the three scenes portray a harmonious relationship between grandchild and grandparent in the Chinese cultural context – respect the old and love the young.


The second and third are advertisements taken from the same magazine. The central themes from the two magazine ads are filial piety – parents’ health is the children’s responsibility (second picture); older adults have status, experience and knowledge (third picture). In the second picture, the ad emphasizes that to be a filial child, you need to buy the oxygen maker for your parents (keep your parents at your heart all the time).  In the third picture, an older doctor is used as a major character to promote a particular type of medicine. In both pictures, the advertisers are taking advantage of the norm of filial piety to promote their products. Before I comment further on these ads, I would love to hear from everyone of you about these images of aging and their potential influence on viewers.



Very interesting, this notion of filial piety! These examples and your introduction make me very curious: How does this belief regarding older adults relate to other beliefs regarding older adults in Chinese culture? Is filial piety the dominant belief regarding older people? To what extent did you find this notion, and possibly other notions regarding older people, in Chinese media? Did you find differences between different Chinese media or genres? Did you study the influence of this belief on viewers or readers? Did you find this belief at all in U.S. media content? I look forward to hearing more about this topic!



Interresting questions. I have done some priliminary studies examining these issues. One of my survey studies indicated a positive association between endorsement of filial piety and positive perceptions of aging for both older and young participants (about 200 in each age group). Filiel piety was also found to be negatively asscoaited with endorsement of modernity (e.g., independence, self-interest, equality). I have also found in an interview study with Chinese young particpants that the value of filial piety can simultaneously be a facilitating and a hindering factor to intergenerational relations. Chinese young adults reported that they were very dissatisfied with some of the Chinese older adults' bossy and intrusive communication behaviors. In general, older adults are stronger proponents of filial piety than younger adults. On that regard, in a recent thematic analysis of aging on Taiwanese primetime televison, we found that Taiwanese older characters explicitly referenced their own death in conversations with young adults. First, older characters mentioned with regret that they were old and dying. Then, they asked for help to fulfill their dying wishes from younger characters, who were then shown agreeing to provide that help. The talk of aging on Taiwanese television reflected older characters’ negative views about age and aging processes, on one hand, but, on the other hand, showed them martialling those views strategically to impose their will on younger characters. Ironically, their declarations of powerlessness in the face of age and death promoted their power over younger characters, reinforcing the age hierarchy in the Taiwanese culture.

In general, older adults are portrayed in more positive light in television commercials than primetime television programs. However, frequenly, the positive images are linked to/referenced to negative stereotypes. I have found both similarities than differences in aging images between the U.S. and the Chinese media contexts. I have not done any systematic research examining the effects of such images. 



Yan Bing: 

Thank you for the insightful presentation. Filial piety has been such an influential cultural value in Chinese societies that it is seen in all facets of people's lives. Yan Bing asked an interesting question at the end of her post -- the impacts on the viewers. It will be interesting to show Chinese young people the first ad and a couple of others that also depict a harmonious intergenerational relationship and examine their perceptions. The finding may reflect their interpretation of filial piety in the modern time.

The second ad -- parents' health is children's responsibility. This ad may reflect another aspect of filial piety -- children should repay their parents' sacrifices for them by taking care of their aging parents. You should buy a new car so you can take your aging parents around, you should get a bigger house so you can have them stay with you and enjoy time with the grandchildren, you should buy nutritious supplement for them to show your appreciation and so on. Instead of targeting senior consumers, these ads are targeting the middle-aged children and translating values into purchasing behaviors. These ads appeal to adult children's identity needs, i.e., being a filial child. Similar ads in the US context may appeal to parents' identity needs, i.e., by getting X for parents, they can maintain their independent and health. Yan Bing, what do you think?

Very interesting discussion Yan Bing! I was also curious about Mei-Chen's observations about the target of the ad and the potential for different attributions and identity implications for the viewer. I am particularly interested in how image is used in these three texts from the ad. How do you think the associated meanings of filial piety and the different identity implications for the viewer are constructed in the positioning of the actors/characters in the image?  What might be some differences in the attributions made in the first two images (that situate a particular relationship via image of two people) and the third image (which situates a value via a single person and text).  How do you think the image of filial piety is promoted, reproduced, and (maybe) contested in magazines like Laotongzhi Zhiyou? Are there particular ways that filial piety is typically constructed visually in this magazine and others like it?

Melissa Aleman

I've always been fascinated by your work analyzing the actual cultural values revealed in advertising - and have not watched ads the same way since first being exposed to this!  The cultural parallels are intriguing, that is, the notion that health plays a prominent role in advertising regarding older adults AND that younger family members in the United States and in China are (partially) responsible for the health of their elders.  I'm also struck by the use of wisdom and storytelling as positive aspects of aging, but with the storytelling part of the first ad, I have a question.  Does the grandchild ignore this suggestion and possibly then dismissing this skill from the grandparent? I'm curious because other media images (the grandpa in The Simpsons comes to mind quickly) show older adults being dismissed on a regular basis.  How older adults are dismissed could be an interesting angle for some media research!

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