It’s always a tricky business to assign cultural characteristics to nations. Apart from regional differences, and the general spread of traits you’ll get in any large group of people, there’s the fact that far more unites as human beings than divides us.
And so all nations imagine themselves to be uniquely tolerant, pragmatic, good-humored, and courteous – because who likes to think of themselves otherwise? However I will venture one observation about the people of China which I believe to be true: that they dote on their children like no other nation I have encountered.
Perhaps it’s something to do with the one-child policy. Only children all round the world are thought of as being more fussed over and adored (and as both a parent and a second child, I can testify to the more relaxed attitude that comes with offspring number two). It might also be due to the greater expectation that your children will look after you in your old age. Where westerners would save for their pension, a Chinese parent might invest in their kids, trusting that they’ll be rewarded in years to come.
Whatever the reason, small children in particular are treated with such lavish kindness that I was shocked beyond words to see a man hitting his child on the subway.
I’d noticed the man earlier because I’d given up my seat to him, and after some face-saving refusals he accepted that managing a suitcase and a boy of around 2 was going to be a lot easier if he sat down.
After a while though the boy began to wriggle, as 2 year olds will. The father (I can only assume he was the boy’s father) cajoled, then shouted, and finally spanked the boy quite hard.
The blows only made the boy howl, and they entered a vicious circle in which the father became more embarrassed, so he became more angry, shouting and hitting his son, who was hurt and frightened, and just made more noise.
Like everyone else I was staring at the floor trying not to look. I had no idea what the law and cultural norms are in China when it comes to corporal punishment, and I was relieved when a dama finally spoke up. My Mandarin is notoriously poor, but it was not hard to follow the conversation which followed.
“Stop hitting that child!”
“Who are you to tell me what to do with my own son? Why don’t you mind your own business?”
He did though stop spanking the boy, and I got off the train before I saw what happened next.
From his earlier behavior I formed the distinct impression that he was a loving father. He was clearly unused to being in sole charge of his son, was embarrassed that he couldn’t control the child, and probably fell into the methods his parents had used on him, as we often do under pressure.
Subsequent research reveals that corporal punishment of children is not explicitly forbidden under Chinese law, and is considered acceptable in the home. Furthermore there is legislation requiring parents to impose “strict discipline” on their children to prevent delinquency.
This is a similar situation to my home country, the UK, where moves to ban smacking altogether have to date been blocked by traditionalists. However in two generations the practice has gone from the norm to barely tolerated and socially frowned-on exception.
It was clear from the reaction in the subway carriage that China is on a similar journey. As in the UK it may be social rather than legal pressures which put an end to physical punishment of children. I for one would welcome that, because the incident on the subway illustrates another truth about spanking children: it doesn’t work.