Confucianism and the later life choices of Chinese elderly in Belgium

Confucianism and the later life choices of Chinese elderly in Belgium

Tina Pan

Vrije Universiteit Brussel

Belgium is quite an internationalized country with the presence of EU headquarters, NATO and transnational companies. Of its about 11 million total population people of foreign background and their descendants were estimated to be 25% according to a report in early 20121. Chinese emigrants are the fourth largest group here, only after Morocco, Turkey and Russia with the number being around 10 thousand. As I’m struggling about how to present a general picture of older Chinese emigrants’ life here in Belgium, I find it rather interesting to present the cultural element of Confucianism in their choices about their later life.

Confucianism emphasizes five morals (wulun) as regards to interpersonal relationship. These are father-son, husband-wife, emperor-minister, elderlyjunior and friend-friend relationships. The importance of these relationships decrease in order as father-son ranks first and place a significant role in their choice as regards to how to live their retirement life. 

In this article, due to the limitation of space, I’ll just elaborate on three morals’ role on Chinese elderly’s choices in later life: namely father-son, emperor-minster and elderly-junior. 

Taking care of older parents is a moral responsibility for offspring

In the ancient times, a father is the breadwinner and thus the authority of family. He needs a son to carry down the family name and wealth. Since family heritage is handed down to the son, he then has the main responsibility of taking care of his parents when they are old and need to be taken care of. Thus, the elderly living in nursing institutions is regarded as their children’s unfilialty and disobedience of moral values. Although nursing homes can offer professional care to their declining health, Chinese elderly here in Belgium still opt for living with their children even if they’re busy with their job and don’t have time to meet their basic needs, like cooking daily meals when they lose mobility.

An interviewee called Meihua, aged 76, who’s now living in a Belgium nursing home, describes her experience as follows: “I don’t want to live here. I prefer living with my sons and grandsons. I feel like being deserted when they put me to this nursing home. I know the medical conditions here are better than at home, and I’m a burden to my son now. However, if they are really very filial to me, I should not have been put in here.” 

Obligation to maintain social status even at older age 

While emperor-minister relationship in bureaucratic China emphasizes the loyalty of ministers to the emperor in power, Confucianism, under this condition, serves as a way to consolidate the emperor’s kingdom. It also constitutes the main reason why so many dynasties, like Han (202-220BC, treats Confucian teaching as the only right one for its people to follow. Far gone are the days when Confucianism served as a means for the ruler to consolidate its power rather now it’s the spirit in Chinese people to keep their social status by being industrious and loyal to whatever they are doing.

To put it in another way, Chinese people driven by this belief feel obligated to maintain their social status in society and their position in the hierarchy world. If they fail to do this, they’ll regard themselves as “losing face” or being shameful. As the Chinese old saying goes, “a man is too shameful to meet people from their hometown just across the river” (wu yan jian jiang dong fu lao) because of the failure to meet their expectations. 

One interviewee called Xile, aged 61, lived alone in her apartment in Brussels. She came to Brussels sixteen years ago, leaving her son alone at home with her husband who later didn’t get the visa to reunite with her. She was alone here, doing odd jobs to make ends meet. When I asked her whether the idea that she could go back to reunite with her son ever came across her mind, she replied: “I thought of that many many times especially in the early days when I first came here with the language problem. It was really difficult to combine part-time job and study. Sometimes, I could even cry at home. When I was doing my job in the daytime, I couldn’t stop thinking about French words and when I can see my son again. But I couldn’t go back. Before I was a government official in China and people respected me. If I came back without getting my Belgian identity card, people wouldn’t respect me and would consider me a failure.”

Going back to China without a long-term living permit would be a shame. As Chinese passport holders face a lot of difficulty in acquiring visa from western powers like E.U countries and the U.S., being able to hold a long-term residence or changing Chinese national identity to another country is regarded by many as the advantageous and privileged. Therefore, those who in the early times spent a large sum of money to come to Belgium, will be considered as useless or losing face if they go back to meet their family and friends. 

Responsibility towards the youth

In reciprocity, Chinese elderly feel obligated to look after younger generation. Elderly-junior relationship is quite a significant factor accounting for how the Chinese elderly live their life in a host country Belgium. As the son takes up the responsibility of taking care of the elderly in their later life, what the elderly can contribute is to help look after the grandchildren in the family. Quite a few interviewees in my research have come to Belgium because of their sons or daughters need a hand in raising their kids. Though they’re not quite used to the climate and food here and some of them may want to go back to China to spend the rest of their life there, they still feel obligated to look after their grandchildren. 

An interviewee aged 64 puts in this way:“It rains so often here and my knuckle aches because of the weather. And the bread is not so yummy as my teeth are going bad. It’s tough compared to rice. You know, I come from Sichuan and grew up eating spicy food. I really miss the food in my hometown. But I can’t go back because my son has three children and they’re so busy with their restaurant service. I should help them take care of the kids. If I don’t do so, the people in my village (in China’s Sichuan province) will say bad things about me.”

Generally speaking, when building an understanding of Chinese elderly’s choices of how to live their later life, a very important role of Confucian moral values should be taken into account. Apart from that, it’s undeniable that Belgium’s general medical coverage and health care system plays a role in their decision. Some of them in the integration process get acculturated and assimilated into the society and treat their children as independent individuals who bear no obligation to take care of them personally when they come across frailty problems. But according to my interviews, the majority of Chinese elderly here don’t think in that way.

Tina Pan

Vrije Universiteit Brussel

Faculty of Psychology and Educational Sciences

Department of Educational Sciences

Pleinlaan 2 – 1050 Brussels – Belgium

mobile +32 0485 2666 04


Confucianism and the later life choices of Chinese elderly in Belgium


Tina Pan













NL July 2016 – n° 79