The Promise of Education and the Practice of Filial Duty: A Story of Inter-generational Aporias in Contemporary China

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Based on ten months of research at an elite university in Beijing (Qinghua University) this article focuses on the conundrums of life for young people in China today. It addresses the paradoxical situation faced by many young people, who are among the lucky few, who have made it to the top of a very competitive educational system yet feel deeply ambivalent about their own futures.
Through a detailed ethnographic case story of a particular young woman, Jing Jing and her family history going back several generations, it explores the existential dilemmas imbedded in intergenerational and state citizen relationships in contemporary China. It sees these as linked to but not entirely reducible to China’s historical and political transformations, including the Chinese state’s educational policies focused on improving the “quality” of the population. I argue that Jing Jing faced a double-bind, in the form of two opposing social imperatives, those of “self-sacrifice” and “self-actualization”. In Jing Jing’s case this is accentuated by an inability to reconcile the wish to live up to her moral duty to take care of her mother during her old age with her wish to live out her own dreams of higher education. Drawing on an existential approach to anthropology, the authors seems these as tied to existential aporias, moral dilemmas that admit no resolution and reflect contradictions intrinsic to the human condition.
Original languageEnglish
JournalSéculo XXI, Revista de Ciencias Sociai
Issue number2
Pages (from-to)173-194
Number of pages22
Publication statusPublished - 2012

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