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The Language of Moral Kidnapping

How to avoid moral guilt-tripping

“The one who persuades others to forgive ought to be struck by lightning and split in half (劝人大度,天打雷劈 Quàn rén dàdù, tiāndǎ-léipī).” So goes a line from one of China’s most famous crosstalk performers, Guo Degang. Forgiveness is a traditional Chinese virtue and still highly valued today, but this quote from Guo is widely loved and frequently repeated, as people believe it can serve as a weapon to fight against 道德绑架 (dàodé bǎngjià, moral kidnapping).

Moral kidnapping can be understood as the Chinese equivalent of John Stuart Mill’s “moral coercion of public opinion.” This is where individuals use unreasonably high moral standards as an excuse to force others to forgive mistreatment or make sacrifices. If the victim does not meet these demands, the accuser labels them as immoral.

One well-known example of moral coercion in Chinese pop culture occurred in an episode of the TV show Dream of China in 2017. A woman contacted the producers in an attempt to reunite with the daughter she had abandoned over 20 years ago. In the program, host Zhou Libo berates the daughter for “being selfish” after she refused to reconnect with her biological mother:

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author Sun Jiahui (孙佳慧)

Sun Jiahui is a freelance writer and former editor at The World of Chinese. She writes about Chinese language, society and culture, and is especially passionate about sharing stories of China's ancient past with a wider audience. She has been writing for TWOC for over six years, and pens the Choice Chengyu column.

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