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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:

Do you know what a secret sorrow is? If you want to be happy, you should accept [your mother]. If your adopted parents don’t accept it, they are too selfish.

Nǐ zhīdào shénme jiào nányánzhīyǐn ma?Rúguǒ nǐ xiǎngyào xìngfú, jiù yīnggāi jiēshòu. Rúguǒ nǐ de yǎngfù yǎngmǔ lián zhège dōu bú yuànyì dehuà, tāmen wèimiǎn tài zìsī le.

你知道什么叫难言之隐吗?如果你想要幸福,就应该接受。如果你的养父养母连这个都不愿意的话,他们未免太自私了。

After the show was aired, Zhou was targeted by public criticism. Netizens were infuriated by Zhou’s insensitivity and defined his behavior as daode bangjia. The term has since become a buzzword referring to individuals on social media and in daily life who are fond of guilt-tripping others and giving unsolicited moral advice. This commonly takes the form of urging someone to forgive and forget:

Live and let live. He has apologized, so what more do you want?

Dé ráo rén chù qiě ráo rén ba, tā dōu dàoqiàn le, nǐ hái xiǎng zěnme yàng?

得饶人处且饶人吧,他都道歉了,你还想怎么样?

She didn’t do it on purpose. Life is hard on everyone, so why are you so harsh to her?

Tā yě bú shì gùyì de, dàjiā dōu bù róngyì, hébì zhème jīnjīn-jìjiào ne?

她也不是故意的,大家都不容易,何必这么斤斤计较呢?

Traditional virtues are also weaponized to morally kidnap others. For example, signs and announcements on public transit often urge passengers to offer their seats to children and the elderly under the slogan “尊老爱幼是中华民族的传统美德 (Zūnlǎo-àiyòu shì Zhōnghuá mínzú de chuántǒng měidé, Respecting the old and cherishing the young is a traditional virtue of Chinese civilization).” You could be sick or exhausted, but moral kidnappers won’t bother to ask you.

As a youngster, can’t you show some common courtesy? How can you just sit there while an elderly person is standing nearby? Didn’t anyone ever teach you to respect the old and cherish the young?

Niánjì qīngqīng de, néng bù néng yǒudiǎnr gōngdéxīn? Nàme dà niánjì de rén zài pángbiān zhànzhe, nǐ jiù zuò zài nàr yí dòng bú dòng? Yǒu méi yǒu rén jiāoguo nǐ yào zūnlǎo-àiyòu?

年纪轻轻的,能不能有点儿公德心?那么大年纪的人在旁边站着,你就坐在那儿一动不动?有没有人教过你要尊老爱幼?

However, being the older party doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll receive respect either. Ever been irritated by that kid screaming on a train or plane? Telling them to stop or taking it up with their parents might seem like the sensible thing to do, but expect criticism for your intolerance by those “responsible” adults:

Look at how young he is! If he’s being unreasonable, are you going to be unreasonable too? How can you lower yourself to his level?

Nǐ kànkan tā cái duō dà? Tā bú dǒngshì, nǐ yě bù dǒngshì? Zěnme néng hé xiǎoháizi yìbān jiànshi ne?

你看看他才多大?他不懂事,你也不懂事?怎么能和小孩子一般见识呢?

Nobody can beat your own parents when it comes to moral guilt-tripping though—and Chinese parents in particular are aided by the lethal and ancient weapon of filial piety. Just by engaging in conflict with their parents, a Chinese person may be regarded as committing a moral faux pas by their extended family and other acquaintances, regardless of who is right and who is wrong:

How old are you? Can you do anything except make your mom angry? Your mom raised you for nothing!

Nǐ duō dà de rén le? Chúle rě nǐ mā shēngqì nǐ hái huì gàn shá? Nǐ mā bái bǎ nǐ yǎng zhème dà.

你多大的人了?除了惹你妈生气你还会干啥?你妈白把你养这么大。

Many parents are aware of this, and it is a stereotype that Chinese mothers are especially fond of using the line “那都是为了你好 (Nà dōushì wèile nǐ hǎo. It’s all for your own good)” to justify controlling their children or to defend themselves from criticism:

As the folk saying goes, “Parents never make mistakes.” Whatever we do is for your own good. How can you be so ungrateful?

Súhuàshuō, tiānxià wú búshi de fùmǔ. Wǒmen bùguǎn zuòle shénme, dōushì wèile nǐ hǎo a. Nǐ zěnme néng zhème méi liángxīn ne?

俗话说,天下无不是的父母。我们不管做了什么,都是为了你好啊。你怎么能这么没良心呢?

Another common target of moral coercion is the wealthy or privileged. In the eyes of many—netizens especially—the rich are obliged to be generous. Whenever there is news of a wealthy person refusing to help those less fortunate, even those completely unrelated to themselves, there will be online comments labeling them “为富不仁 (wéifù-búrén, rich but heartless).”

In 2006, several singers and actors organized a poverty alleviation drive throughout the country, but when the organizers contacted actress Fan Bingbing to participate, she apparently declined with a curt response. After the media reported the story, a survey conducted by Sohu found that over 85 percent of nearly 30,000 respondents thought Fan deserved to be condemned. Such feelings have since become more common. Whenever there is a natural or man-made disaster today, there will invariably be netizens who point fingers at big stars who didn’t donate as much as expected.

She earns so much but refused to donate. That’s so selfish. Celebrities ought to repay society.

Tā zuàn nàme duō qián què shěbude juān, tài zìsī le. Míngxīng yào huíbào shèhuì.

她赚那么多钱却舍不得捐,太自私了。明星要回报社会。

Though ordinary people don’t enjoy the same popularity or incomes as celebrities, anyone who has any money is in danger of moral coercion, usually from people seeking a loan:

You’re so rich, does this money make that much difference to you? Tell me straight if you don’t see me as your friend!

Nǐ zhème yǒuqián, chà zhèdiǎnr qián ma? Bù bǎ wǒ dāng péngyou zhíshuō a.

你这么有钱,差这点儿钱吗?不把我当朋友直说啊。

But if you loaned the money and want it back now, you might be rejected with the exact same sentence. Either way, it’s probably time to end the friendship.

In the workplace, capable employees often find themselves assigned more work than their colleagues—without extra pay. But you had better be flattered and accept it, as a Chinese idiom suggests: “A more capable person is always busier (能者多劳 néngzhě-duōláo).”

Nobody can beat your own parents when it comes to moral guilt-tripping though—and Chinese parents in particular are aided by the lethal and ancient weapon of filial piety.

You are more capable than him, so it’s only natural you should take on more responsibilities.

Nǐ nénglì bǐ tā qiáng, zìrán yào duō chéngdān yìxiē zérèn.

你能力比他强,自然要多承担一些责任。

We are part of the same team, so don’t quibble over who gets assigned more work. Be a team player!

Dàjiā zài yí gè tuánduì li gōngzuò, búyào jìjiào shéi gàn dé duō, yào yǒu tuánduì jīngshén!

大家在一个团队里工作,不要计较谁干得多,要有团队精神!

Let’s face it, moral coercion exists everywhere in life. Maybe the root of the problem is our tendency to have double standards: We expect others to play by strict moral rules which we ourselves seldom adhere to. But while the morally righteous may quote traditional Chinese sayings to justify their position, the ancient sages were in fact wise enough not to impose unrealistic demands on ordinary people. According to Confucius, one does not need to forgive every enemy because “if you repay evil with good, what do you repay good with (以德报怨,何以报德 yǐdé-bàoyuàn, héyǐ bào dé)?” Mencius also says one does not need to be excessively generous: “Look after yourself when in hardship; benefit others when in prosperity (穷则独善其身,达则兼济天下 Qióng zé dú shàn qí shēn, dá zé jiānjì tiānxià).”

Most importantly, as Confucius’s famous quote tells us: 己所不欲,勿施于人 (Jǐ suǒ bú yù, wù shī yú rén, Do not do to others what you would not have them do to you). That is to say, don’t morally kidnap others—unless you’re OK with getting kidnapped yourself.

Illustration by Cai Tao and Wang Siqi 


This is a story from our issue, “Something Old, Something New.” To read the entire issue, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine. Alternatively, you can purchase the digital version from the iTunes Store.

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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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