Many poor Chinese parents, as Going to School with Dad on My Back (1998) depicts, did not always have enough income to send their child or all of their children to school. Contrary to popular belief outside of China, in many villages parents are allowed to have more than one child [Note: see The Controversy, Complexity and Reality behind China’s One-Child Policy].
In the film, the widowed father spins a water bottle to decide which of his two children will go to school. When the bottle comes to rest, the handle points to his seven-year-old son Shiwa instead of the older sister.
Thus, Shiwa wins the opportunity to earn an education due to the spin of a bottle. He then starts the long daily walk to school and his sister remains behind, toiling in the fields. Eventually a marriage is arranged for her. The roads Shiwa walks are made of dirt and he has to wade across a river to reach the village where the school is located.
Unlike most Chinese films imported to the West that focus on kung fu, this movie shows the story of a young boy’s life in a poor village in rural China much as it remains today in much of rural China.
It’s no secret that I taught in California’s public schools in the United States for thirty years. In China, the children of poor immigrants leap at the chance to earn an education and work their way out of poverty.
However, as I can testify, in the US, most children from poor families do the worst academically. The difference is one of philosophy.
The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy says, “A hallmark of Confucius’ thought is his emphasis on education and study,” something missing in Western philosophy.
In fact, I heard many American parents tell their children that if they didn’t like what I was teaching, they didn’t have to cooperate.
In the movie, the father places his hopes and dreams on the shoulders of his young son in this true story of family sacrifice and a father’s love.
This movie not only provides its audience with a close-up look at rural China but also how Confucianism works in the family. I’m not going to give away the ending but I will say this much—what Shiwa does at the end of the movie demonstrates how much of an influence Confucius has on the Chinese family and the why/how of children showing love and respect to their parents.
Lloyd Lofthouse is the award-winning author of The Concubine Saga. When you love a Chinese woman, you marry her family and culture too. This is the love story Sir Robert Hart did not want the world to discover.
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