China’s Good Samaritans, Real and Imagined.

On September 4, an elderly Chinese man collapsed on the street in Nanjing, China, and suffocated in his own blood. Why didn’t anybody stop to help him? The debate raged on China’s blogs, microblogs, and newspapers for a week. As I outlined in a September 8 column for Bloomberg World View, the answers were several and unsatisfying, ranging from a lack of legal protection for Good Samaritans, to a lack of Confucian obligations to strangers. But whatever the reason, or reasons, they all seem rather academic in light of the video that surfaced, earlier this week, of a two-year-old being run down and then ignored by pedestrians in Foshan. China’s Good Samaritan problem seems more real than ever.

Helpfully, on Wednesday, Shanghaiist posted a quote from Lu Xun that reminded readers that the Good Samaritan Problem isn’t a new one:

“In China, especially in the cities, if someone fainted on the streets, or if someone was knocked over by a car, you’ll find lots of gawkers and gloaters, but rarely will you find someone willing to extend a helping hand.”

Alas, prescience, though comforting, doesn’t explain why so much appears to be unchanged since 1933. And, in my opinion, it also make it far too easy to suggest that there’s something fundamentally wrong with Chinese society without specifying what, in fact, might be causing that fault (and without a cause, there can be no cure). Unexpectedly, yesterday, I received a thoughtful explanation that appeared in a three-way email conversation that included my friend Josh Goldstein, Associate Professor of History and East Asian Languages and Cultures at USC. It’s sober, thoughtful, and worth a read, I think. So, with Josh’s permission, I’m copying it, below.

About this samaritan stuff: i’d say in part the “problem” has existed for centuries, on some level strangers are not part of most confucian obligations and certainly not poor unknown folks.  Local elites certainly would help local poor elderly when approached, but they would typically not be strangers and would not initiate help.  Remember, the urban context of people falling while getting on a bus is historically pretty new.
When you get into more “modern” urban settings in the 20th century, i think you could basically point to a wariness and lack of trust of strangers…market transactions, as you know, were about haggling and one expected to be cheated…the haggle actually builds relationships in the long term.  there was too much unaccountable poverty, complete lack of legal oversight, to make early 20th century citizens typically extend kindness to strangers.

I would look at the elderly falling in china in these cases as often linked to class issues, not just about elderly.  You know how many elderly beggars are on the streets, and you know what Chinese think about these beggars.  think of how Americans deal with homeless folks…they are often sick and on the street and totally ignored.  it is often assumed that if someone is old and not being looked after properly, something is probably wrong with them…why aren’t they being looked after?

Of course that is only a (older, historical?) small piece of the problem. Elderly neglect and abuse have become huge problems in the last 20 years.  And definitely the CR and the post CR society that created the assumption that “good samaritans” are suspect, that there is basically no common “citizen” bond is another big element (that legal decision that the young man who helped Xu Shaolan after her fall on the bus must have been guilty or else he wouldn’t have gone out of his way to help her is a sad authorization of that depressing attitude…social paranoia is a self-fulfilling prophecy).

Going on way too long here. Last thing: I remember around March 1989 i was in Nanjing at a noodle shop and a young man pushed an old man off a stool cause he said he had taken his spot.  There was lots of public fighting, bickering then, saw street fights go physical almost daily, and the young being pissed at the old was just one part of it (compounded a bit  perhaps by anger at the generentocracy, the 80+ year olds who ran the country at the time).  A month later, the student movement was in full swing and everyone was suddenly kind and polite to strangers all over the city, bike crashes resulted in apologies and “are you hurt?” etc.  This made me feel that when Chinese citizens are feeling part of something together, they rediscover the humanity of one another very quickly; but when it is corrupt crony business as usual, everyday frustration is vented at the stranger who you assume is out for him/herself.

As it happens, Josh’s wasn’t the only email that I received on the topic of the Good Samaritan problem. The second comes from an American friend in Shanghai who prefers not to be named. It serves as a bit of an antidote, I hope, to the harsh light that the Foshan incident has cast on Chinese civil society, and a reminder that good people can be found anywhere – especially if they’re elderly. The anecdote references my friend’s wife, who will go by the name W. She is Taiwanese born.

On Wednesday evening on the way back from the restaurant my wife and I decided to extend our stroll around Suzhou creek, and while going along the paved walkway we casually noticed a small knot of elderly Chinese surrounding a girl sitting on the railing facing the riverbank. I didn’t think much of it until, coming closer, we could see the girl was hysterical… and going to jump. The older folks were trying to coax her down but at the same time, afraid to do anything that might cause the girl to jump, yet hands were on the girl’s shoulder and around her waist. W began to talk to the girl, I moved closer speaking in a soft, low voice, that this was not the way to solve things, that nothing could be so bad, but in a few moments I was moved to hold the girl under her arms and gently but firmly pull her away from the railing. She weighed less than a child, her body like a twelve-year old, light, and she screamed but her hands slowly gave way. Once on the walkway she collapsed to a squat, her pretty face hot with tears; I remember her long hair was so soft and fine, her feet so small, as if such a delicate frame could not give out such powerful emotion.

All the while these elderly Chinese, about five, men and women in their 70’s, talked to the girl sensibly, smoothing her hair and face, begging her not to think of such a thing, to think of the grief she would bring her parents, saying they’d seen and experienced much at their age and knew nothing was worth suicide. In time a girl the same age, about 26, came along, and with her arm around the girl’s waist, walked her to a bench. Yes, jilted love, and W guessed the girl was probably pregnant and the guy refused her. After some while we walked away, but the knot of Chinese elderly remained, not as gawkers but as humans moved to help. We left her in good hands.


  1. Well, in london a couple of years ago a (really fat) woman fell from the seat on the bus (she was a bit drunk) and NO ONE (at least 20 people) but me and a friend of mine has moved a finger to help her, also some of them yelled at her because the driver called an ambulance and delayed the bus…

  2. Does the rapid urbanization have anything to do with this phenomenon ? Do people who are only used to relating to kith & kin in their villages, just still unsure about how to deal with the “stranger” ?

  3. Living in South Korea and China for twelve years, I saw failures to act in emergencies a number of times. In one South Korean instance I wrote a story about it ( I think there are several components to the problem. There is the universal anomie of cities. There is the almost total lack of any sense of obligation to strangers which is common to most East Asian cultures (a very off-putting daily experience for visitors from other cultures). Perhaps even more powerful than either of these is a deep aversion to taking personal responsibility for anything. This is embedded both in daily employment experience and the implicit design of the education systems.

  4. As sad as this event with the 2 year old is, I don’t think that this has anything to do with Chinese Culture. Google “bystander effect” and it happens in East and West.

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