Desperate Mothers, Only Sons: The ‘Moral Reformation’ of China’s Internet Addicted Youth

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Chinese gamer Sky takes an oath of good sportsmanship during the opening ceremony of the World Cyber Games in Kunshan, China

I am writing this blog post from the 2012 World Cyber Games in Kunshan, China. This international competition for professional digital gaming, also known as e-sports, is an interesting setting from which to contemplate Chinese government efforts to draw strict divisions between nationally sanctioned e-sports and “unhealthy” and “addictive” Internet games.  Indeed, during the press conference prior to the start of the competition, one of the members of China’s General Administration of Sport shared a story about a conversation she had with the Vice Mayor of Kunshan city.  The Vice Mayor had noted that she originally intended to bring her son to the event, but her husband had forbidden it for fear that exposure to digital games would negatively impact his studies.  The Sport Administration official used this as an example of the image work still needed to train Chinese citizens to have the “proper” perspective on e-sports.  If only parents could understand the positive (the actual phrase she used was “sunny” or yangguang) impact of this particular form of gaming…. Compare this attitude to the concerned mothers depicted in these images drawn from the Chinese news media.

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A mother wrestles her son to keep him from the Internet cafe

In the photograph above, drawn from the Chinese news media, a woman cries in the face of her despondent son,  despondent son responsive only to the stimulus of a game on a computer screen. In the photo to the right, a mother pins her son to the street to keep him away from an Internet café.  A third story in the news relates the tale of a mother who stabbed her own son in the leg with a knife because she could not stop him from running off to an Internet café to play games.  Rather than frame this incident as child abuse, the news anchor noted, “We can sympathize with the feelings of the parents, but we should not use disciplinary measures that are too violent.”  The frequency with which such acts of desperation appear in the press makes them seem almost natural, as the nonchalant response to this otherwise shocking incident of parental violence indicates.

A final portrait of maternal desperation that I would like to share with you is depicted in the 2007 film Net Mother.  This film, reportedly based upon true events, chronicles the valiant efforts of a handicapped mother who strives to connect with Internet addicted teens via instant messaging.  Having sustained terrible burns on her hands as a child, this mother overcomes her handicap and uses her story of struggle to convince young people to strive to overcome their own struggles with addiction.

Net Mother opens with a montage of scenes from China’s countryside: a farmer working the fields on his tractor, families and children enjoying an outdoor performance of classical Chinese opera, and women practicing traditional fan dancing in a park.  But the serene music that accompanies these opening shots takes a sudden dark and sinister turn as the scene switches to the dimly lit interior of an Internet café.  A young boy stands up woozily from his computer and stumbles out of the café, walking only a few feet before collapsing from exhaustion and, improbably, falling asleep directly on a set of train tracks in front of an oncoming train.  As unbelievable as this incident might seem, this is in fact yet another scene ripped straight from the Chinese media’s sensationalistic headlines about Internet addiction.

Sensationalism aside, what is most striking about this opening sequence is its vision of two competing Chinese cultures: there is, on one hand, the vibrant culture of Chinese tradition, and, on the other, the dangerous and foreign culture of the Internet café.  In the face of this threat, the figure of the desperate mother becomes a symbol of national moral crisis.  She can be seen as reaching out to her child, usually a son, in a frantic effort to restore tradition and protect the future of the nation in the face of corrupting foreign influences.

While the mother as symbol of the nation is not restricted to China, the image of the suffering and desperate mother has a particular resonance within Chinese history. Hsiung Ping Chen (1994) has noted that mothers in late imperial China often used their suffering as a device by which to manipulate and guilt their sons into achieving excellence.  The mother of opium commissioner Lin Tse-hsü (Lin Zexu) famously admonished her son that, “Only if you study hard and honor your parents by your success will my pains not be suffered in vain” (p. 39).  Today, the desperation of mothers in China may be compounded by the fact couples are restricted to one child, making that child what anthropologist Vanessa Fong (2004) has called the family’s “only hope.”  Fong notes that mothers thus invest everything in their child’s future, hoping that their children will grow up to be filial and successful enough to provide for them in their old age.

With reports that Internet addiction centers are using extreme measures such as shock therapy to treat addicts, mothers have also become the face of a different kind of treatment: moral reformation (ganhua).  Rather than framing addiction as a mental illness that brings shame to families by suggesting an internal or hereditary defect, moral reformation frames Internet addiction as an issue having to do with external forces such as proper education.  Young people are portrayed as having lost their moral compass and sense of duty to their families.  Notably, this kind of treatment was also used to address the problem of opium addiction. Dikotter, Laamann, and Zhou (2004) have called attention to the portrayal of “addicts as misguided human beings in need of help,” noting that “moral reformation” involved lectures, formal education and “wholesome leisure.”  Addicts were strictly disciplined in hope of  “correcting wrong ideas” and creating “morally good citizens.”

Today, as I watch the pomp and circumstance surrounding the opening ceremony of the World Cyber Games in China, it is clear that e-sports is being promoted as a form of “wholesome leisure” that can lead to the creation of “morally good citizens.”  The question left in my mind, as I scan the audience, is where are all the proud mothers?

— Marcella Szablewicz

One thought on “Desperate Mothers, Only Sons: The ‘Moral Reformation’ of China’s Internet Addicted Youth

  1. The gender dynamics here are unremarked upon, but most remarkable: young men, not young women, are addicted to gaming, but mothers, not fathers, carrying the emotional burden of rescuing their fallen children. Pity the author ignores these and related issues.

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