What Is Filial Piety?

Definition of This Important Chinese Cultural Value

Shrine in China
A shrine in China. Greg Rodgers

Filial piety (孝, xiào) is China's most important moral and entails a strong loyalty and deference to one's parents. Because the family is the building block of society, this hierarchical system of respect is by extension applied to one's country. Meaning, the same devotion and selflessness in serving one's family should also be used when serving one's country.

Thus, filial piety is an important value when it comes to treating one's immediate family, elders and superiors in general, and the state at large.

 

Origins

Confucius describes filial piety and argues for its importance in creating a peaceful family and society in his book, Xiao Jing, also known as Classic of Xiao. The text was written in 4th-centry BCE, showing how filial piety has been a part of Chinese values for a very long time. 

Meaning

Filial piety is a general attitude of offering love, respect, support, and deference to one's parents and other elders in the family, such as grandparents or older siblings. Acts of filial piety include obeying parent's wishes, taking care of them when they are old, and working hard in order to provide material comforts to parents, like food, money, or pampering. 

The idea stems from the fact that parents give life to their children, and subsequently support them throughout their developing years in terms of providing food, education, and material needs. Because of receiving all these benefits, children are thus forever in debt to their parents.

In order to acknowledge this eternal debt, kids must respect and serve their parents.

Extending beyond one's family, filial piety also applies to all elders—like teachers, professional superiors, or anyone who is older in age—and even the state. 

Chinese Character

By looking at the Chinese character for filial piety, you learn a lot about the term's definition.

Filial piety is illustrated by the Chinese character xiao (孝). The character is a combination of the characters lao (老), which means old, and er zi (儿子 ), which means son. The character that represents lao is the top half of the character xiao, whereas the character that represents son forms the bottom half of the character. 

This placement is symbolic and very telling of what filial piety means. The character xiao shows that the older person or generation is being supported or carried by the son, or children in general.

Criticisms

The heavy emphasis that Chinese culture places on filial piety has been criticized over the years. The level of devotion to one's family and elders demanded in filial piety has been scrutinized for being too extreme. 

Lu Xun, China's most acclaimed and influential writer, criticized filial piety and stories about filial piety like "He Buried His Son for His Mother." The story goes as follows. 

Guo Ju had a wife, mother, and child. The family was suffering from poverty and survival was difficult. Guo Ju realized he could not sufficiently support his mother, so he came to the conclusion that he would bury his child. He decided to kill his child since feeding the child took away from Guo Ju's mother's share of food.

Plus, Guo Ju and his wife could conceive again whereas his mother cannot be replaced. When he began to dig his child's grave, Guo Ju came across a vase filled with gold as a reward for his filial piety. The moral of the story is clearly that one should always serve their parents or elders before the younger generation. 

This hierarchical principle of elders over the youth has been criticized as stunting and inhibiting young adults from making decisions that would allow them to grow as a person or have their own life.

Filial Piety in Other Religions and Regions

Beyond Confuciansim, the concept of filial piety is also found in Taosim, Buddhism, Korean Confucianism, Japanese culture, and Vietnamese culture.

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Mack, Lauren. "What Is Filial Piety?" ThoughtCo, Jul. 31, 2017, thoughtco.com/filial-piety-in-chinese-688386. Mack, Lauren. (2017, July 31). What Is Filial Piety? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/filial-piety-in-chinese-688386 Mack, Lauren. "What Is Filial Piety?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/filial-piety-in-chinese-688386 (accessed November 24, 2017).