Filial Piety: An Important Chinese Cultural Value

A pagoda in Hong Kong

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Filial piety (孝, xiào) is arguably China's most important moral tenet. A concept of Chinese philosophy for more than 3,000 years, xiào today entails a strong loyalty and deference to one's parents, to one's ancestors, by extension, to one's country and its leaders.

Meaning

In general, filial piety requires children to offer love, respect, support, and deference to their parents and other elders in the family, such as grandparents or older siblings. Acts of filial piety include obeying one's parent's wishes, taking care of them when they are old, and working hard to provide them with material comforts, such as food, money, or pampering. 

The idea follows from the fact that parents give life to their children, and support them throughout their developing years, providing food, education, and material needs. After receiving all these benefits, children are thus forever in debt to their parents. In order to acknowledge this eternal debt, children must respect and serve their parents all their lives.

Beyond the Family

The tenet of filial piety also applies to all elders—teachers, professional superiors, or anyone who is older in age—and even the state. The family is the building block of society, and as such the hierarchical system of respect also applies to one's rulers and one's country. Xiào means that 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. 

Chinese Character Xiao (孝)

The Chinese character for filial piety, xiao (孝), illustrates the term's meaning. The ideogram is a combination of the characters lao (老), which means old, and er zi (儿子 ), which means son. Lao is the top half of the character xiao, and er zi, representing the son, forms the bottom half of the character. 

The son below the father is a symbol of what filial piety means. The character xiao shows that the older person or generation is being supported or carried by the son: thus the relationship between the two halves is one both of burden and support.

Origins

The character xiao is one of the oldest examples of the written Chinese language, painted onto oracle bones—oxen scapulae used in divination—at the end of the Shang Dynasty and the beginning of the Western Zhou dynasty, about 1000 BCE. The original meaning appears to have meant "providing food offerings to one's ancestors," and ancestors meant both living parents and those long dead. That intrinsic meaning has not changed in the intervening centuries, but how that is interpreted, both who the respected ancestors include and the responsibilities of the child to those ancestors, has changed many times.

The Chinese philosopher Confucius (551–479 BCE) is most responsible for making xiao a pivotal part of society. He described filial piety and argued for its importance in creating a peaceful family and society in his book, "Xiao Jing," also known as the "Classic of Xiao" and written in the 4th century BCE. The Xiao Jing became a classic text during the Han Dynasty (206–220), and it remained a classic of Chinese education up until the 20th century.

Interpreting Filial Piety

After Confucius, the classic text about filial piety is The Twenty-Four Paragons of Filial Piety, written by the scholar Guo Jujing during the Yuan dynasty (between 1260–1368). The text includes several fairly astonishing stories, such as "He Buried His Son for His Mother." That story, translated into English by U.S. anthropologist David K. Jordan, reads:

In the Hàn dynasty the family of Guo Jù was poor. He had a three-year-old son. His mother sometimes divided her food with the child. Jù said to his wife: “[Because we are] very poor, we cannot provide for Mother. Our son is sharing Mother’s food. Why not bury this son?” He was digging the pit three feet deep when he struck a cauldron of gold. On it [an inscription] read: “No official may take this nor may any other person seize it.” 

The most serious challenge to the bedrock of xiao thought came in the early decades of the 20th century. Lu Xun (1881–1936), China's acclaimed and influential writer, criticized filial piety and stories like those in the Twenty-Four Paragons. Part of China's May Fourth Movement (1917) Lu Xun argued that the hierarchical principle privileging elders over youth stunts and inhibits young adults from making decisions that would allow them to grow as people or have their own lives.

Others in the movement condemned xiao as the source of all evil, "turning China into a big factory for the production of obedient subjects." In 1954, renowned philosopher and scholar Hu Shih (1891–1962) reversed that extreme attitude and promoted Xiaojing; and the tenet remains important to Chinese philosophy to this day.

Challenges to Philosophy

The admittedly gruesome set of Twenty-Four Paragons highlights long-running philosophical issues with xiao. One such issue is the relationship between xiao and another Confucian tenet, ren (love, benevolence, humanity); another asks what is to be done when honor to the family contrasts with honor to the laws of society? What is to be done if the ritual requirement demands that a son must avenge the murder of his father, but it is a crime to commit murder, or, as in the story above, infanticide?

Filial Piety in Other Religions and Regions

Beyond Confucianism, the concept of filial piety is also found in Taoism, Buddhism, Korean Confucianism, Japanese culture, and Vietnamese culture. The xiao ideogram is used in both Korean and Japanese, although with a different pronunciation.

Sources and Further Reading