“Filial Piety”: the Heart of Confucian Life

For a Westerner and westernized Asian, there is no greater stumbling block to Confucian thinking than the centrality of xiao, or “filial piety.” All the passages about self-reflection, learning, and putting virtue above power or profit are attractive and beneficial to everyone, but the regular exhortations to xiao are both strange and off-putting to someone brought up in a society that values above all the freeedom of the individual. An individual is meant to separate from the parents and forge a unique path; not to do so would be infantilism, a refusal to mature. Our myths tend to feature heroes who kill their fathers, such as Oedipus. From the perspective of individualism, the Confucian emphasis on xiao might seem repellent, a form of extreme social control; indeed, it can seem the opposite social myth, in which the parents kill the children. If the idea of xiao is the bedrock of Confucian life, do we have to reject the whole building if we cannot accept xiao? Can we reject xiao while still finding much to learn from the rest of the Analects? Or is there a way xiao can make sense to a modern Westerner?

   In my own lifetime I have noticed that my Chinese friends are able to accomodate three generations in one apartment: parents, grandparents, and children apparently living in harmony. If any of my Western friends were to try this arrangement, within a few weeks someone would die. Could it be that people with xiao have a better sense of how to live together than people without xiao, and that the key to living fruitfully with the generations is to understand how to be a child of parents? This how is not a simple given, but has to be learned– just as music, which is in us, has to be learned.

   The idea of xiao is complex and subtle, and in these short posts I can only hope to crack open a few ways of thinking about it. I confess that I do not like the usual translation “filial piety,” because that makes it sound too much like religious idolatry; the phrase also has echoes of Roman “filial piety,” which is sterner and more political n nature. “Filiality” may be more neutral and more faithful to the complexity of the concept, but I will refer to it as xiao.

   Confucius brings it up very early in the Analects:


The superior person concerns himself with the roots. Once the roots are established, the Way appears. Are not xiao and obedience to elders the root of humane goodness?”  (Analects, 1.2)

Roots refers to the founding principles of moral behavior, but it also alludes to actual biological roots. Respect for parents is based on this fundamental fact of our lives: that we are not our own origins! Moreover, we had no participation whatsoever in originating ourselves. In contrast, for the Indo-European heroic ethos, the hero is always his own author — figuratively, of course — and, qua hero, not indebted to anyone. Indeed, it is the greatness of the hero that ennobles the whole line. This particular Analect sets itself against any such view right from the outset: the junzi ( superior person, person of excellence, perfected human being) applies himself to the roots, and works to cultivate them. Besides junzi, the other major concept here is “goodness,” which translates ren, the richest and most important Confucian idea. Ren, which I will explore in subsequent posts, is often translated “benevolence” or “humaneness,” because it is the quality of heart in a person who is truly able to care, respect, and love — in other words, ren is the one quality essential to the very possibility of relationships between people. 

   Confucius’ assertion in this aphorism is radical in every sense of the word: if the fullest human goodness has its roots in xiao and obedience to elders (which is a secondary virtue derived from xiao), then we need to understand and cultivate xiao if we want to be good. But to a Western mind, there seems no clear connection between the two. To be fair to the “Western mind,” many contemporaries of Confucius also had the same perplexity, because they too were frequently asking him to explain xiao, as we shall see. If they all already agreed with him, he would not have seemed so unusual and often revolutionary to them.

   The idea of xiao is rooted in two facts: the biological fact that we all had parents and therefore some kind of dependence on them, and the psychological fact of emotional needs that exist between parents and children. Orphans and people who are long estranged from their parents feel these facts most profoundly. Our parents have a unique power to affect and unsettle us, and if our relationships with them lack harmony and a certain degree of mutual understanding our lives will be felt to be somehow incomplete; this is especially true if lifelong tensions are left unresolved on a parent’s death.  Thus our capacity to be happy is intimately tied up with the quality of our relationship with our parents. Most people will not be able to ignore this or run away from it, and good people will not want to because they already see with their hearts that they owe their parents a deep degree of affection and respect. This is also experienced in wanting our parents to be worthy of love and respect. Our most formative years are our first three and the nine months before; we usually remember almost nothing of this period, as if “we” were not there — but people were there for us. These people who were there for us were, in a real sense, our creators, and if we have any self-respect and self-love it must include respect and love for them.

   The respect and love in xiao are not necessarily qualities called forth by the quality of the parent. Even the ancient Chinese had bad parents — for example, the paragon of xiao, the sage emperor Shun, had appallingly nasty parents who tried several times to kill him, yet he could practice xiao towards them. According to Mencius, Shun would often be found weeping in the fields because of his parents’ hatred of him. Even in the modern West, I have frequently seen mature people being deeply hurt, and unable to sleep for several nights after,  because of a word or gesture of disrespect from a parent; this is because the yearning for parental love runs deep. What then is xiao, such that it is something that exists even in the face of difficult parents who may not accept it?

   (To be continued)






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