Is Filial Piety Merely Obedience to Parental Despotism?

Is “filial piety” or xiao essentially a lifelong training in docility, obedience, and submission — creating children who never really grow up, and parents who ossify into tyrants? When we have bad or even wicked parents, do we have to suck it up and never question? Speaking as an Asian, I have to say that these are questions that bother even Asians.

   A conversation in book 2 of the Analects gives us a surprising answer:

孟懿子問孝。子曰。無違。樊遲御、子吿之曰。孟孫問孝於我、我對曰、無違。』 樊遲曰。何謂也 子曰。生、事之以禮; 死、葬之以禮、祭之以禮。
 Meng Yizi asked about the meaning of xiao. Confucius said, “’Do not disobey.’” Later, when Fan Chi was driving him, Confucius told Fan Chi, “Mengsun asked me about the meaning of xiao, and I told him ‘Do not disobey.’” Fan Chi said, “What did you mean by that?” Confucius said, “When your parents are alive, serve them with propriety; when they die, bury them with propriety, and then sacrifice to them with propriety.” (Analects, 2.5)

The first interlocutor, Meng Yizi, was a scion of a family well known for extravagance in rituals and lack of restraint. That he asks “about the meaning of xiao” suggests that the topic was, even among Confucius’ contemporaries, not well understood. “Do not disobey” seems a simple and predictable answer: Just do what you’re told. But Meng shows the superficiality of his interest by not questioning Confucius further. However, Confucius’ student Fan Chi understands that there must be more to it than obedience, and in his response, the sage places xiao as in fact subordinate to another idea. The word li, here translated as “propriety,” can also be translated “ritual” or “ceremony”; it is a broad term with no exact correlate in English, and in future pages I will go into it in more detail. Here, to understand the meaning of xiao, we have to gain some rudimentary understanding of what is covered by li.

   As  “ceremony,” it encompasses all the obvious ceremonial events of a culture: the civic and religious festivals, New Year, Thanksgiving, inaugurations and other formal openings, baptisms, marriages, funerals — the big markers for entire communities. As “ritual,” the reach of li is deeper and more subtle, permeating ordinary interactions in ways we are barely conscious of: handshakes, greetings, partings, etiquette around food and drink, how to approach specific types of people like policemen and judges, personal hygiene and dress codes, how we speak to different people. All of these involve a sense of propriety, of what is appropriate or inappropriate to do, and violations of propriety are keenly felt. We usually take two decades to learn how to navigate this level of li. But there is a deeper, micro-level of li on which we conduct ourselves more intuitively. For example, in conversations, at what length do we speak, how do we enter a conversation, how do we signal that our comments have ended, how do we tell that someone has finished speaking, when is it acceptable to interrupt…It is impossible to teach such things, because they are so wrapped up in “psychological timing”; most people manage to learn, but some people never seem to get it, no matter how hard they try. Every type of social interaction on a deeper level requires a degree of finesse. This is why we are never done with li; there is always more to understand, and always room for improvement. As human beings, we have a natural gift for doing li, but to do it well we cannot go by rote. The art of not offending people, for example, depends on knowing in oneself what it is to be offended, what kinds of things might be offensive, and what might offend this person here right now; it also requires that we care. 

   Thus, like every human interaction, xiao involves li and must accord with it. To live well in society, we have to cultivate and refine our knack for li, and we must somehow enjoy it, otherwise li would be nothing more than an exhausting burden.  We have to develop a feeling for li. For instance, we spend ten years teachng a child basic habits of hygiene, which he might resist and resent; but at a certain point, the child starts to like being well dressed, washed, and fresh of breath, and feels uncomfortable when he isn’t. The li of hygiene is completed by being assimilated into the personality. So when Confucius says When your parents are alive, serve them with propriety, he means something more than dutifulness: a pervasive sense and love for right actions accomplished well and without ego. Li informs all the actions of a good human being. While there is no book of rules that will tell you unequivocally how to behave in every instance, in general Confucian thought starts from the presupposition that the human heart is capable of self-reflecting and of figuring out what is right in any given situation. If our parents are abusive alcoholics and insist on drinking one more bottle than they can handle, Meng Yizi would be wrong to simply obey, and no one knows this better than he does; obedience would not be in accord with li or with xiao, since fulfilling such a wish would be harmful to the parents directly as well as indirectly, by damaging their relationships to everyone. He would be justified to remonstrate:


The Master said: “When you serve your mother and father it is okay to try to correct them gently. But if you see that they are not going to listen to you, keep your respect for them and don’t distance yourself from them. Work without complaining.” (4.18)

   This advice comes more from common sense than conventional prescription. When the power is all on the parents’ side, what more can we do than speak our minds firmly and, if we fail, not give up on them,  continuing instead with respect and trust in their capacity to do the right thing eventually? After all, we would want our children to do the same for us. If we see that their persistence in a wrong course of action will lead to a result they are certain to regret, it would not be xiao to acquiesce in this destructive course. We will see this later when we meet the legendary sage-emperor Shun, the exemplar of xiao.


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