Everyone sooner or later winds up in the position of taking care of someone, and many of us will take care of our parents. This is one essential part of being human — especially since we too at some point will be taken care of by someone. Looking after parents is difficult enough: not only do we have their physical needs to attend to, but we also have to negotiate the irritability, inflexibility, and repetitiousness that comes with getting older. This can be taxing and exhausting, but to Confucius, filiality, or xiao, requires a deeper engagement than just this fusion of helpfulness and patience.
Zi You asked about the meaning of filial piety. Confucius said, “Nowadays filial piety means being able to feed your parents. But everyone does this for even horses and dogs. Without respect, what’s the difference?” (Analects 2.7, tr. A.C.Muller)
A hundred years after Confucius, Mencius articulates the same thought with more power:
“To feed people without loving them — that is to treat them like pigs. To love people without respecting them — that is to keep them like pets.” ( Mencius, 7.A.37)
Thus Confucius’ vision reaches far beyond xiao to all our interactions with people. I find myself reflecting on these rich aphorisms a lot in my daily interactions with the people who depend on me — my children and other family members, as well as people who need help in my work. Often their moods and mental states make them hard to love or respect, and at such times it is easier to grind dutifully through the actions of service. It helps then to pull back and reflect: If I were in their position, I would hate to be endured, put up with, while being served. The feeling of being served without love or respect makes the service all the more demeaning, such that I would prefer to be left alone to die in dignity. So, knowing well how I would feel, I quietly readjust my attitude and find in myself the capacity to love and respect — because Mencius is right, people are neither pigs nor pets. In my own experience sensitive people always know whenever they are being treated without love and respect; it is impossible to fake it.
This principle surely extends to most forms of li (ritual, propriety, courtesy, all social formalities). With the handshake, for example, are we merely going through a rote gesture without thought or feeling — using it, as it were, to promote other ends? I think of the Donald Trump handshake, which hijacks a ritual by using it to demonstrate power. Or do we rather reflect on those two aspects of the handshake — the clasping of hands, indicating a willingness to get close enough for physical contact and a decision to trust the other; and the dance of hand-shaking, which expresses mutual concord and respect between equals? To be fully present in something like a handshake — as opposed to hiding behind it for some extraneous motive — we need to mean the handshake, not just do it. This is Confucius’ simple point about filial actions, li, and that great Confucian aspiration, sincerity: we must strive to mean what we do.