On Not Treating People Like Pigs or Pets

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



Why Is Filiality “the Root of Goodness”?

君子務本、本立而道生。孝弟也者、其爲仁之本與 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)
Words for “good” are always unsatisfactory and impossible to define. Even in Plato we do not find a completely acceptable definition of “virtue” or “justice.” In Confucius the word ren, 仁, a character made up of the glyphs for “person” and “two,” encapsulates the highest human goodness. We will be looking at this idea again in future posts, but here a crude summary will suffice: ren is what you see in a person who looks you in the eyes with clarity and sincerity, who is fully present in every situation and task, who stands by his word and is wholly trustworthy, who cares and empathizes, and who — knowing what he knows and doesn’t know — will strive unflaggingly to understand with imagination and intelligence. A human being with developed ren is a “superior person” or junzi, one whom you would like as colleague, friend, sibling, employee, boss, or comrade; a statesman with ren will base judgments and decisions on the right notivations, and will be loved and defended by the people. Why does Confucius (and also Mencius) keep saying that the root of this attribute of a wonderful human being has to be xiao, “filiality”?

    We do not choose our parents, and they have no idea what they are in for when we arrive. Yet we must live together for our most important years, and for a while they have authority over us. We watch them carefully and know all their weaknesses, hypocrisies, and errors, and they have to deal every day with our willfulness and irrationality. Over time, we learn how to push each other’s secret buttons and how to bite our tongues when we sense our parents trying to provoke us. By the time we are teenagers we become very sensitive to our parents’ manipulations. Ancient Chinese parents were not angels and were just as difficult to love and respect as our own parents, yet xiao commands us to love and respect them. The parent-child relationship is the first situation in which the child can learn how to love actual people. 

   Now, children have an advantage in this study, because they come with a tendency to trust and love — but over a few years they also learn that their parents have some unlovable traits. To love and respect in spite of such traits takes work, self-restraint, and self-reflection — as well as a growing capacity for understanding what is behind the disagreeableness of the parent. In the practice of xiao, we learn to love human beings as they are given to us in all their warty glory, and, since we usually don’t expect our parents to change, we learn in xiao to have relationships based on the acceptance of reality and not on hope of change. If we cannot love and respect our parents, how can we love and respect anyone else? With our non-familial relationships, we like to think that we choose people, but in fact what we choose is the tip of the iceberg; it is after the ship unites with the iceberg that the vast submerged bulk makes its terrible presence felt. Romance might look like two people choosing each other, but even here, after the sheen of initial attraction has been rubbed off, we are faced with the hard work of living with a real person and not just our projection. Every close relationship succeeds or fails according to our ability to do this work, and xiao is where we learn to do it. If we never practice it, and think instead that we are free to reject our parents and choose better parents, we will never learn to dwell with what people really are, and will only experience love and respect as fragile shells.

   Ren, humane goodness, is rooted in the xiao, which is a lifelong and difficult practice, because our relationship with our parents doesn’t stop changing, even after they die. Like the roots of flowers and trees, xiao is muddy and unglamorous; and just as the tree that we see towering above us is anchored by an equally huge tree of roots, so each one of us can have only as much ren as we have xiao.

Filiality: A Question of Feeling

Confucius was frequently challenged by pragmatists of the “time-is-money” variety as to the wastefulness of ritual. These challengers were not necessarily shallow materialists obsessed with profit; some, like the followers of the utilitarian Mozi, considered ritual a distraction from important activities like feeding the poor and takng care of the sick. Here, even a close disciple, the rhetorician Zai Wo, proposes shortening the three-year mourning period for a parent to one year, because it would be “enough”:

Zai Wo asked: “Isn’t the three-year mourning period [for parents] too long? If the [junzi] does not exercise ritual for three years, the rituals will certainly deteriorate; if music is not played for three years, it will certainly vitiate. Last year’s grain is already gone, this years’ grain has already sprouted. And the seasonal cycle for the use of wood for producing fire by friction has already passed through. One year is enough. ” Confucius said, “Are you comfortable with eating good rice and wearing fine silk [soon after your parents have died]?” “Yes, I am fine with it.” “If you are OK with it, then go ahead and do it. When the [junzi] is in mourning, he cannot enjoy the taste of delicious food, cannot enjoy the sound of music, and cannot be comfortable in his own home, and therefore he won’t do such a thing. Now, if you are comfortable with it, then do it.” Zai Wo left. Confucius said, “How inhumane Zai Wo is! It is only after three years that a child [leaves] his parent’s embrace. The three-year period of mourning is observed throughout society. Wasn’t Zai Wo loved three years by his parents?” (Analects 17.19, tr. A. Charles Muller)

 “If you are OK with it, then go ahead and do it”: Confucius’ reply is brutally sarcastic, but it reveals that the three-year mourning period is not an abstract prescription but a sensitive formalization of real feeling. When a parent dies, is it not a fact that the actual period of mourning lasts a few years? There are the feeling of loss and grief, the longing, the memories of early life together and thoughts of gratitude — but also the feelings of injury, resentment, misunderstandings? — because parents and children spend many years hurting each other and leaving lifelong scars. All these constitute mourning for a parent, because the parental impact on our lives is primal and complex. Even when we live in a society where we have to be functional again after a few weeks, is it not the case that underneath the functionality we feel our mourning like an undertow that carries with it all our daily interactions? Our own society would function better if it could be more open to mourning and make room for it in our working lives.

    Mourning for a parent is also bound up with the knowledge that we are now next in line for death; the main barrier between us and death has fallen. After a parent’s death, a sensitive person finds himself in terra incognita, not sure of who he is any more and where life is taking him. Because of this, most people find themselves speechless after the loss of a parent, and the ability to talk about it comes with time and guidance. With all these thoughts pressing on us, how could we simply find satisfaction in the usual sensory comforts? The rituals of mourning unite us with all those billions of people who have undergone the same mysterious event, and gives us meaningful words and actions to guide us through our perplexity. If they are good rituals, they are built upon a deep understanding of what mourning is, and of its natural course — for all rituals presuppose a course in our feelings that needs to be acknowledged and moved through. 

   If Zai Wo does not have these feelings, then the three-year mourning ritual would indeed be nothing more than an imposition — in which case it seems right to advise him not to pretend, and to go ahead and shorten the period. Confucius thinks that this shows a deficiency in Zai Wo’s humanity — for how could a person fully experience being human if he simply doesn’t feel very much about a parent’s death, if he only has one year’s worth of emotions and thoughts to work through? Are his other relationships even shallower than this? Zai Wo strikes me as being clever but callow, someone with a quick mind who isn’t “there” yet. If he were to lose a parent now, such a person usually finds himself hit harder than most of us — because now he is forced onto a level of human existence that he has spent his life avoiding. For such a person, the markers and signposts of ritual are especially beneficial, because they show him how to be by giving him words and actions that he never suspected he would be needing. And in life’s major passages, do we not always discover ourselves saying and doing things that we never imagined we would say or do?

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.

“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)