Confucianism – and filial piety
sparing of speech but trustworthy in what he says, and should love the
multitude at large but cultivate the friendship of his fellow men. If
he has any energy to spare from such action, let him devote it to making
In these two quotes, notice that there is a differentiation in age: first you are a ‘son’, and then you become a ‘young man’. However observe that what is required of sons is that they are ‘good’, and of young men that they are ‘obedient’. We will also see later on that a son’s obedience is even expected to continue beyond the death of the father. In Confucianism, there is no point at which a virtuous man might cease being obedient to his parents!
Not only does filial piety secure virtuous conduct in the individual, it was also seen as vital in securing virtue in the nation as a whole:
Remember that through this, Confucius sought to bring about stability and harmony in a land divided by warring states.
The filial son should not think for himself, but almost live
vicariously for his parents. Here are some quotes showing that the filial son should worry about his parents. That the filial son should not go too far away from his parents (should his parents require something of him). And even if his parents are doing wrong, the filial son should remain reverent and wear himself out in obedience of them!
ignorant of the age of father and mother. It is a matter, on the one
hand, for rejoicing and, on the other, for anxiety.’
parents are alive, you should not go too far afield in your travels. If
you do, your whereabouts should always be known.’
father and mother you ought to dissuade them from doing wrong in the
gentlest way. If you see your advice being ignored, you should not
become disobedient but should remain reverent. You should not complain
even if in so doing you wear yourself out.’
That last quote mentions the key word, ‘reverence’. Because throughout the life of the parents, filial piety involves more than mere obedience and looking after the physical needs of parents – that would make your parents no
different from pets! A filial son should also show reverence for his parents:
asked about being filial. The Master said, ‘Nowadays for a man to be
filial means no more than that he is able to provide his parents with
food. Even hounds and horses are, in some way, provided with food. If a
man shows no reverence, where is the difference?’
to manage is the expression on one’s face. As for the young taking on
the burden when there is work to be done or letting the old enjoy the
wine and the food when these are available, that hardly deserves to be
What you think under the expression of your face is irrelevant. Crucially, the test of whether you are filial (and therefore a virtuous man) is not whether you think you are doing a good job of looking after your parents or in showing them reverence – but in what your parents think of you:
This is because his own illness is the only thing that the filial son cannot do anything about! Everything else – including the expression on his face, or how he responds to his parent’s wishes, or even his travel plans – must be turned to please his parents.
Not only does the duty of a filial son extends throughout all of life, it even extends beyond the grave. The filial son is expected to continue in obedience to the ways of their father for at least three years, and must continue to show reverence for his parents in performing the rites.
filial. The Master answered, ‘Never fail to comply.’
Fan Ch’ih was
driving. The Master told him about the interview, saying, ‘Meng-sun
asked me about being filial. I answered, “Never fail to comply.”‘
Ch’ih asked, ‘What does that mean?’ The Master said, ‘When your parents
are alive, comply with the rites in serving them; when they die, comply
with the rites in burying them; comply with the rites in sacrificing to
While Confucianism has not been officially taught since the cultural revolution in China (and your parents probably haven’t been officially instructed in it), the Confucian value of filial piety continues to be passed down from generation to generation – and has even influenced Chinese growing up in the Western world!
What are some indications of being influenced by filial piety? Here are some ways it can show itself today:
- You feel you have a life-long duty to please your parents.
- You feel a strong obligation to fulfill your parents’ expectations about your studies and career.
- You are not truly successful unless your achievements are appreciated by your parents.
- Your parents’ expectations, and your desire for their approval motivate your pursuit for success.
- If you failed a subject, you would be more worried about your parents being disappointed than your own pride.
- If your father committed a crime, you would not not feel guilty concealing it from the police.
- It means more to you than anything else that your parents think of you as a good son or daughter.
Do things on that list describe your experience? Now you know where it all comes from!
[ PS: how do you think this should relate to the Bible's command to obey/honour/care for one's parents? ]