Filial piety

Filial piety
In Japan, dutifulness is extolled in many forms. The bronze statue shows a son carrying his aged mother and climbing stone steps at a shrine.

In Confucian ideals, filial piety (Chinese: ) is one of the virtues to be held above all else: a respect for the parents and ancestors. The Confucian classic Xiao Jing or Classic of Xiào, thought to be written around 470 BCE, has historically been the authoritative source on the Confucian tenet of xiào / "filial piety". The book, a conversation between Confucius and his student Zeng Shen 曾參 (Zengzi 曾子), is about how to set up a good society using the principle of xiào (filial piety), and thus for over two thousand years has been one of the basic texts to be examined on in the Chinese Imperial Civil Service Exams. The term can also be applied to general obedience, and is used in religious titles in Christian Churches, like "filial priest" or "filial vicar" for a cleric whose church is subordinate to a larger parish.

In somewhat general terms, filial piety means to be good to one's parents; to take care of one's parents; to engage in good conduct not just towards parents but also outside the home so as to bring a good name to one's parents and ancestors; to perform the duties of one's job well so as to obtain the material means to support parents as well as carry out sacrifices to the ancestors; not be rebellious; show love, respect and support;display courtesy; ensure male heirs, uphold fraternity among brothers; wisely advise one's parents, including dissuading them from moral unrighteousness; display sorrow for their sickness and death; and carry out sacrifices after their death.

Filial piety is considered the first virtue in Chinese culture, and it is the main concern of a large number of stories. One of the most famous collections of such stories is The Twenty-four Filial Exemplars (Ershi-si xiao 二十四孝). These stories depict how children exercised their filial piety in the past. While China has always had a diversity of religious beliefs, filial piety has been common to almost all of them; historian Hugh D.R. Baker calls respect for the family the only element common to almost all Chinese believers.[1]


Filial piety and Confucianism

For Confucius, xiào was not merely blind loyalty to one's parents. More important than the norms of xiào were the norms of rén (Chinese (仁)) (benevolence) and (義) (righteousness). For Confucius and Mencius, xiào was a display of rén which was ideally applied in one's dealings with all elders, thus making it a general norm of intergenerational relations. In reality, however, xiào was usually reserved for one's own parents and grandparents, and was often elevated above the notions of rén and .

One of the important texts about filial piety in Confucianism is Xiao Jing (孝經; alternative transliteration: Hsiao Ching), the Book of Filial Piety. In Korean Confucianism, the hanja is pronounced hyo (효).

Filial piety and Buddhism in India

Hinayana Buddhism did not have a strong notion of filial piety. Buddhism in India involved many men leaving or abandoning their families, parents, wives, and children to become monks (Buddha himself was said to have done so). The true Buddhist had to reject all family ties, just as they had to reject social and class ties if they were to pursue Nirvana. Family was viewed as just another encumbrance of mortal life that had to be dealt with. Sorrow and grief were said to be "born of those who are dear."[2] Buddhist monks were obligated to sever all ties with their family and to forget their ancestors. Theravada Buddhism stressed individual salvation, and had little room for the interdependent society that Confucianism had created in China, which stressed the good of the community more than the good of the individual. In India, Buddhism also advocated celibacy among its monks which was unacceptable in the Confucian world view, given that it was viewed as the child's duty to continue the parental line.[3]

Introduction of Buddhism in China

When Buddhism was introduced to China, it was redefined to support filial piety. The Mouzi Lihuolun (牟子理惑論), a work defending Buddhism to the Chinese, presented arguments for Buddhist monks' seemingly poor treatment of their parents, by closely reading the works of Confucius himself.

The Mouzi Lihuolun

The Mouzi Lihuolun compares the Buddhist monk to a son who saves his father from drowning by grabbing him and lifting him upside down back into the boat. Grabbing and holding one's parents upside down is certainly not standard conduct, but because it is for the greater good of the parent, it should be allowed; if he had not violated rules of respectfulness, his father would have drowned. Confucius allowed for these "emergencies" by insisting that filial piety must adapt to existing circumstances. The behavior of a Buddhist monk is similar. While on the surface the Buddhist seems to reject and abandon his parents, the pious Buddhist is actually aiding his parents as well as himself on their path towards salvation. The Mouzi Lihuolun also attempted to counter charges that not having children was a violation of good ethics. It was pointed out that Confucius himself had praised a number of ascetic sages who had not had children or family, but because of their wisdom and sacrifice were still perceived as ethical by Confucius. The argument that Buddhist filial piety concerns itself with the parent’s soul is the most important one. The same essential argument was made later by Sun Chuo (314-371), who argued that Buddhists monks (far from working solely for their own benefit) were working to ensure the salvation of all people and aiding their family by doing so.[4] Huiyuan continued in this reasoning, arguing that if one member leaves the household to be a monk, then all other members of the family would benefit from good fortune and lead superior lives.

Adapting their efforts

These philosophical arguments were not entirely successful in convincing the filial Chinese that the behavior advocated by Buddhism was correct, and so less subtle methods were employed. To more directly give Buddhism filial nature, passages and parables that were of minor importance in Indian and Central Asian Buddhism became very prominent in Chinese Buddhism. The story of Shanzi 睒子 (Syama in Sanskrit), is an example of this.

Story of Shanzi

Shanzi (睒子) spent his entire life aiding his blind parents, until he was accidentally killed. But, because of his life of filial devotion, he was miraculously revived. This story was often mentioned in the Chinese canon of Buddhist writings, included in a number of different anthologies (such as the Liudu Jijing 六度集经) and referred to by other Chinese Buddhist writers.[5] While it is clearly of Indian origin, this tale was virtually indistinguishable from similar Chinese tales. While the tale was transmitted along with Buddhist writings, philosophically it had very little to do with traditional Buddhism.

The story of Moggallana

Another story advocating filial piety is that of Moggallana, a Buddhist monk who goes to great lengths to rescue his mother from condemnation for her unjust life. This story appeared in the Ullambana Sutra and it is far more relevant to Buddhism than the tale of Shan-tzǔ, though it was still not a particularly important tale in Indian Buddhism. In China, however, these stories became not just elements of Buddhist scripture, but also popular tales which were even told amongst non-Buddhists. While these tales were a part of the Buddhist tradition, Chinese Buddhism raised them from a peripheral role to a central one.

Other texts

  • Another tale that achieved great renown in China was that of the Buddha rising to heaven for three months after his Enlightenment to preach and teach his mother his new philosophy. This tale was used to indicate that the Buddha did indeed show proper concern and respect for his parents, in that he cared for their immortal souls.
  • A number of apocryphal texts were also written that spoke of the Buddha's respect for his parents, and the parent-child relationship. The most important of these, the Sutra on the Weighty Grace of Parents, was written early in the Tang dynasty. This Sutra has the Buddha making the very Confucian argument that parents made great sacrifices, and put great efforts into ensuring the well-being of their child. In return each child must repay this kindness with loyalty and respect. Despite being a forgery the sutra was accepted as accurate by generations of scholars and commoners, and it played an important role in the development of a fully Chinese variation of Buddhism. Other documents discussing the Buddha’s views on the parent child-relationship were also probably forgeries. The Sutra on a Filial Son, for instance, also sounds far more Chinese than Indian, and shows Confucianist influence.

Filial piety in Ryūkyūan cultures

Filial piety is an important element in the cultures of the Ryukyu Islands. It is the topic of half of the verses of the most popular Okinawan folksong, Tinsagu nu Hana.

Filial piety in Judeo-Christian thought

Judeo-Christian thought stresses following the Ten Commandments which are recognized as the moral foundation in Judaism and Christianity. Lee et al argues that it is rarely practiced in the West and most children from a Judeo-Christian background do not honor and care for parents to the extent of those from Eastern backgrounds. This is, they argue, because in the West, the individual is more important than the family and when an elderly parent becomes a burden to the adult child, the needs of the adult child to be burden-free supersedes any feeling of obligation to care for the elderly parent.[6]

Lee's theory, however, could be a result of misunderstanding of Western cultural mores coupled with ignorance of actual parent-child relations in Western societies.[7]

See also


  1. ^ Baker, Hugh D. R. Chinese Family and Kinship. New York: Columbia University Press, 1979. pg. 98
  2. ^ Piyajatika Sutta, or Sutta 87 of the Majjhima Nikaya, translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu
  3. ^ Traylor, Kenneth L. Chinese Filial Piety. Bloomington: Eastern Press, 1988. pg. 110
  4. ^ Zurcher, E. The Buddhist Conquest of China. Leiden: E. J. Brill., 1959a, pg. 134
  5. ^ Ch'en, Kenneth. The Chinese Transformation of Buddhism. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1973. pg. 23
  6. ^ Lee R.P., Yu E., Sun S. & Liu W.T. (2000) Living arrangements and elderly care: the case of Hong Kong. In Who Should Care for the Elderly: An East-West Value Divide (Liu W.T. & Kendig H., eds), Singapore University Press, National University of Singapore and World Scientific, Singapore, pp. 269–296.
  7. ^ Walker, Byrne (2007)

See also References

External links

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