Filial Piety

Many Chinese consider filial piety to be the crown jewel of their civilization. The core of Confucius’ teaching, some aspects of filial piety reach back into the dawn of Chinese civilization, centuries before Confucius himself.Just what is “filial piety”? Traditionally, the concept has included at least three components: Obedience to one’s parents; respect for all in authority; and some form of ancestor “worship.” Let us look first at the most basic form of filial piety:

Obedience to parents

From the earliest days, Chinese have believed in, inculcated, and even enforced total obedience to one’s parents, especially your father. Parents have had the right to tell their children what to eat, what to wear, what to study, where to work, and – until recently – whom to marry. They expect no questions, and may disregard their children’s wishes, for they assume that they know best and their children don’t know what is good for them. Of course, parents are obligated to provide for their children, and especially to secure for them the best possible education. But listening, understanding, admitting that they might perhaps not be totally correct – these are not generally considered to be parental duties. Even after marriage, Chinese children have long fallen under the authority of their father and mother. The parent-child relationship takes priority over the husband-wife bond. Indeed, a wife is to obey her mother-in-law, even if she is verbally abusive, and your children “belong,” in some sense, to your parents, not to you. If you are a man, your mother may be outraged if you pay more attention to your wife than to her. In the old days, families lived together in a large compound, but even now, when urbanization has to some extent given the nuclear family some private space, parents sometimes pressure children to visit much more than we would in the West. For millennia, children have been the only source support for aged parents. Even today, they often feel obligated to send home a major portion of their salary, even if their parents are not yet retired or don’t need the money. You can imagine the sorts of marital conflicts that could arise if the young couples themselves don’t have a lot of money. Of course, modernization, including urbanization and globalization, has introduced massive changes into the traditional patterns. Children may now live not just across the city, but across the ocean, from their parents. Modern life rushes on at a pace that prevents long hours of leisurely time together, not to mention whole days with one’s parents. Today’s women don’t necessarily want to obey their mothers-in-law, and their husbands can’t enforce the kind of submission that used to prevail. It is even reported that the younger women will sometimes treat their mothers-in-law as harshly as their mothers were treated a generation ago.

Filial piety and the Bible

Many – perhaps most – Chinese see no conflict between traditional Chinese filial piety and the Scriptures. After all, doesn’t the Bible say, “Honor your father and your mother?” Certainly, Christian and Confucian ethics do agree with children should honor and (when small) fully obey their parents. Others (though not many) raise questions about the degree of overlap between Christianity and Confucianism at this point. Significantly, the Chinese translation of the Fifth Commandment does not use the word for “honor” [show respect], but employs two characters that incorporate almost the entire weight of traditional Chinese understanding. Several questions need to be asked at this point: What about the biblical teaching to parents: “Fathers, do not provoke your children to wrath” (Ephesians 6:4) and “Do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged.” (Colossians 3:21)? What does the Bible’s oft-repeated statement, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and cling [cleave] to his wife” mean? Does it not strongly imply that marriage creates a major change in the parent-child relationship and places a man’s wife before his mother in importance? If a wife is supposed to submit to her husband (Ephesians 5:22 ff; Colossians 3:28), does that not put a buffer between her and her mother-in-law? And if a husband should sacrifice himself for his wife, then should he not be willing to “die” – at least emotionally – in order to nurture and protect his wife? If children should honor their parents, then who should have primary say in their lives, their father and mother, or grandparents? Surely, aged and needy widows must be cared for financially by their children (1 Timothy 5:3-16). But does a child have to send money home to parents who are both alive and able to earn income? If so, how much?

Points of Contact

Therefore, just as no Chinese word for “God” exactly corresponds to the biblical terms Elohim and Theos, and the yin and yang theory does not completely describe ultimate reality, so traditional Chinese notions of “filial piety” do not correspond totally to the biblical picture of the parent-child relationship. Instead, these concepts and terms reflect the creation of mankind in the image of God, and our universal fall into sin and darkness. As God’s image-bearers, we can discern some truth, but as fallen rebels, we twist and pervert that truth, so that we go astray in our minds and actions. How thankful we should be that God’s special revelation in the Scriptures enables us to affirm the value of traditional values, and to be set from “the aimless conduct [futile ways] received by tradition from [our] fathers” (1 Peter 1:18)!

Reader Response

Thank you for this great treatise on filial piety. I find it a confirmation of some of the conflicts that most of my cousins and even I myself are going through. My decision to move out of my parent's place and live 5 minutes away in an apartment was viewed by many of my relatives as bordering on the insane. They couldn't understand how i would not 'take care" of my parents even thought they aren't old enough to require any assistance. Financially they don't understand the need to waste money paying rent while there's a huge house not being used. Being educated here, I felt the need for more freedoms in terms of when i could goto bed, when i come home, who comes over, etc. So this was a point of contention. As for sending money home, my cousins are all judged on their ability to give money to their parents. I am from the countryside, so the parents are all relatively poor and traditional. They send their children out to work in the cities and hopefully get a better life than they do. All the kids are then expected to send money back. How they treat their parents is directly related to how they are judged as people. It doesn't matter how much money they have or how great their job is, if they don't send enough back, they are viewed with disdain and much is said about them through the rumor mill. One of my uncle's has 2 sons, both in the same city. One gets about 2500 rmb a month and the other only 400. But the latter sends over 300 rmb a month back while the other has sent only 2000rmb in the past year. Even though he is much better off and has a brighter future, all our relatives regularly berate the first son for not being a good son, even not being a good person. As for potential mates, Jennifer has been judged by almost all of my friends and relatives by her success financially and how she treats my mother. Some may ask about her physical appearance, height, beauty, skin darkness, etc. But most importantly to the older generation are her abilities to make money and make peace with my mother, which I'm happy to say she passes both tests and has been approved by all my numerous aunts and uncles and great aunts. As for after marriage, there is a common saying in China; "zuo nan ren, nan a" which means "being a man, it's hard." And that's because they have to make money, take care of the wife, but also take care of the parents. The mother and the wife have to get a long or else the man's job in the middle will be fraught with peril. Especially in this day and age, the husband has to satisfy a traditionally minded mother while trying to fulfill his husbandly duties to a modern minded wife, often times failing to adequately satisfy either. Just some of my experiences. Your points seem to go very well with what I've experienced.