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In order to understand Chinese culture and society it is fundamental to understand the Chinese family. The family in China was not only a social unit, but it represented a whole codified ideology that pervaded the state and the society for thousands of years. Many of the differences between Chinese and Western thinking are comprehensible only from the point of view of the unique place that the family has in Chinese culture.

“The Classic of Filial Piety, ” by unknown artist(s). “Cultural Invigoration. Dynastic Renaissance: Art and Culture of the Southern Song” (exhibit). Taipei: National Palace Museum, via Wikimedia Commons.

Without doubt, the pillar of the Chinese family structure was the concept of filial piety. In Chinese, filial piety is expressed by the character 孝(pinyin: xiào). The character xiao is made up of an upper and a lower part. The first part is derived from the character lao (老, pinyin: lǎo), which means ‘old’. The second part is the character 子 (pinyin: zi), which means ‘son’. There are different interpretations of the meaning of the character xiao:

1) the old are supported by the younger generation;

2) the young are burdened and oppressed by the old;

3) the purpose of the family is the continuation of the family line (chronological, from top to bottom) (see Ikels 2004, pp. 2-3).

Filial piety was a central value in traditional Chinese culture. Its importance went far beyond that of the biblical commandment “honour thy mother and thy father”. Filial piety was and still is a value based on strict principles of hierarchy, obligation and obedience. It is no exaggeration to say that it was the very foundation of the hierarchical structure of the Chinese family and thus of the Chinese society as a whole. That does not mean that the idea of filial piety has not changed over the centuries or that children are always filial. But we need first of all to understand what xiao means, where it comes from, and how it was practised in the past, before we can examine the exceptions and the changes.

Confucianism, including classical and Han Confucianism, provided a view of the cosmos and social order that legitimated the Chinese patrilineal, patrilocal, and patriarchal family system. Confucian emphasis on obligations to patrilineal ancestors and Confucian exaltation of filial piety contributed to a moral order in which families were central to human identity and to a family system organized hierarchically so that men and older generations had considerable power over women and younger generations (Ebrey 2003, pp. 11-12).

The pre-eminence of filial duty is clearly demonstrated by the following Chinese saying: Of all virtues, filial piety is the first (百善孝為先; pinyin: bǎi shàn xiào wèi xiān).

Table of contents

  1. Feeding, Obeying, Sacrificing – The Ethics of Filial Piety
  2. Hierarchy, Authority, Obedience
    1. 1. Hierarchy and the Tale of Harmony
    2. 2. Gossip and Misunderstandings
    3. 3. Right and Wrong
  3. Xiao, the Family and the State
  4. Benign Authority and Love
  5. Chinese Life Cycles and the Benefits of Filial Piety


Feeding, Obeying, Sacrificing – The Ethics of Filial Piety

The concept underlying the principle of filial piety is simple. Parents gave life to children, gave them food and clothes, an education etc. For all the things that children received from parents, children have an eternal obligation towards them. They have a debt towards their parents, a debt that can never be fully repaid. The only thing that children can do in order to repay at least a small part of this debt, is to take care of their parents in their old age, to make them proud and happy, to obey and serve them.

I think that many Westerners often fail to understand how extreme, at least by Western standards, the concept of filial piety was in traditional Chinese society. In order to show this point, I will quote here two ancient Chinese stories that illustrate the ethics of filiality.

The first story is from the 24 Exemplars of Filial Piety (二十四孝, pinyin: Èrshísìxiào), a collection of tales about filial piety compiled by Guo Jujing, a Yuan Dynasty (1260-1368) scholar from Fujian Province (see Littlejohn 2010, pp. 139-140).The 13th story of the collection narrates how a man called Guo Ju (郭巨; pinyin: Guō Jù) buried his son alive so that his mother could eat.

Guo Ju was a poor man burdened with a wife, mother, and child. One day he said to his wife: “We are so poor that we cannot even support mother. Furthermore, our son shares mother’s food. Why don’t we bury the child? We can have another child, but if mother dies, we cannot replace her.” The wife did not dare to contradict him. He began to dig the grave for his own son, and suddenly he discovered a vase full of gold in the earth – a gift of Heaven to the filial son (see Lang 1946, pp. 25-26).

The meaning of this tale is clear. When faced with the dilemma of having to choose between one’s parents and one’s children (or wife, for that matter), one always has to choose the parents. This is the hierarchical principle of the superiority of the elder over the younger. It is the duty of children to take care of their parents at all costs, even if that means sacrificing one’s own children.

Food is not only in this story a central theme. In fact, it can be found in many, if not most tales about filiality. The word that summarises this aspect of filial piety is the verb yang (養/养, pinyin: yǎng), which means ‘feed’, or ‘raise’. In Chinese culture, food as a symbol of parental care on the one hand, and of the debt of children towards parents on the other hand, is a constant motif in parents-children relationship. In passing, I would like to point out that these exemplars of filial piety should not be dismissed as old-fashioned stories. They were and are still part of children’s education, both in the Republic of China (Taiwan) and the People’s Republic of China (mainland China), as Beijing’s recently updated edition of the book demonstrates.

There is a misconception that China has become ‘materialistic’ due to her opening up under Deng Xiaoping, and because money is increasingly important. There is a certain truth to this idea, but it is a misunderstanding to think that Western and Chinese ‘materialism’ are exactly the same. Western materialism is the desire to acquire material goods, money and power. This kind of materialism does exist in China, too.

However, in Chinese culture there is another, an ancient tradition of materialism based on the concept of filial piety and on the structure of the Chinese family. This materialistic worldview is completely different from a simply individualistic or hedonistic materialism, because it emanates from the moral and hierarchical Confucian ideal of familial interdependence. The Chinese family was founded on a ‘reciprocal bargain’ (Knapp 2013) between parents and children; parents took care of their children, and children would later give back to their parents. It is no coincidence that many stories about filial piety revolve around the subject of food or money.

In early China, besides expressing love or care, the presentation of food, or by extension material support, creates obligation. If one feeds a man, he is obligated to repay your kindness. This sense of obligation was so strong that it could be used as a means to control others. In the same way, a child is obligated to repay his parents for the food and care they provided him as a helpless child (Knapp 2013).

This aspect is very important. The Chinese preoccupation with money and material well-being is in many cases the consequence of this particular understanding of family relationships that emphasizes the idea of service, of rituals, and of ‘providing for someone’. Family relationships are based on age, gender and role-division, not on mutual understanding, equality or emotional closeness. Every family member has to act according to one’s role, and do certain things according to one’s position and obligations within the family. Parents have to provide for their children, and when children grow up, they have to provide for their parents. Husbands have to provide for their wives, and so on. At least, that was the original concept. Nowadays, this concept has somewhat changed, but it still survives in a more modern form, as I will explain in future posts.

For many Chinese or Taiwanese, love is not expressed with words, and it is not simply a matter of feeling. Love is shown and displayed through material care. Chinese parents and children are not so much interested in sharing their emotions through, for example, hugs or words. Filial piety and parental care are shown by ‘feeding’ someone, ‘providing’ for someone, or performing ritualistic acts. This rule applies to many kinds of familial relationships. If a husband is poor, he cannot show his love, because he lacks the material prerequisites to do so.


An example of filial behaviour is mourning one’s parents properly, if not lavishly. This was and still is a way to demonstrate one’s own filial piety. In Chinese literature, the act of mourning one’s parents properly is central. Here is a passage from the Ming Dynasty tale The Oil Vendor and the Queen of Flowers:

“Shilao was seriously ill, and soon he died. Zhu Zhong [Shilao’s adoptive son] mourned him as if he had been his own flesh and blood, and buried him according to the appropriate customs and rites, so that the whole neighbourhood praised his moral virtues as a filial son. After carrying out his filial duties, Qin Zhong reopened the oil shop.”


It is important to stress the motif of the neighbours praising Zhu Zhong’s filial devotion. This is a topic that is very common in Chinese culture.The emphasis on filial piety shapes the psychological and social identity of children. They are taught that good children must be filial and obedient, so that they experience a sense of shame if they feel otherwise. Filial piety, as it is inculcated in children and as it is viewed by the society, is a key social indicator of a person’s sense of responsibility, maturity and reliability.

Children who display filial devotion properly are regarded by the whole community as trustworthy, honourable and respectable. Being unfilial, on the contrary, can result not only in sense of shame, but also in bad reputation, and bad reputation in Chinese society, where interpersonal relationships are indispensable, is not just a question of how one is viewed by others, but also of how one is treated. Therefore, having a bad reputation can have negative repercussions on one’s life (see Ikels 2004, pp. 4-6). I’ve heard that in Taiwan, people hire young women who cry loudly for their parents, in order to express publicly their filial care.

The aforementioned motif of food as a demonstration of love is particularly interesting because until today Taiwanese and Chinese parents show that they care about their children by giving them food. They might put pressure on their children every day, they might push them and make their lives unhappy, but they will keep on feeding them as a token of parental love.

In one of his early films, Taiwanese film director Ang Lee used the motif of food in a masterly way. In Eat Drink Man Woman he tells the story of a patriarchal Taiwanese family. The father is one of the most famous cooks in Taipei. Every day he prepares sumptuous meals for his three daughters. They have to eat together because that’s what their father desires. But they barely talk with each other, and behind the curtain of family harmony and love, which are shown through the performance of ritualistic acts such as the common meals, there are problems and contradictions that will come to the surface in the course of the film. The visual emphasis placed on the delicious food cooked by the father is a brilliant symbol of the concept of yang, which at the same time represents love, parental power, and filial obligation.

Another consequence of this understanding of love and care, is that responsibility is mainly regarded as ‘providing’ for someone, rather than as caring about each other’s feelings. For example, in traditional Chinese society, a man could have more wives, regardless of whether wives were jealous. But as long as he provided for them, he was considered a responsible husband. Nowadays, there are many cases of husbands who have mistresses, or of children who barely talk with their parents. But as long as husbands provide for their wives, and children provide for their parents, they are considered responsible. It is very important to understand this point, because when Chinese or Taiwanese talk about responsibility, their understanding of responsibility may differ from that in the West.

The fact that children have to repay their obligation towards parents also leads to the idea that children are a sort of old-age insurance. In traditional Chinese society, children literally had to serve their parents. The material motivation behind filial piety is manifest in the ancient tale of Yuan Gu (原谷, pinyin: Yuángǔ):

“One day, Yuan Gu’s father and mother decided that his grandfather was too old to be useful, so they decided to get rid of him. Yuan followed his father, who used a litter to carry the grandfather to the mountains. After his father abandoned the old man, Yuan grabbed the litter and brought it home. When his father asked him why, he replied, ‘Perhaps later you too will become old and will not be able to work again. Merely in order to do the right thing, I have retrieved it.’ Terrified and ashamed, his father realized the error of his ways, retrieved the old man and served him in a filial manner.” (see Knapp 2013)

We can see here that the father becomes filial because he thinks of what will happen to himself when he is old. If he abandoned his father, he would break the hierarchical structure of the family, of which he will be a beneficiary in his old age.

In the second part of this post, I will be examining the concepts of hierarchy and obedience, and I will try to explain why filial piety and the hierarchical family structure have been so resilient and have secured the continuity of Chinese culture and society throughout the centuries.


Hierarchy, Authority, Obedience

Chinese people tend to depict their own society as ‘harmonious’ and ‘collectivist’, as opposed to Western disorder and individualism. As I have explained in a previous post, this view is not entirely exact.

We can understand Chinese society only if we realise that harmony and collectivism are nothing more than synonyms of hierarchy and social roles. I think anyone who has lived in China or Taiwan has seen that these societies are absolutely not free from interpersonal tensions. One of the most evident signs of these tensions is gossip in the workplace, which can be fierce and which clearly shows an extreme level of rivalry and a constant power struggle among colleagues as well as among superiors and subordinates.

If Chinese society were truly harmonious, if individuals thought about each other’s feelings, if everyone’s actions were motivated by altruism and so on, there ought to be no gossip, no rivalry, no political oppression, no conflicts between parents and children, friends etc. Every observation of Chinese society must lead to the conclusion that such conflicts do exist, and that therefore harmony and collectivism cannot be understood as altruism and solidarity.

Ruth Benedict once remarked in regard to Japanese culture, that the Japanese had an innate faith in hierarchy and order. For them, hierarchy was a fundamental notion that determined every individual’s relations to his fellow man (see Benedict 2006, p. 43). The idea that human relationships are based on hierarchy and social roles is often accepted unconsciously, as a necessity and a fact of life that doesn’t require further justification. What is true in the case of Japan, is also true – though partly to a lesser extent – in Chinese society and thinking.

Professor Akiko Hashimoto gives a very provocative definition of filial piety:

“Filial piety in East Asia today is at once a family practice, an ideology, and a system of regulating power relations. As practiced in the family, filial piety defines a hierarchical relationship between generations, particularly that of the parent and the child. In this ordered space, filial piety prescribes the ideology of devotion by the grateful child to the parent, and also places debt and obligation at the heart of the discourse on parent-child relationships. Contemporary filial piety is in this sense not merely a vestige of a past family custom, but an ongoing practice of surveillance and control that unleashes considerable disciplinary power. Using a discourse of gratitude and indebtedness, a hierarchy of power is reproduced in everyday life, privileging the old over the young and the parent over the child.” (Ikels 2004, p. 182)

Such understanding of filial piety focuses on the particular distribution of power within the family. That doesn’t mean that families in China are devoid of love. As we shall see later, analysing the hierarchical nature of filial piety does mean denying the existence of affection among family members. However, in order to understand how the Chinese family functions, it is necessary to look at filial piety from the perspective of the power structure of the Chinese family.

First of all, I would like to give you a vivid example of how filial piety and hierarchy were practised in old Chinese society. I will quote some passages from Six Records of a Floating Life (浮生六記 pinyin: Fú Shēng Liù Jì), by Shen Fu (沈復), a Qing Dynasty scholar who lived between the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th century. I cited this book many times on this blog. That’s because it is a classic of Chinese literature, and in many ways it is a unique one. It is the autobiography by a Chinese scholar who lived at a time in which China was still mostly untouched by Western influence. We can therefore observe Chinese society and thinking in its purest form. Shen Fu writes about his life with a remarkable degree of candour, and with a great amount of details about the daily life and the society of his time. His marriage with Yun, the love of his life, is one of the most touching and delicate love stories that can be found in Chinese literature.

Shen Fu and his wife Yun are happily married, but they are poor, and rumours begin to circulate about them. Shen Fu’s parents little by little start to dislike his wife, and then a series misunderstandings will lead to Yun’s disgrace.

“When my wife and I were living at home, we could not avoid pawning our belongings if we had unforeseen expenses; at first we somehow found ways to make ends meet, but later we were always in need […]. First our circumstances aroused talk amongst local gossips, and later scorn from our family. The ancients were right: ‘Lack of talent in a woman is a virtue.’ “[according to Shen Fu, his wife was too talented and therefore unsuitable to be a woman].

“Yün usually enclosed notes to me in letters from home, so one day my father said to me, ‘Since your wife can handle brush and ink, she can write your mother’s letters for her.’ But sometime later there was some gossip at home, and mother suspected Yün of writing something improper about it in one of her letters. After that she did not let Yün take up the brush for her.

“When father noticed that later letters were not in Yün’s handwriting he asked me whether she was ill. I wrote and asked her about it, but Yün did not reply. After a while father grew quite angry about this, and said to me, ‘Apparently your wife will not condescend to write letters for your mother!’ It was not until I returned home that I realized the cause of the misunderstanding, and I wanted to put things right for Yün. She hurriedly stopped me, however, saying, ‘I would rather have father blaming me for this than to have mother unhappy with me.’ So things were not cleared up after all.

“In the spring of 1792 I was living at Chenchou […]. At that time my younger brother Chi-tang was working under my father. While there I received a letter from Yün saying, ‘Your younger brother Chi-tang once borrowed money from a lady neighbour and asked me to be the guarantor. Now she is anxious to have the money back.’ I asked Chi-tang about it, but he only said that Yün was meddling in his affairs. I merely replied at the end of a letter, ‘Father and I are both ill, and we have no money to repay the loan. Wait until younger brother returns home and let him take care of it himself.’

“Father and I recovered not long afterwards, and I returned to Chenchou. Yün’s reply to my note arrived at Hungchiang after I had left, and father opened and read it. In her letter, Yün wrote of my younger brother’s borrowing from the neighbour, and also said, ‘Your mother thinks the old man’s illness is all because of the Yao girl [a girl who was about to become the concubine of Shen Fu’s father]. When he is a bit better, you should secretly order Yao to write to her parents saying she is homesick. I will tell her parents to go to Yangchou to fetch her home. This way, both sides can disclaim responsibility for her departure.’ When my father read this he was furious. He asked Chi-tang about the loan from the neighbour, but Chi-tang said he knew nothing of it. Father then wrote a letter reprimanding me, in which he said, ‘Your wife has borrowed money behind your back, and is now trying to say it is all little uncle’s fault. Moreover, she called her mother-in-law “your mother”, and referred to me as “old man”. This is outrageous! I have-already sent a messenger with a letter back to Soochow, ordering that she be expelled from the house. If you have any shame at all, you will recognize your errors!’

Receiving this letter was like hearing a clap of thunder on a clear day. I wrote a letter apologizing to father, and quickly rode home, afraid that Yün would commit suicide. I had arrived home and was explaining the whole affair when the servant arrived with father’s letter, detailing Yün’s errors in the harshest terms. Yün wept and said, ‘I may have been wrong to write so improperly, but father should forgive the ignorance of a woman.’ After a few days another letter arrived from my father saying, ‘I am willing to relent a little. You may take your wife and live somewhere else. If I do not have to see your face I will not be so angry!’ (Six Records of a Floating Life, Part III).

Let me now examine a few aspects of this quite long quotation, and most especially the ones concerning filial piety and family hierarchy.


1. Hierarchy and the Tale of Harmony

As we can see, in Shen Fu’s family age and gender matter a lot. Yun is in a very low position because she is the daughter-in-law. In traditional Chinese culture, her function was to help her husband fulfil his filial duties towards his parents. She literally belonged to her husband’s family, and she had to serve and please her parents-in-law. Neither Shen Fu nor Yun can do anything to defy his father’s will. He is the head of the household, and the last word is his. Being filial means to accept this hierarchical order willingly.

Obviously, a family like this cannot be described as harmonious. As I argued before, many people in East Asia use the word ‘harmony’ instead of using the word ‘hierarchy’, just because it sounds better. Words are an instrument to propagate a certain worldview, and choosing the words that make appear this worldview in a positive way is a strategy. Many Asian families may have tensions, even fierce tensions, but as long as they keep together in one way or the other and the outside world doesn’t know too much about their conflicts, they are considered harmonious.

2. Gossip and Misunderstandings

Gossip is an important phenomenon in Chinese society,
Because of the hierarchical structure of Chinese society, people cannot always speak up their mind directly in front of others. As a rule, direct communication mostly happens from top to bottom. As we have seen, the father condemned Yun in the harshest terms. He didn’t need to be indirect, because he is the father and he can express his view straight-forwardly. Yun, however, decides not to defend herself, because she is at the bottom of the hierarchy. This is a sign that she is virtuous, that is, she knows her ‘proper’ place.

Gossip generates misunderstandings, and misunderstandings have repercussions on people’s lives. That is why gossip is so widespread in the workplace in China and Taiwan. It is an expression of rivalry, power struggle, or simply of personal dislike. Typically, colleagues may try to say bad things about someone else in order to isolate that person, perhaps with the ultimate goal of damaging his or her image in the eyes of the colleagues and, most importantly, boss(es).

3. Right and Wrong

Sometimes East Asians think that Westerners are selfish, for example, because they confront their parents, or because they say ‘no’ to their bosses (for instance, when asked to work overtime). However, the reason why they think that Westerners are selfish is that they have been taught to accept a certain hierarchical power structure.

Let us look again at the example of Shen Fu’s father. He one-sidedly expels Yun from his household and humiliates her. And that’s only because of a misunderstanding and of improper wording. However, Shen Fu by no means challenges his father.

In traditional Chinese culture, ‘right and wrong’ do not depend on universal principles, but on the position of the individual in the hierarchy. In Confucian thought, parents are right per definition.

This doesn’t mean that children have to follow blindly what parents say. Confucius and Mencius themselves said that children can, gently and with reverence, try to show their parents that they are behaving improperly (see Chan / Tan 2013, p. 142). However, the formality and cautiousness with which children can hint at parents’ faults makes all too clear that children are inferior, and that if parents do not change their ways, children still have to revere and obey their parents.

The idea that right and wrong depend on hierarchical position is shown by the following example. Once a Korean told me that his wife and mother had had a disagreement. They did not express this disagreement openly, but complained to him about each other’s behaviour. He found himself in the situation of having to side with one of them. To my surprise, he was angry with his wife because she asked him to defend her. He said: “If I have to choose between my mother and my wife, of course I will always choose my mother.”

The conflict between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law is one of the recurring themes in East Asian literature. In the past, when the power of parents was way stronger than today, some mothers-in-law used to tyrannise their daughters-in-law, taking advantage of their hierarchical position which allowed them to do so unrestrained.

When his father died, Shen Fu mourned him and blamed himself for not serving him well. It never occurred to him that his father might have been unjust. After all, he was never at home, took concubines and drove Yun out of the house only because of a misunderstanding. But filial piety means sacrifice of children for parents. Shen Fu could not have blamed his father, otherwise he would have been an unfilial son.


Xiao, the Family and the State

Since ancient times the concept of xiao has had a remarkably central position in Chinese thought. Xiao appeared seventeen times in the Analects of Confucius and twenty-seven times in the Mencius (respectively the third and fourth of the so-called Four Books, a classic text of Confucianism) (see Chan / Tan 2013, p. 141).

In Book II of the Analects, Confucius explains to his disciples the meaning of filial piety:

“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 them. (2.5)

“Give your father and mother no other cause for anxiety than illness. (2.6) Nowadays for a man to be filial means no more than that he is able to provide his parents with food. Even dogs and horses are, in some ways, provided with food. If a man shows no reverence, where is the difference? (2.7) What is difficult 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 food when these are available, that hardly deserves to be called filial.” (ibid., p. 141).

According to Confucius, filial piety was a virtue that had to be demonstrated by performing rites, and by nourishing one’s parents. This very practical understanding of familial bonds and of love has remained in Chinese culture to this day. However, Confucius also stressed that performing the proper rites and serving one’s parents should be the expression of sincere and heartfelt reverence. 

Nevertheless, from a practical point of view, the ideal relationship that Confucius envisioned was far more difficult to achieve than the simple performance of rites. In fact, in order to maintain the specific family hierarchy of Chinese society, obedience was and still is a way more effective tool than looking into children’s hearts. You can compare this with the practice of going to church in strictly Christian communities. Attending the mass is a ritualistic act. Whether a person is a true believer or not, is another matter.

Filial piety stressed the obligations of children towards parents, and the most important of them was to continue the family lineage. As Mencius said: “There are three ways of being unfilial, and to have no posterity is the greatest of them“. Han scholar Zhao Qi explained that the three unfilial behaviours are: “deceiving your parents with flattery and leading them to ignore righteousness; not entering public service and making a career when parents are old and living in poverty; not marrying and having no posterity to carry on the ancestral sacrifice” (Chan / Tan 2013, p. 142).

Both Confucius and Mencius lived before China became one unified country. After China was unified by the Qin Dynasty (221–206 BC) and an autocratic imperial state was created, filial piety began to be incorporated into the new state ideology (ibid., p. 144). The Classic of Filial Piety states:

“Filial piety is the root of all virtues, and from which all teaching comes … The body, the hair and skin are received from our parents, and we do not injure them. This is the beginning of filial piety. When we have established ourselves in the practice of the Way, so as to make our name famous in future generation and glorify our parents, this is the end of filial piety. Filial piety begins with the serving of our parents, continues with the serving of our ruler, and is completed with the establishment of our own character.” (ibid., p. 146).

I would like to stress this point. Filial piety, as a feeling of indebtness and gratitude, as a set of obligations and duties, and as a complete willingness to accept subordination, was at the core of the old imperial system. And although society has changed, the idea that children should glorify and serve parents and give them posterity, is the main reason why parents demand so much from their children, instil into them ambitions, and impose upon them high expectations. Many parents think that children are ‘their own thing’, and that children should not disappoint them. Advocates of Asian values say that Asian societies stress duties, while Western societies stress rights. That is not quite true. Asian societies stress the rights of the elders and of superiors more than they stress the rights of the younger and of the inferiors. 

The extreme competition of Chinese societies can be partly explained by the fact that it’s parents themselves who, in perfect Confucian tradition, nurture the ambition of their children in order that they may glorify them in the future. A clear example of this is given by Emperor Chengzu (1360-1414) of the Ming Dynasty in his book Biographical Accounts of Filial Piety (孝順事實, pinyin: Xiàoshùn shìshí).

Filial piety in the past did not refer only to serving your parents when alive and mourning after death. The important thing is to make a name for your parents. Serving when alive and mourning after death are certainly filial acts. However, if a son can study and establish himself, transfer filial piety to loyalty and win great renown, so that people can trace his virtue to his parents and say, “how lucky to have a son like this,” this is called making a name for your parents and the greatness of filial piety.35 There are five human relationships, the sovereign and parents are the most important. Those who are filial to their parents will also be loyal to their ruler. Serving his parents with filial piety, thus his loyalty can be transferred to his sovereign (ibid., pp. 150-151).

We can understand why filial piety was so important. It was the cornerstone of a system of subordination that began in the family and ended in the service for the monarch. This system, in which everyone had a position, and everyone learnt from early childhood to respect one’s position and to understand its indebtness towards one’s superiors, created hierarchy, order and safety. Consequently, a filial son was also considered a loyal subject. Small wonder that an old Chinese saying declares: “A loyal minister could only be found in the family of filial sons” (ibid., p. 148).

If it is true that Chinese society was based on hierarchy and authority, one might wonder why this social structure lasted so long. Why did no one rebel, and why did no one question the principles of parental or imperial authority? There are some reasons why the system of family relationships was so resilient. Let’s take a closer look at them.


Benign Authority and Love

Although the Chinese family was based upon hierarchy and subordination, it was not per se an authoritarian system as we might imagine it. The Chinese hierarchical system was perhaps the most efficacious and advanced, but also humane system for disciplining the individual that has ever existed. 

Let us compare briefly hierarchy and collectivism in China and the West. It is often said that the West is individualistic, but that is nothing more than a mistake or a misunderstanding. If you look at European history, you will easy find out that there have been throughout the centuries numerous examples of extremely hierarchical and collectivist social systems. Two of the most important ones are religion (Christianity) and totalitarian regimes (Fascism, Communism). Both systems are collectivist by definition. In Christianity, the individual must give everything for his faith in God. In totalitarian societies, the individual is nothing, and ideology (the nation, the leader, the state etc.) is everything. Generally speaking, Western collectivist systems were abstract ideologies. For example, in Nazi Germany, a small group of political leaders made decisions for the whole nation. There was no personal relationship whatsoever between the leaders and those whose lives they completely controlled. There was no chance for the individual to rebel. Everyone had to subordinate to the state, to the community, to collective values. These were, as I see it, inhumane systems of subjugation of the individual for the sake of abstract ideals. 

In the Chinese family, on the contrary, hierarchy was based on personal relationships. There were certainly many acts of cruelty in that system: fathers could sell their children, infanticide was not uncommon, etc. Nevertheless, there was also love and affection. Besides, common interests bound the family members together. It was in many respects a relatively benign, a humane form of authoritarianism. Furthermore, there were many possibilities for individuals to bend the system through tricks. If I can mention again Shen Fu’s autobiography, there is a passage in which he and his wife want to go to a party but cannot go together because she, like all women in old China, had to stay at home. So, they make up an excuse for Shen Fu’s parents. She dresses as a man and they go together to the boat party.   

The second reason why the Chinese family system has  been so resilient has to do with a peculiarity of Chinese and East Asian societies: Life cycles.


Chinese Life Cycles and the Benefits of Filial Piety

“The arc of life in Japan”, noted Ruth Benedict, “is plotted in opposite fashion to that in the United States. It is a great shallow U-curve with maximum freedom and indulgence allowed to babies and to the old,” (Benedict 2006, p. 254).

In Western societies, the peak of life is usually between the age of 18 and 30/40. Children want to grow up quickly, and when they’ve grown up they don’t want to get old. Youth is the period in which one is free, can enjoy his life, can earn money. 

In Chinese culture, as in Japan and South Korea, the most carefree part of one’s life, when one is respected, spoilt and cared for, are childhood and old age. In some respects, one may say that Asian people are born as children, and in their old age they go back to childhood, only that this time, instead of their parents, it’s their children who take care of them. 

Traditionally, children in Chinese society are the kings and queens of the house. They can play around, are spoilt and can do pretty much what they want. The hard time begins when they start to go to school, and it continues for much of their adult life. Because, as children grow, parents impose upon them expectations and obligations. Since in Asia filial piety is common sense, the requests of parents are reinforced by the general attitude of the society. Children who don’t conform are confronted with strong parental pressure, and with the rejection by the society. Parental pressure in Asian works better than in the West, because Asian parents are 100% convinced that they are right and that what they want is good for their children; moreover, parents usually base their demands on the standards set by society as a whole, so the psychological pressure on children is enormous. Children become afraid of being seen as losers if they rebel and make decisions entirely on their own.

What made the Chinese family system so enduring, was that everyone enjoyed some degree of power, and that individuals who were inferior would then themselves become superior. In fact, even the poorest of men in China was a king: a king in his own household. He was nothing compared to the Emperor or a Magistrate, but he, too, had some subordinates who had to serve and obey him: his own children.

While sons or daughters-in-law were powerless in their youth, when they grew old their turn came to command. Sons would inherit their fathers’ role, and daughters-in-law would become mothers-in-law and be as powerful (and perhaps evil) as their own mother-in-law had been. In some respects, it was also a system that favoured bullying by superiors to inferiors. You can still see this in contemporary Chinese culture. 

This distribution of power allowed every individual to exert control over someone. This hierarchical system, along with the love and affection that naturally arise within families, allowed the Chinese family system and the concept of filial piety to survive for hundreds of years.  


If you enjoyed this article, you may be interested in my books and translations:

Breeze of a Spring Evening and Other Stories

Rags or Riches – A Hong Kong Novel

Craven A and other Stories

The Oil Vendor and the Queen of Flowers: A Tale From Ancient China

The Adventure of Urashima Taro