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In Confucian and Chinese Buddhist ethics, filial piety (Chinese: , xiào) is a virtue of respect for one's parents, elders, and ancestors. The Confucian Classic of Filial Piety, thought to be written around the Qin-Han period, has historically been the authoritative source on the Confucian tenet of filial piety. The book, a purported dialogue between Confucius and his student Zengzi, is about how to set up a good society using the principle of filial piety. Filial piety is central to Confucian role ethics.[2]

Filial piety
The Classic of Filial Piety (士章 畫).jpg
Scene from the Song Dynasty Illustrations of the Classic of Filial Piety (detail), depicting a son kneeling before his parents.[1]
Chinese name
Vietnamese name
Vietnamese alphabethiếu
Korean name
Japanese name

In more 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 one's parents as well as to 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; bury them and carry out sacrifices after their death.[3]

Filial piety is considered a key virtue in Chinese and other East Asian culture, and it is the main subject of a large number of stories. One of the most famous collections of such stories is The Twenty-four Cases of Filial Piety (Chinese: 二十四孝; pinyin: Ershi-si xiao). These stories depict how children exercised their filial piety in the past.[4] 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 people.[5]



Filial piety is illustrated by the Chinese character xiao (孝). The character is a combination of the character lao (old) above the character zi (son), that is, an elder being carried by a son.[6] This indicates that the older generation should be supported by the younger generation.[7] In Korean Confucianism, the character is pronounced hyo (효). In Vietnamese, the character is written in the Vietnamese alphabet as hiếu. In Japanese, the term is generally rendered in spoken and written language as 親孝行, oyakōkō, adding the characters for parent and conduct to the Chinese character to make the word more specific.

In traditional textsEdit

Illustrations of the Ladies' Classic of Filial Piety (detail), Song Dynasty, depicting the section "Serving One's Parents-in-Law".[8]

Confucian teachings about filial piety can be found in numerous texts, including the Four Books, that is the Great Learning (Chinese: 大学), the Doctrine of the Mean (Chinese: 中庸), Analects (Chinese: 论语) and the book Mencius, as well as the works Classic of Filial Piety (Chinese: 孝经) and the Book of Rites (Chinese: 礼记) .[9] According to the Classic of Filial Piety, Confucius (551–479 BCE) says:

"In serving his parents, a filial son reveres them in daily life; he makes them happy while he nourishes them; he takes anxious care of them in sickness; he shows great sorrow over their death that was for him; and he sacrifices to them with solemnity."[6]

For Confucius, filial piety was not merely blind loyalty to one's parents, but repaying the burden borne by one's parents.[10] More important than the norms of xiào were the virtues of rén (仁; benevolence, humaneness) and (義; appropriateness). For Confucius and Mencius (4th century BCE), xiào was the root of rén[11] which was ideally applied in one's dealings with all elders, thus making it a general norm of intergenerational relations. However, in practice, xiào was usually reserved for one's own parents and grandparents, and from time to time, was elevated above the notions of rén and . Furthermore, filial piety was taught by Confucius as part of a broad ideal of self-cultivation (Chinese: 君子; pinyin: jūnzǐ) toward being a perfect human being.[12]

In summary, filial piety is about obedience toward one's parents, not bringing disgrace upon them, and taking care of them as they grow older. After their parents die, children should hold the correct rituals in their honor.[13] Confucian ethics does not regard filial piety as a choice, but rather as an unconditional obligation of the child.[14] The relationship between parents and children is the most fundamental of of the five cardinal relationships (Chinese: 五倫; pinyin: wǔlún) described by Confucius in his role ethics,[15] and is the fundamental principle of Confucian morality.[16] Filial piety was seen as the basis for an orderly society, together with loyalty of the ministers toward the ruler, and servitude of the wife toward the husband. Filial piety was regarded as a principle that ordered society, without which chaos would be prevail.[17]

According to the traditional texts, filial piety consists of physical care, service, respect and obedience.[18] Confucian texts such as Book of Rites give details on how filial piety should be practiced.[7] Respect is envisioned by manners and minute details such as the way children salute their parents, speak to them (words and tone used) or enters and leave the room in which their parents are.[19] Filial piety not only extends to behavior of children toward their parents, but also involves gratitude toward the human body they received from their parents. This involves prohibitions on damaging or hurting the body, and this doctrine has affected how the Confucianists regarded the shaving of the head by Buddhist monks,[16] but also has created a taboo on suicide, regarded as 'opposed to filial piety' (Wade–Giles: bu-hsiao).[20] The most important expression and exercise in filial piety were the burial and mourning rituals to be held in honor of one's parents.[21]

The idea of filial piety became popular in China because of the many functions it had and many roles it undertook, as the traditional Confucian scholars such as Mencius regarded the family as a fundamental unit that formed the root of the nation. Though he virtue of xiào was about respect by children toward their parents, it was meant to regulate how the young generation behaved toward elders in the extended family and in society in general.[22][23] Furthermore, devotion to one's parents was often associated with one's devotion to the state,[note 1] for which historian Norman A. Kutcher has coined the term "parallel conception of society".[24] The Classic of Filial Piety states that an obedient and filial son will grow up to become a loyal official—filial piety was therefore seen as a truth that shaped the citizens of the state.[17]

Nevertheless, the two were not equated. Indeed, Mencius teaches that ministers should overthrow an immoral tyrant, should he harm the state—the loyalty to the king was considered conditional, not unconditional as in filial piety towards one parents.[14]

In East Asian language and cultureEdit

Confucian teachings about filial piety have left their mark on East Asian languages and culture. In Chinese, there is a saying that "among hundreds of behaviors, filial piety is the most important one" (pinyin: bai xing xiao wei xian).[23]

In psychologyEdit

Social scientists have done much research about filial piety and related concepts.[25] It is a highly influential factor in studies about Asian families and intergenerational studies, as well as studies on socialization patterns.[7] Filial piety is defined by behaviors such as daily maintenance, respect and sickness care offered to the elderly.[25] As of 2006, however, psychologists measured filial piety in inconsistent ways, which has prevented much progress from being made.[7]

Psychologists have found correlations between filial piety and lower socio-economic status, female gender, elders, minorities, and non-westernized cultures. Traditional filial piety beliefs have been connected with positive outcomes for the community and society, care for elder family members, positive family relationships and solidarity. On the other side, it has also been related to an orientation to the past, superstition and fatalism; dogmatism, authoritarianism and conformism; and lack of active, critical and creative learning attitudes.[7]


Pre-Confucian historyEdit

The origins of filial piety in East Asia lie in ancestor worship,[11] and can already be found in the pre-Confucian period. Epigraphical findings such as oracle bones contain references to filial piety; texts such as the Classic of Changes (10th–4th century BCE) may contain early references to the idea of parallel conception of the filial son and the loyal minister.[26]


In the T'ang dynasty (6th–10th century), not performing filial piety was declared illegal, and during the Han dynasty (2nd century BCE–3rd century CE), this was punished by beheading.[27]

From the Han Dynasty onward, the practice of mourning rites came to be seen as the cornerstone of filial piety and was strictly practiced and enforced. This was a period of unrest, and the state promoted the practice of long-term mourning to reestablish their authority. Filial piety toward one's parents was expected to lead to loyalty to the ruler, expressed in the Han proverb "The Emperor rules all-under-heaven with filial piety".[24] Government officials were expected to take leave for a mourning period of two years after their parents died.[28] Local officials were expected to encourage filial piety to one's parents—and by extension, to the state—by behaving as an example of such piety.[29] Indeed, the king himself would perform an exemplary role in expressing filial piety, through the ritual of 'serving the elderly' (pinyin: yang lao zhi li). Nearly all Han emperors had the word xiào in their temple name.[21] The promotion of filial piety in this manner, as part of the idea of 'good form' (pinyin: li), was more an acceptable way to create order in society than resorting to law.[30]

During the Mongolian rule in the Yuan dynasty (13th–14th century), the practice of filial piety was perceived to deteriorate. In the Ming dynasty (14th–17th century), emperors and literati attempted to revive the customs of filial piety, though in that process, filial piety was reinterpreted, as rules and rituals were modified.[31] Even on the grassroots level a revival was seen, as societies that provided vigilance against criminals started to promote Confucian values. A book that was composed by members of this movement was the The Twenty-four Cases of Filial Piety.[4]

Introduction of BuddhismEdit

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. Buddhism advocated monasticism and celibacy, which was unacceptable in the Confucian world view, because it was considered a child's duty to continue the parental line.[32] Therefore, in medieval China, Buddhism was heavily criticized for what neo-Confucianists perceived as a disregard for Confucian virtues and role ethics among family members. In addition, Buddhist monks were without descendants, and therefore did not create the offspring necessary to continue the ancestor worship in next generations. Furthermore, Buddhist monks shaved their heads, which was perceived as a lack of filial piety.[16]

The Buddhist defenseEdit

According to some scholars, when Buddhism was introduced to China, it was partly redefined to support filial piety.[33] The Mouzi Lihuolun (牟子理惑論), a work defending Buddhism against critics, presented arguments for Buddhist monks' seemingly poor treatment of their parents, by closely reading the works of Confucius himself.[note 2]

The Mouzi Lihuolun compares the life of a Buddhist monk with a pious son who saves his father from drowning:

A long time ago, the Ch'i people crossed a large river in a boat and it happened that their father fell into the water. His sons rolled up their sleeves, seized his head, and turned him upside down, forcing the water out of his mouth, thus bringing their father back to life. Now, to seize one's father's head and turn him upside down is certainly not very filial. Yet they could have done nothing better to save their father's life. If they had folded their hands and practiced the norm of filial sons, their father's life would have been lost in the waters.[36]

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 the 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, 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.[37] Huiyuan continued this line of reasoning, arguing that if one member leaves the household to be a monk, then all other members of the family would benefit, having good fortune and leading superior lives.


These philosophical arguments were not entirely successful in convincing the 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, Sama in Pāli, from the "Sama Jātaka"), is an example of this.

Shanzi 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 is often mentioned in the Chinese canon of Buddhist texts, and is included in a number of different anthologies such as the Liudu Jijing and is referred to by Chinese Buddhist writers.[38] While it is clearly of Indian origin based on the story of Shravan, 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.[citation needed]

Another story advocating filial piety is that of Moggallāna, a Buddhist monk who goes to great lengths to rescue his mother from condemnation for her unjust life. This story appeared in the Ullambana Sūtra 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 popular tales which were even told among non-Buddhists. Though already part of the Indian Buddhist tradition, East Asian Buddhism raised them from a peripheral role to a central one.[39][40]

Apart from religious texts, the first generations of Buddhists in China responded to criticism from Confucianists by emphasizing the lay life more and the monastic life less in their teachings, and for those who did ordain as monastics, they decided to erect monasteries in populated areas, instead of retreating in the remote wilderness. This was to contribute to the social expectations of Chinese Confucian culture.[41]

Other textsEdit

Another tale that achieved great renown in China was that of the Buddha rising to heaven for three months after his enlightenment to preach his mother. 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 Sūtra of Filial Piety, was written early in the T'ang dynasty. This discourse has the Buddha making the very Confucian argument that parents bestow kindness to their children in many ways, and put great efforts into ensuring the well-being of their child. The discourse continues by describing how difficult it is to repay one's parents' kindness, but concludes that this can be done, in a Buddhist way.[42]

Despite being of later Chinese origin, the discourse was accepted as accurate by generations of scholars and society in general, and it played an important role in the development of Chinese Buddhism. Other documents discussing the Buddha's views on the parent child-relationship are probably also of later Chinese origin. The Sūtra on a Filial Son, for instance, shows Chinese, Confucian influence.[citation needed]

The Sūtra of Filial Piety was not only a way for Chinese Buddhists to adapt to Confucian ideals, it added its own Buddhist contribution to the concept of filial piety. It added the role of women and poor people in practicing filial piety, and regarded filial piety as a quality to be practiced toward all living beings in this and the next life. Therefore, the sūtra served not only as an adaptation of Confucian values, but also served Buddhist ideals of edification.[43]

In summary, in order to meet the expectations and demands of Confucian customs, East Asian Buddhism developed its own unique characteristics, which still exist till today.[41]

Colonial periodEdit

During the 17th century, some missionaries tried to prevent Chinese people from worshiping their ancestors. This was regarded as an assault on Chinese culture.[11]

During the Qing dynasty, however, filial piety was redefined by the emperor Kangxi (1654–1722), who felt it more important that his officials were loyal to him than that they were filial sons: civil servants were often not allowed to go on extended leave to perform mourning rituals for their parents. The parallel conception of society therefore disappeared from Chinese society.[44]

Modern historyEdit

In traditional Chinese society, elderly are taken care of without much state intervention. The young gave care to the elderly out of devotion based on Confucian filial expectations, as opposed to the need-based elderly care in the West.[25] During the rise of communism in China in the early 19th century, Confucian values and family-centered living were discouraged by the state.[15]

In modern Chinese societies, filial piety expectations and practice have decreased. One cause for this is the rise of the nuclear family without much co-residence with parents. Families are becoming smaller because of family planning and housing shortage. Other causes of decrease in practice are individualism, the loss of status of elderly, emigration of young people to cities and the independence of young people and women.[45] To make things worse, the number of elderly people have increased fast.[15]

Impact in modern societyEdit


Thus, in modern Chinese societies, elderly care has much changed. Studies have shown that there is a discrepancy between the parents' filial expectations and the actual behaviors of their children.[25] Especially, the discrepancy with regard to respect shown by the children make elderly people unhappy.[25][7] Industrialization and urbanization have affected the practice of filial piety, with care being given more in financial ways rather than personal.[7] But as of 2009, care-giving of the young to elderly people had not undergone any revolutionary changes in Mainland China, and family obligations still remained strong, still "almost automatic".[46]

Work ethos and business practicesEdit

Relation with lawEdit

In several societies with large Chinese communities legislation has been introduced in the modern period, to establish or uphold filial piety. In the 2000s, Singapore introduced a law that makes it an offense to refuse to support one's elderly parents; Taiwan has taken similar punitive measures. Hong Kong, on the other hand, has attempted to influence its population by providing incentives for fulfilling their obligations. For example, certain tax allowances are given to citizens that are willing to live with their elderly parents.[47]

Some scholars have argued that medieval China's reliance on governance by filial piety formed a society that was better able to prevent crime and other misconduct than societies that did so through only legal means.[30]

East Asian immigrantsEdit

Other observationsEdit

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ See Analects 1:2, Xiao Jing (chap.1)
  2. ^ The Guiyangtu (跪羊图)[34] and Vimalakirti Nirdesa Sutra[35] are also Buddhist works portraying lay householder duties and obligations in contrast with pure monastic renunciation.


  1. ^ Ebrey, Patricia Buckley. "Paintings with political agendas". A Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization. Retrieved 12 January 2012.
  2. ^ Chang & Kalmanson 2010, p. 68.
  3. ^ For the holding of rites for one's parents, burying them and performing sacrifices after their death, see Kutcher (2006, p. 1).
  4. ^ a b Kutcher 2006, p. 45.
  5. ^ Baker 1979, p. 98.
  6. ^ a b Ikels 2004, pp. 2–3.
  7. ^ a b c d e f g Yee 2006.
  8. ^ Mann & Cheng 2001, p. 46.
  9. ^ Sung 2009a, pp. 179, 186–7.
  10. ^ Cong 2004, p. 158.
  11. ^ a b c Hsu, O'Connor & Lee 2009, p. 159.
  12. ^ Hsu, O'Connor & Lee 2009, pp. 158–9.
  13. ^ See Hsu, O'Connor & Lee (2009, p. 159) and Cong (2004, p. 159). Only Cong mentions not bringing disgrace.
  14. ^ a b Fung & Cheng 2010, p. 486.
  15. ^ a b c Sung 2009a, p. 180.
  16. ^ a b c Sung 2009b, p. 355.
  17. ^ a b Kutcher 2006, p. 13.
  18. ^ See Sung (2009a, p. 187) and Yee (2006). Only Yee mentions obedience.
  19. ^ Sung 2009a, p. 187.
  20. ^ Sun, Long & Boore 2007, p. 256.
  21. ^ a b Kutcher 2006, p. 14.
  22. ^ Chow 2009, p. 320.
  23. ^ a b Wang, Yuen & Slaney 2008, p. 252.
  24. ^ a b Kutcher 2006, p. 2.
  25. ^ a b c d e Fung & Cheng 2010, p. 315.
  26. ^ Kutcher 2006, p. 12.
  27. ^ Cong 2004, p. 159.
  28. ^ Kutcher 2006, pp. 1–2.
  29. ^ Kutcher 2006, pp. 2, 12.
  30. ^ a b Kutcher 2006, p. 194.
  31. ^ Kutcher 2006, p. 35.
  32. ^ Traylor 1988, p. 110.
  33. ^ Hsu, O'Connor & Lee 2009, p. 162.
  34. ^ "跪羊图高清大字版". Youtube. Retrieved 25 June 2014.
  35. ^ Robert, Thurman. "Vimalakirti Nirdesa Sutra". Retrieved 25 June 2014.
  36. ^ Keenan 1994, p. 83.
  37. ^ Zurcher 1959, p. 134.
  38. ^ Ch'en 1973, p. 23.
  39. ^ Berezkin 2015, Ch. 7.
  40. ^ Ladwig 2012, p. 137.
  41. ^ a b Sung 2009b, p. 356.
  42. ^ Sung 2009b, p. 357.
  43. ^ Sung 2009b, p. 365.
  44. ^ Kutcher 2006, p. 120.
  45. ^ See Fung & Cheng (2010, p. 315) for the nuclear family, individualism, loss of status, emigration and female independence. See Sung (2009a, p. 180) for the causes of the rise of the nuclear family and the independence of young people.
  46. ^ Sung 2009a, p. 181, 185.
  47. ^ Chow 2009, pp. 319–20.


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