Filial piety

Filial piety
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 alphabet hiếu
Korean name
Japanese name
Kana こう

In Confucian philosophy, 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. The term can also be applied to general obedience. Filial piety is central to Confucian role ethics.[2]

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 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 a key 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 people.[3]


Filial piety is illustrated by the Chinese character xiao (孝).[4] The character is a combination of the character lao (old) above the character zi (son), that is, an elder being carried by a son.[4] In Korean Confucianism, the character is pronounced hyo (효). In Vietnamese, the character is written in Quoc Ngu as hiếu. In Japanese, the term is generally used in spoken and written language as 親孝行, "oyakōkō," adding characters for parent and conduct to make the word more specific.

Cultural significance


Illustrations of the Ladies' Classic of Filial Piety (detail), Song Dynasty, depicting the section "Serving One's Parents-in-Law".[5]

According to the Classic of Filial Piety, Confucius once said: "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."[4] For Confucius, filial piety was not merely blind loyalty to one's parents. More important than the norms of xiào were the norms of rén (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. 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 .

Filial piety was emphasized in Confucianism because devotion to one's parents was often associated with one's devotion to the state.[6]


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.[7]

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 Guiyangtu (跪羊图)[8] and Vimalakirti Nirdesa Sutra[9] are also Buddhist works portraying lay householder duties and obligations in contrast with pure monastic renunciation.

Mouzi Lihuolun

The Mouzi Lihuolun compares the Buddhist monk to a filial 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.[10]

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, 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.[11] 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.


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, Sama in Pāli, from the "Sama Jātaka"), is an example of this.

Story of Shanzi

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 was often mentioned in the Chinese canon of Buddhist texts, and was included in a number of different anthologies (such as the Liudu Jijing and referred to by other Chinese Buddhist writers.[12] 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.

The story of Moggallāna

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 not just elements of Buddhist scripture, but also popular tales which were even told among non-Buddhists. While these tales were a part of the Buddhist tradition, East Asian Buddhism raised them from a peripheral role to a central one.[13][14]

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 of Filial Piety, was written early in the Tang dynasty. This text (sūtra) 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 sūtra 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 Confucian influence.


Lu Xun in his collection "Dawn Blossoms Plucked at Dusk" (朝花夕拾) criticized the stories "He Buried His Son for His Mother" and "Wang Xiang: He Lay on Ice in Search of Carp". The latter story is about Wang Xiang, a very young boy, who laid on an iced lake in order to get a fish for his sick mother.

See also


  1. "Paintings with political agendas". Retrieved 12 January 2012.
  2. Wonsuk Chang; Leah Kalmanson (8 November 2010). Confucianism in Context: Classic Philosophy and Contemporary Issues, East Asia and Beyond. SUNY Press. p. 68. ISBN 978-1-4384-3191-8.
  3. Baker, Hugh D. R. Chinese Family and Kinship. New York: Columbia University Press, 1979. pg. 98
  4. 1 2 3 Ikels, Charlotte (2004). Filial piety: Practice and discourse in contemporary East Asia. Stanford: Stanford University Press. pp. 2–3. ISBN 978-0-8047-4791-2.
  5. Mann, Susan; Cheng, Yu-Yin, eds. (2001). Under Confucian eyes: Writings on gender in Chinese history. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press. p. 46. ISBN 978-0-520-22276-2.
  6. See Analects 1:2, Xiao Jing chap.1
  7. Traylor, Kenneth L. Chinese Filial Piety. Bloomington: Eastern Press, 1988. pg. 110
  8. "跪羊图高清大字版". Youtube. Retrieved 25 June 2014.
  9. Robert, Thurman. "Vimalakirti Nirdesa Sutra". Retrieved 25 June 2014.
  10. Keenan, John P. (1994). How master Mou removes our doubts: a reader-response study and translation of the Mou-tzu Li-huo lun, SUNY Press, p. 83.
  11. Zurcher, E. The Buddhist Conquest of China. Leiden: E. J. Brill., 1959a, pg. 134
  12. Ch'en, Kenneth. The Chinese Transformation of Buddhism. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1973. pg. 23
  13. Berezkin, Rostislav (21 February 2015). Chapter 7. "Pictorial Versions of the Mulian Story in East Asia (Tenth–Seventeenth Centuries): On the Connections of Religious Painting and Storytelling". Fudan Journal of the Humanities and Social Sciences. 8 (1). doi:10.1007/s40647-015-0060-4.
  14. Ladwig, Patrice (2012). "Feeding the dead: ghosts, materiality and merit". In Williams, Paul; Ladwig, Patrice. Buddhist funeral cultures of Southeast Asia and China. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 137. ISBN 1-107-00388-1.


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