XIAO . For the three thousand years of China's recorded history, xiao (filial piety) has been the cornerstone of Chinese religious, social, and ethical life. According to China's oldest dictionary, xiao simply means "to serve one's parents well." This concept's unchanging spirit has been that one surrenders pleasures and even necessities to ensure the happiness of one's parents. Within the family, this moral value has subordinated the young to the old and the individual to the collective. Since Confucianism maintained that the ruler-subject relationship was merely an extension of that between parent and child, within the larger community, xiao has produced loyal and obedient citizens. Due to its overwhelming importance, each of China's great religious traditions—Buddhism, Confucianism, and Daoism—appropriated and popularized its understanding of it. Moreover, xiao 's appeal extended well beyond China to all of East Asia.
Although long a salient feature of Chinese society, xiao 's meanings and requirements have undergone much change. Around the year 1000 bce, xiao probably originated as a form of sacrifice given to the powerful dead, which included one's ancestors, in-laws, and allies. Soon its focus narrowed to service to one's senior patrilineal kin, both living and dead. By the fifth century bce, Confucians began to remold filial practices into specific ceremonial forms, which their ritual codes spelled out in great detail. Through daily morning and evening audiences, sons and daughters (in-law) were supposed to nourish their parents, obey their instructions, anticipate their wishes, and ensure their comfort. This service did not end with death; rather, it intensified. For three years, a son or daughter was supposed to serve the parents' spirits through ascetic mourning rituals: he or she should dress in rough hemp clothes, live in a hut near the parent's tomb, and forego meat, alcohol, music, and sex. After the conclusion of these rites, he or she continued to serve the dead by preserving the patrimony and producing heirs—acts that ensured that the ancestral sacrifices would be ceaseless. During the third century bce, most notably in the Xiao jing (Classic of filial piety), a short work that almost every imperial dynasty promoted, Confucians assimilated xiao to the lord-retainer tie. They argued that, since in a larger sense a ruler parents his people through the care he lavishes on them, a retainer should serve his ruler as he would his father. Hence, by definition, a filial child should also be a loyal subject.
After China's unification in 221 bce, imperial governments found xiao 's hierarchy-affirming message to be irresistible; consequently, dynasty after dynasty lavished awards on outstanding filial children. The Han dynasty (206 bce–220 ce) even selected its officials on the basis of their reputation for filiality. By the fourth century, each officially sanctioned dynastic history devoted a chapter to the previous era's filial paragons. By the Tang (618–907), unfilial behavior, such as failing to sufficiently nourish one's parents or marrying while mourning them, became punishable by law. Buddhists, too, discovered that to appeal to Chinese sensibilities they had to emphasize filial piety; thus, they stressed that their religion best served one's parents because it saved them from the torments of purgatory and delivered them to Buddhist heavens. Daoists likewise insisted that mastery of the immortality arts would not only secure salvation for oneself, but also for seven generations of one's ancestors.
By the late imperial period (960–1911), the overwhelming emphasis placed on filial piety led to increasingly extreme manifestations of it. Inspired by Buddhist tales of self-sacrifice, filial children would slice off part of their flesh and feed it to their parents to cure them of incurable diseases. Moreover, although classical texts stressed the need for filial children to remonstrate with their errant parents, late imperial filial piety emphasized the inviolable obedience owed to parents and discounted the possibility that they could ever be wrong. At the same time, filial directives increasingly fell upon women in their role as daughter-in-law. Hence, women were credited with increasingly extreme and self-destructive forms of filiality. In the twentieth century it is precisely this fanaticism that lead intellectuals such as Lu Xun (1881–1936) to condemn filial piety (and Confucianism, which it exemplified) as an impediment to modernization and westernization.
For a simple overview see Kenneth L. Traylor, Chinese Filial Piety (Bloomington, Ind., 1988). For a more detailed study of xiao 's propagation and functions in early imperial China, see Keith Knapp's Selfless Offspring (Honolulu, 2005). Stephen F. Teiser's The Ghost Festival in Medieval China (Princeton, 1988) and Alan Cole's Mothers and Sons in Chinese Buddhism (Stanford, Calif., 1998) extensively discuss Buddhist adaptations of xiao. T'ien Ju-k'ang's Male Anxiety and Female Chastity: A Comparative Study of Chinese Ethical Values in Ming-Ch'ing Times (Leiden, 1988) looks specifically at the extremism that was associated with late imperial expressions of filiality. Norman Kutcher's Mourning in Late Imperial China: Filial Piety and the State (Cambridge, U.K., 1999) examines how governments tried to regulate xiao 's demands.
Keith N. Knapp (2005)