Family Ethics: Filial Piety
Family Ethics: Filial Piety
Relations. Xiao (filial piety) in China derived from the doctrines of Confucianism. The Zhongyong (Doctrine of the Mean) arranged the fundamental human relations according to an ordering of superior/inferior relationships, or Wu Lun: “There are five universally applicable principles, . . . that of the relationships between ruler and minister, that of father and son, of husband and wife, of elder and younger brother, and of friend and friend.” The essence of Xiao existed in the age and gender hierarchy of the family, starting with the father-son relationship and then extending by analogy to other social relationships. The aim was the orderly running of the family and through it, of the state. Xiao always went hand in hand with ancestor worship and was the cornerstone of family ethics. The duty of a man was first to his parents and only secondly to the state, but the two were inseparable in principle because, according to Confucianism, “a man who respected parental authority would respect the law and one who accepted filial responsibility would honor his social obligations.” Therefore, the virtue of filial piety was more than just passive obedience: it was a personal commitment to the well-being of one’s parents. A man’s loyalty to his parents, according to Confucian principles, took precedence over his love for his wife. The rationale was that parents were like Heaven and Earth to their children because they gave them their bodies and souls and reared them to be mature human beings. It was therefore
a moral duty for children to show appreciation and respect in return.
Proper Behavior. The proper behaviors of filial piety by children were to please and support their parents whenever they needed them, to remain pious toward parents unconditionally, to share responsibilities with brothers to provide for aging parents, to bury deceased parents properly, and to perform ancestral rites for their spirits thereafter. The key point of filial piety was to satisfy the wishes of the parents—while they were alive and after they had died. The installation of the ancestral hall indicated that filial responsibility extended beyond the lifetime of the parents; any neglect of burials or indifference to worship was disrespectful to the spirits and was considered a serious offense to moral ethics. In the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) it was a serious offense for a state employee not to announce the death of a parent and then to retire to mourn for the statu-tory period of more than two years. Thus, Xiao manifested itself in the ultimate duties of offspring to provide for and attend to the daily needs of their parents, to obey their commands, to take good care of them while they were ill, to arrange proper funerals when they passed away, to visit their grave sites at regular intervals, and to remember them through memorial services. This tradition was consistently upheld and reinforced through the performance of rites.
Five Virtues. Because Xiao ran deep in people’s psyches, it affected many social institutions. For example, in the period preceding the Tang dynasty, the imperial government often tolerated the concealment of crime among family members. Except in the case of treason, a son was absolved from the responsibility of reporting any crime committed by his father. A son who reported such an offense was punished by the state, because he was condemned as being unfilial for betraying his parent. The Tang dynasty not only continued this tolerance
but also extended it to include a broader circle of family members, such as parents-in-law, brothers-in-law, and even nephews. For example, Tang and Song laws even protected the family concealment of crime by stipulating that those who betrayed parents or grandparents should be put to death. In the Ming and Qing dynasties, however, new laws dropped the death penalty for those who betrayed their parents. This change did not mean that society had de-emphasized Xiao. Actually, Xiao was broadened to define the five virtues of a person’s behavior. They were: Li —politeness in complying with all hierarchical orders and rites; Ren —humanity or benevolence in all activities; Yi —-justice or righteousness that one should have in performing Li; Zhi —wisdom and knowl-edge of performing appropriate behavior; and Xin —sincerity and honesty in performing Li. It is interesting to note that, while state laws usually tolerated children who concealed the crimes of their parents, kin-clan laws often punished individuals who failed to reveal a parent’s offense and rewarded those who reported it. Some scholars point out that this balance between state and customary laws was the key to the long-term dynastic stability of imperial China.
Maurice Freeman, ed., Family and Kinship in Chinese Society (Stanford, CaL: Stanford University Press, 1970).
Hui-Chen Wang, The Traditional Chinese Clan Rules (Locust Valley, N.Y.: Association for Asian Studies, Augustin, 1959).
Ruikai Zhu, Zhongguo Hun Yin Jia Ting Shi, translated as History of the Family and Marriage in China (Shanghai: Xueling Press, 1999).