Filial piety — it’s the bedrock of every Asian household.
From the moment we utter our first words and learn to crawl, we’re taught to respect and take care of our parents and elders. And in many households, this is not a request or suggestion, but rather a demand and an expectation.
While many Asian families have come to accept these values as the norm, filial piety has a long and complicated history that dates back to more than 3,000 years ago. It is Chinese philosopher Confucius who is credited with making filial piety a crucial part of Asian society.
In Confucian philosophy, filial piety, “xiao” (孝), means to obey, respect and engage in overall good conduct towards parents and other elders. Acts of filial piety include obeying parents’ wishes and taking care of them when they are old. The concept is relatively simple — parents gave life to their children and cared for them, and for this, children are indebted to their parents forever.
In Chinese history, there are several extreme stories that serve as examples of filial piety. One particular selection from “The Twenty-Four Exemplars of Filial Piety” tells the story of a young boy’s sacrifice for his parents:
“Wu Meng of the Jin dynasty was eight years old and served his parents with extreme filiality. The family was poor, and their bed had no mosquito net. Every night in summer many mosquitoes bit him, gorging on his blood. But despite their numbers he did not drive them away, fearing that they would go and bite his parents.”
This philosophy and its relation to toxic parenting have been criticized by various scholars over the years, with one of its most notable critics being Lu Xun (1881–1936), an acclaimed and influential Chinese writer. In 1917, Xun argued that the presence of a hierarchy that immediately privileges elders over the youth inhibits children from making their own decisions which could help them grow as individuals.
However, Xun was not the only scholar to condemn this philosophy. During the anti-imperialist May Fourth Movement in 1919 Beijing, the idea of filial piety was argued to be a force “turning China into a big factory for the production of obedient subjects,” and credited with obstructing China’s democratization.
Today, young Asian Americans growing up in both Western and Asian cultures struggle to come to terms with the expectations placed onto them. Meanwhile, their parents may view Western attitudes towards filial piety to be selfish and blame Westernization for their child’s negative behaviors.
These culture clashes in parent-child relationships in Asian American communities have had negative effects on young people’s mental health. A 2015 report titled “Asian-American caregivers experience greater demand for family caregiving” by the Rush University Medical Center found that one in two Chinese American adults struggle with various levels of depression and anxiety as a direct result of the overbearing obligation to care for their elderly parents.
Caring for elderly parents is something that should be done by the offspring out of personal devotion or love. However, in some Asian families, children are seen as life insurance policies as these kinds of family relationships are based on the hierarchy of age, gender and role-division, rather than mutual understanding or emotional closeness. In this case, filial piety limits the independence of grown Asian adults and becomes a system that allows superiors to bully and emotionally guilt trip inferiors.
In children, repeated messages of complete obedience can lay the ground for emotional or even physical abuse. The moral code of filial piety teaches them to obey their elders as they are superior. However, in extreme cases where parents exhibit toxic traits or put the child through physical or emotional abuse by gaslighting or displaying narcissistic tendencies, it teaches young vulnerable minds to accept various forms of manipulation and abuse and accept these as acts of love.
Some scholars have argued that by definition, filial piety is not unconditional, despite what some Asian parents may believe, it goes both ways. When adults become parents, they carry on the duty of educating their children with virtue so the child may one day be able to behave virtuously without explicitly being told to do so.
Confucius reportedly wrote that children are not to follow blindly what their parents say, as a superior who is not notified of his mistakes could bring his family to ruin. Instead, children can gently and respectfully speak to their parents when they are behaving improperly but must remember that they are still considered to be inferior.
Therefore, even in these definitions, there are limitations to the offspring’s power. If the parent does not change in their ways, the child is still to obey the parents’ wishes.
It’s also important to note that filial piety was heavily taught during a period where women were also believed to be inferior to men and the worst act a woman could commit was to produce no male heirs. In this setting, the power dynamics and social hierarchy were drastically different from what we know to be true today.
With this in mind, it could be worth reviewing whether certain aspects of this philosophy should now be considered outdated. In today’s day and age, children should not be treated as life insurance plans and complete obedience should not be a requirement. As humans, parents are just as prone to making mistakes as other individuals, allowing children to critique certain behaviors and carry an open and respectful conversation would certainly be more productive in raising emotionally intelligent people.
Even without extreme discipline or guilt-tripping, children can learn to respect their elders and want to care for them through the creation of emotional bonds and familial love. On the other hand, recurring culture clashes between parent and child can damage the mental health of both parties involved, resulting in damaged relationships between the two.
Like many other philosophies, filial piety, if it wishes to live on, will need to be adjusted with the times but that will only be possible through compromises from both parents and children.