Filial piety is the Confucian virtue of xiao which teaches respect for our parents, elders, and past generations of ancestors. This virtue stands at the forefront of Confucianism and is regarded as the highest norm and the ultimate foundation of ethics. All morality and civilization come from it. (1)
In Confucianism, a child’s obedience is expected to continue beyond the death of a parent. Filial piety not only paves the way to self-cultivation so that one can aspire to become a virtuous person (junzi), but also helps to secure the nation and society as a whole as being virtuous for decades and generations to come. As Confucius advised: “He who has grown to be a filial son and respectful younger brother will be unlikely to defy his superiors and there has never been the case of someone inclined to defy his superiors and stir up a rebellion.” (Analects 1:2)
Confucius put a strong emphasis on respect and reverence as the core concepts of filial piety. In practice, one should perform it in accordance with propriety (li). The Analects states that Confucius once said, “When your parents are alive, serve them in accordance with the rites; when they pass away, bury them in accordance with the rites and sacrifice to them in accordance with the rites.” (Analects 2.5)
On April 6, the concept of filial piety was applied through the celebration of one of the most important festivals in the Chinese calendar, the Quingming Festival, also known as Tomb Sweeping Day. Families gathered together on the day to pay respect to their deceased ancestors. Several traditions are performed to honour the deceased, including presenting ancestors with raw food, decorations and gifts; however cleaning an ancestor’s gravesite, or tomb sweeping, has been emphasised as the concrete expression of practicing filial piety. (2)
As many families are provided the opportunity to demonstrate this “concrete expression” of filial piety to their beloved ancestors, some 100,000 people are not. Due to the lack of space for proper burial sites, Chinese families are deprived of the dignity to lend proper respect to their dead. The waiting time for a permanent resting place in Hong Kong is becoming longer, as the once two-year wait has now lengthened to nearly five years. Burial sites are soaring in price as supply fails to catch up with demand. For fear that their property price will go down; most people are refusing to allow permanent resting places to be built in their backyard, a phenomenon known as NIMBY. In response to this issue, the Chinese government is offering financial incentives to families who choose an alternative option – the scattering of ashes into the ocean. Despite the cash incentive, few families are willing to take up the sea burial option, as they would prefer to stick to traditional burial cemeteries. (3)
The people of China are in a dilemma as they struggle to find the best way to honour and respect their ancestors. Is there “room” for improvement when fulfilling filial piety in the modern world? Our answer would be yes – The application of Confucianism in modern society can play an important role in reviving filial piety.
What do you think can be done to restore filial piety in the 21st Century? Let us know by leaving a comment.
Read our next post titled, A Modern Museum Teaches the Traditional Lessons of Filial Piety to learn what unique effort the Chinese government is making to re-introduce filial piety as a core value in society.