Filial Piety: A Disturbing Approach To Asian Parenting

“Being grateful to our parents is the foundation of being a decent person. We exist because of our parents. Our mothers suffered a great deal during pregnancy and while giving birth, much like the earth having to endure much ordeal as plants grow out of the ground.”

Shih Cheng Yen

Filial piety — it is not just one of the core aspects governing the plot in the American romantic comedy-drama film Crazy Rich Asians but also, more important, it is the core of every Asian household.

From the second we learn to crawl and communicate our first set of words, we are taught to provide our parents and elders with physical care, love, service, respect and obedience. It also extends beyond the boundaries of the household — filial piety recommends that one engage in good conduct outside the home to protect the image of his or her parents and ancestors. In many Asian family units, children are expected and demanded to cling to this Confucian thought.

While numerous Asian households have embraced the values associated with filial piety as the norm, this principle has a lengthy and complicated history that dates back to the pre-Confucian period. Yes, the history of filial piety is measured in millenniums, not centuries. Chinese philosopher Confucius is widely credited for incorporating this ideology as a vital component of Asian society.

In Confucian (and Chinese Buddhist) ethics, filial piety or “xiao” (孝) means to show love, respect and support for parents and other seniors in the family tree. Acts of filial piety include, but are not limited to:

  • Obeying one’s parents’ wishes
  • Taking care of them when they are old, health- and money-wise
  • To wisely advise one’s parents, including dissuading them from moral unrighteousness.

The mechanism behind the principle is relatively easy to understand — parents gave their lives for their children, and for this, children are expected to return the favour.

If you go through the history of filial piety, you will find that there are numerous incredible stories that portray the virtues of filial piety. One selection in The Twenty-Four Exemplars of Filial Piety tells the tale 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.”

Although filial piety is believed to be the greatest of all virtues according to the ancient Chinese belief system, that is Confucianism, it has attracted widespread criticism by numerous scholars and philosophers. Lu Xun, an acclaimed and prominent Chinese writer, questioned the logicality of bestowing honour and respect towards parents before and after their deaths. Xun argued that the existence of a pyramid-like social structure where elders are given privileges over the youths hinder the latter group’s ability to make rational decisions and develop a healthy, genuine relationship with their parents.

Xun alone was not the only one who had harsh words to say about this moral tenet. Thousands of students who led the May Fourth Movement of 1919 in Beijing made their voice known by arguing that the Confucian concepts of filial piety were a force “turning China into a big factory for the production of obedient subjects,” and that Confucianism was vilified for obstructing China’s modernisation and democratisation.

In this day and age, when Asian and Western cultures meet, many Asian American youths have a hard time coming to terms with the expectations laid upon them. The same can be said for pure Asians who have embraced a Western approach towards life. While this struggle continues, their parents may perceive Western attitudes towards filial piety to be self-centred and blame the influence of the West for their child’s unfilial behaviours. In other words, according to the wisdom of filial piety, children should adhere to the policy of “family over self” instead of chasing after individualism, which is the bedrock of every Western household.

These cultural frictions in parent-child relationships in Asian American societies have led to mental health consequences among youths. The Asian-American caregivers experience greater demand for family caregiving report, published in 2015 by the Rush University Medical Center, revealed that one in two Chinese American adults have difficulty coping with depression and anxiety disorders as a direct outcome of the overwhelming obligation to look after their parents.

Looking after elderly parents is an act that should be done out of love instead of fear. However, in some Asian families, children are taught that it is their duty to care for their elderly parents. Therefore, from the parents’ perspective, they see their children as their life insurance policies as family relationships of this nature are driven by the hierarchy of age, gender and role-division, instead of personal devotion. As a result, filial piety fosters a system that grants superiors the means necessary to bully and force inferiors into submission, whether by guilt-tripping them or ceasing to provide them with the resources needed to stay afloat daily.

Practice makes perfect, they said. In the context of filial piety and particularly children, repeated messages of complete obedience can be destructive — it puts together a habitat in which emotional or even physical abuse is not only tolerated but also unchecked. The moral tenet of filial piety teaches them not to bring disgrace upon their parents, for their parents are their superiors. However, in extreme circumstances where parents bring out their toxic traits to the surface or subject their child through physical or mental mistreatment, it educates the malleable minds of the youth that all forms of manipulation and mistreatment can be taken in as displays of love.

Several scholars asserted that by definition, filial piety is conditional, in contrast to what some Asian parents may think, it is a two-way street. When adults have kids of their own, they bear the ultimate responsibility of implanting in their children timeless virtues so that their children may one day in the future behave righteously, guided by well-grounded moral principles without the need to explicitly point them out to do so.

Although it may sound as if Confucius advocates the need to rule children with an iron fist through filial piety, Confucius himself reportedly wrote that children are not to blindly follow every instruction coming from their parents, as a leader who is not aware of his shortcomings could bring his family to its knees. Children can highlight their parents’ wrongdoing gently and respectfully but have to remind themselves that they are inferiors to their parents.

Therefore, even with these definitions in place, there are boundaries to keep the offspring’s power under control. If the parents refuse to change their outlook towards life and approach to educating their children, then their kids are to obey the parents’ wishes still.

It is worth pointing out that the concepts behind filial piety were significantly emphasised when men were believed to be superior to women and the greatest act of disrespect to their parents a man could commit was to produce no male heirs. In this context, the dynamics of power and social structure at the time were significantly different from what we understand to be true presently.

That being said, it is worth revisiting specific components of this Confucian philosophy and determine whether some, if not all, should be considered out of date. In this modern era, children should not be treated as life insurance policies and constant, unconditional obedience should not be imposed out of fear. As human beings, parents can make mistakes. Giving children windows of opportunity to evaluate certain behaviours in a detailed and analytical way and share their findings openly and respectfully would be a healthier, more effective way to develop the next generation of emotionally intelligent individuals.

Even in the absence of extreme acts of guilt-tripping, children can find and adopt ways to respect their elders and want to care for them out of personal devotion and familial love. But, then again, culture clashes between parent and child, if left to flourish uncontrollably, can adversely impact the mental health of both parties involved, resulting in fractured relationships between them.

Like any other philosophy out there, filial piety must keep up with the times if it wants to keep going. However, that would be impossible if parents and children stubbornly refuse to compromise and reach a middle ground.

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