Filial piety

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This article is about the tradition in East Asia. For a general overview, see Parental respect and Ancestor worship
"Hyo" redirects here. For other uses, see Hyo (disambiguation).
Filial piety
The Classic of Filial Piety (4).jpg
Scene from the Song Dynasty Illustrations of the Classic of Filial Piety (detail), depicting a son kneeling before his parents.[1]
Chinese name
Vietnamese name
Vietnamese alphabet hiếu
Korean name
Japanese name
Kana こう

In Confucian philosophy, filial piety (Chinese: , xiào) is a virtue of respect for one's parents and ancestors. The Confucian classic Xiao Jing or Classic of Xiào, thought to be written around the Qin-Han period, has historically been the authoritative source on the Confucian tenet of xiào / "filial piety". The book, a conversation between Confucius and his student Zeng Shen (曾參, also known as Zengzi 曾子), is about how to set up a good society using the principle of xiào (filial piety). The term can also be applied to general obedience, and is used in religious titles in Christian Churches, like "filial priest" or "filial vicar" for a cleric whose church is subordinate to a larger parish. Filial piety is central to Confucian role ethics.[2]

In more general terms, filial piety means to be good to one's parents; to take care of one's parents; to engage in good conduct not just towards parents but also outside the home so as to bring a good name to one's parents and ancestors; to perform the duties of one's job well so as to obtain the material means to support parents as well as carry out sacrifices to the ancestors; not be rebellious; show love, respect and support; display courtesy; ensure male heirs, uphold fraternity among brothers; wisely advise one's parents, including dissuading them from moral unrighteousness; display sorrow for their sickness and death; and carry out sacrifices after their death.

Filial piety is considered a key virtue in Chinese culture, and it is the main concern of a large number of stories. One of the most famous collections of such stories is The Twenty-four Filial Exemplars (Ershi-si xiao 二十四孝). These stories depict how children exercised their filial piety in the past. While China has always had a diversity of religious beliefs, filial piety has been common to almost all of them; historian Hugh D.R. Baker calls respect for the family the only element common to almost all Chinese believers.[3]


Filial piety is illustrated by the Chinese character xiao 孝, which also has the same meaning in Korean, Japanese and Vietnamese.[4] The character is a combination of the character lao (old) above the character zi (son), that is, an elder being carried by a son.[4] In Korean Confucianism, the character is pronounced hyo (효). In Vietnamese, the character is written in Quoc Ngu as hiếu. In Japanese, the term is generally used in spoken and written language as 親孝行, "oyakoukou," adding characters for "parent" and "go" to make the word more specific.

Cultural significance[edit]


Illustrations of the Ladies' Classic of Filial Piety.jpg

Illustrations of the Ladies' Classic of Filial Piety (detail), Song Dynasty, depicting the section "Serving One's Parents-in-Law".[5]

According to the Classic of Filial Piety, Confucius once said: "In serving his parents, a filial son reveres them in daily life; he makes them happy while he nourishes them; he takes anxious care of them in sickness; he shows great sorrow over their death that was for him; and he sacrifices to them with solemnity."[4] For Confucius, filial piety was not merely blind loyalty to one's parents. More important than the norms of xiào were the norms of rén (Chinese (仁)) (benevolence) and (義) (righteousness). For Confucius and Mencius, xiào was a display of rén which was ideally applied in one's dealings with all elders, thus making it a general norm of intergenerational relations. However in practice, xiào was usually reserved for one's own parents and grandparents, and from time to time, was elevated above the notions of rén and .

Filial piety was emphasized in Confucianism because devotion to one's parents was often associated with one's devotion to the state.[6]


Early Buddhism did not have a strong tradition of filial piety. Buddhism in India involved many men leaving or abandoning their families, parents, wives, and children to become monks (Buddha himself was said to have done so). The true Buddhist had to reject all family ties, just as they had to reject social and class ties if they were to pursue Nirvana. Family was viewed as just another encumbrance of mortal life that had to be dealt with. Sorrow and grief were said to be "born of those who are dear."[7] Buddhist monks were obligated to sever all ties with their family and to forget their ancestors. Theravada Buddhism stressed individual salvation, and had little room for the interdependent society that Confucianism had created in China, which stressed the good of the community more than the good of the individual. In India, Buddhism also advocated celibacy among its monks which was unacceptable in the Confucian world view, given that it was viewed as the child's duty to continue the parental line.[8]

Introduction of Buddhism in China[edit]

When Buddhism was introduced to China, it was redefined to support filial piety. The Mouzi Lihuolun (牟子理惑論), a work defending Buddhism to the Chinese, presented arguments for Buddhist monks' seemingly poor treatment of their parents, by closely reading the works of Confucius himself. The Guiyangtu (跪羊图)[9] and Vimalakirti Nirdesa Sutra[10] are also Buddhist works portraying lay householder duties and obligations in contrast with pure monastic renunciation.

The Mouzi Lihuolun[edit]

The Mouzi Lihuolun compares the Buddhist monk to a filial son who saves his father from drowning.

A long time ago, the Ch'i people crossed a large river in a boat and it happened that their father fell into the water. His sons rolled up their sleeves, seized his head, and turned him upside down, forcing the water out of his mouth, thus bringing their father back to life. Now, to seize one's father's head and turn him upside down is certainly not very filial. Yet they could have done nothing better to save their father's life. If they had folded their hands and practiced the norm of filial sons, their father's life would have been lost in the waters.[11]

The behavior of a Buddhist monk is similar. While on the surface the Buddhist seems to reject and abandon his parents, the pious Buddhist is actually aiding his parents as well as himself on their path towards salvation. The Mouzi Lihuolun also attempted to counter charges that not having children was a violation of good ethics. It was pointed out that Confucius himself had praised a number of ascetic sages who had not had children or family, but because of their wisdom and sacrifice were still perceived as ethical by Confucius. The argument that Buddhist filial piety concerns itself with the parent’s soul is the most important one. The same essential argument was made later by Sun Chuo, who argued that Buddhists monks (far from working solely for their own benefit) were working to ensure the salvation of all people and aiding their family by doing so.[12] Huiyuan continued in this reasoning, arguing that if one member leaves the household to be a monk, then all other members of the family would benefit from good fortune and lead superior lives.

Adapting their efforts[edit]

These philosophical arguments were not entirely successful in convincing the filial Chinese that the behavior advocated by Buddhism was correct, and so less subtle methods were employed. To more directly give Buddhism filial nature, passages and parables that were of minor importance in Indian and Central Asian Buddhism became very prominent in Chinese Buddhism. The story of Shanzi 睒子 (Syama in Sanskrit), is an example of this.

Story of Shanzi[edit]

Shanzi () spent his entire life aiding his blind parents, until he was accidentally killed. But, because of his life of filial devotion, he was miraculously revived. This story was often mentioned in the Chinese canon of Buddhist writings, included in a number of different anthologies (such as the Liudu Jijing 六度集经) and referred to by other Chinese Buddhist writers.[13] While it is clearly of Indian origin, this tale was virtually indistinguishable from similar Chinese tales. While the tale was transmitted along with Buddhist writings, philosophically it had very little to do with traditional Buddhism.

The story of Moggallana[edit]

Another story advocating filial piety is that of Moggallana, a Buddhist monk who goes to great lengths to rescue his mother from condemnation for her unjust life. This story appeared in the Ullambana Sutra and it is far more relevant to Buddhism than the tale of Shan-tzǔ, though it was still not a particularly important tale in Indian Buddhism. In China, however, these stories became not just elements of Buddhist scripture, but also popular tales which were even told amongst non-Buddhists. While these tales were a part of the Buddhist tradition, Chinese Buddhism raised them from a peripheral role to a central one.

Other texts[edit]
  • Another tale that achieved great renown in China was that of the Buddha rising to heaven for three months after his Enlightenment to preach and teach his mother his new philosophy. This tale was used to indicate that the Buddha did indeed show proper concern and respect for his parents, in that he cared for their immortal souls.
  • A number of apocryphal texts were also written that spoke of the Buddha's respect for his parents, and the parent-child relationship. The most important of these, the Sutra of Filial Piety, was written early in the Tang dynasty. This Sutra has the Buddha making the very Confucian argument that parents made great sacrifices, and put great efforts into ensuring the well-being of their child. In return each child must repay this kindness with loyalty and respect. Despite being a forgery the sutra was accepted as accurate by generations of scholars and commoners, and it played an important role in the development of a fully Chinese variation of Buddhism. Other documents discussing the Buddha’s views on the parent child-relationship were also probably forgeries. The Sutra on a Filial Son, for instance, also sounds far more Chinese than Indian, and shows Confucianist influence.

Ryūkyūan cultures[edit]

Filial piety is an important element in the cultures of the Ryukyu Islands. It is the topic of half of the verses of the most popular Okinawan folksong, Tinsagu nu Hana.


Lu Xun in his collection "Dawn Blossoms Plucked at Dusk" (朝花夕拾) criticized the stories "He Buried His Son for His Mother" and "Wang Xiang: He Lay on Ice in Search of Carp".

Filial Cannibalism[edit]

Filial piety at times took a radical turn, becoming a contest of whoever could sacrifice themselves most for their parents would be honored as most filial. In some parts of China, this Confucian impulse manifested itself in the form of filial cannibalism—the practice of feeding the parents on the flesh of their children, in Chinese called gegu (割股, lit. “the slicing of a limb”).[14] Although it does not appear in classical canon of filial piety, in imperial China, there are several instances recorded of children cutting off pieces of their flesh, preparing it (usually in a soup), and serving it to their deathly ill parents as a last-ditch effort to save them.[15] Many, especially in the Ming and Qing dynasties, believed that human flesh had medicinal properties, and the practice accordingly rose to the height of its popularity during this era, though it is known to have been practiced as early as the Southern and Northern Dynasties (420-589 AD).[16] Historian Jimmy Yu claims the popularity of gegu grew due to increased economic prosperity and literacy, which in turn allowed for further exploration of the human experience and morality. [17] Though unknown how common, historian Tina Lu says that “in imagination at least it was a central component of filial behavior, mentioned far more often than more quotidian expressions of devotion,” and placed it “at the very heart of filiality,” being the utmost act of love and self-sacrifice for one’s parents.[18]

Cases of Filial Cannibalism[edit]

The Ming-era Imperial Encyclopedia of General Knowledge lists the most virtuous, filial women in the empire, in total numbering 619. Out of the 619 women, 259 cut themselves in order to offer their literal pound of flesh to their ailing parents or parents-in-law, making women who practiced gegu 40% of the most virtuous women in the empire, showing the high regard placed on the practice. They cut out their flesh in many places, the most popular being the thigh with 286 cuts. Other places include the upper arm (37 cuts), liver (24), “flesh” (13), finger (4), ear (2), breast (2), rib (2), waist (1), stomach skin (1), “body” (1), and blood (1).[19] Indeed, expert on cannibalism in China, Key Ray Chong, claims, “Particularly during the Ming-[Qing] period, this kind of behavior was so firmly held by the majority of Chinese people that it was virtually required for all virtuous women to practice.” [20]


Filial cannibalism occurred in several different types of relationships: between daughters-in-law and fathers-in law, daughters-in-law and mothers-in-law, wives and husbands, daughters to mothers, daughters to fathers, sons to mothers, sons to fathers, and grandsons to grandfathers, to name a few. Traditionally the most common instances of filial cannibalism occurred between daughter-in-law and mother-in-law, by far dominating Ming dynastic records of documented acts.[21] One account records the husband’s reaction when he finds out what his wife has done for his mother, stating that he wept openly and declared “to the world that she was the most devoted of wives."[22] In the Qing Dynasty, however, it appears according to records in the Ch’ing Shih Kao, that sons were more likely to practice gegu than daughters were, and more often for their mothers.[23] There are many reported instances of such sacrifice for parents and parents-in-law actually working; there are many cases where the parent would make a miraculous recovery and live another twenty years, and the filial child safely recovering from their self-inflicted wounds.[24] Of course, there is no scientific evidence that this process was what actually cured the parents.


Filial cannibalism apparently was popular enough that there were at several times edicts banning the practice. In 1261, the Yuan Dynasty prohibited plucking out the eyeballs and cutting out the liver. In 1270 they more explicitly banned thigh-cutting for filial piety or medicinal purposes, stating that the way it deformed the body was a “blasphemy” to the parents who had created it, and that it endangered life.[25] Again in 1652, the Qing banned the use of a wife’s flesh for her husband’s medicine.[26] In the Jiangsu Province, after a fatal instance of gegu where the wife died in attempting to heal her husband, the wife’s family took legal action against the husband’s family, implying that the husband’s family requested or even demanded the woman’s sacrifice.[27] Despite having such laws in place, however, the enforcement of such laws was not strict; indeed, they often commended acts of filial cannibalism, as shown by dynastic records of the most filial women who earned such praise through the practice of gegu.[28] According to Chong, in a “peculiar extension of Confucian doctrine,” these women’s deeds “have been enshrined in community temples and monuments erected in their honor. For centuries, they have been remembered and even emulated as paragons of virtue, and each generation imposes similarly high standards on its women.”[29]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Paintings with political agendas". Retrieved 12 January 2012. 
  2. ^ Wonsuk Chang; Leah Kalmanson (8 November 2010). Confucianism in Context: Classic Philosophy and Contemporary Issues, East Asia and Beyond. SUNY Press. p. 68. ISBN 978-1-4384-3191-8. 
  3. ^ Baker, Hugh D. R. Chinese Family and Kinship. New York: Columbia University Press, 1979. pg. 98
  4. ^ a b c Ikels, Charlotte (2004). Filial piety: Practice and discourse in contemporary East Asia. Stanford: Stanford University Press. pp. 2–3. ISBN 978-0-8047-4791-2. 
  5. ^ Mann, Susan; Cheng, Yu-Yin, ed. (2001). Under Confucian eyes: Writings on gender in Chinese history. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press. p. 46. ISBN 978-0-520-22276-2. 
  6. ^ See Analects 1:2, Xiao Jing chap.1
  7. ^ Piyajatika Sutta, or Sutta 87 of the Majjhima Nikaya, translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu
  8. ^ Traylor, Kenneth L. Chinese Filial Piety. Bloomington: Eastern Press, 1988. pg. 110
  9. ^ "跪羊图高清大字版". Youtube. Retrieved 25 June 2014. 
  10. ^ Robert, Thurman. "Vimalakirti Nirdesa Sutra". Retrieved 25 June 2014. 
  11. ^ Keenan, John P. (1994). How master Mou removes our doubts: a reader-response study and translation of the Mou-tzu Li-huo lun, SUNY Press, p. 83.
  12. ^ Zurcher, E. The Buddhist Conquest of China. Leiden: E. J. Brill., 1959a, pg. 134
  13. ^ Ch'en, Kenneth. The Chinese Transformation of Buddhism. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1973. pg. 23
  14. ^ Tina Lu, “Accidental Incest, Filial Cannibalism, and Other Peculiar Encounters in Late Imperial Chinese Literature” (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008), 148.
  15. ^ Ibid.
  16. ^ Key Ray Chong, Cannibalism in China (Wakefield, NH: Longwood Academic, 1990), 105, 99, 93.
  17. ^ Jimmy Yu, Sanctity and Self-Inflicted Violence in Chinese Religions, 1500-1700 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 3
  18. ^ Lu, 148.
  19. ^ Chong, 101-102.
  20. ^ Ibid, 102.
  21. ^ Ibid, 101.
  22. ^ Ibid, 119.
  23. ^ Ibid, 118.
  24. ^ Ibid, 93.
  25. ^ Ibid, 98-99.
  26. ^ Ibid, 121
  27. ^ Ibid.
  28. ^ Ibid, 99.
  29. ^ Ibid, 166.

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