08 April 2010

On Filial Piety

It is not uncommon to find conclusive evidence for our rebellious nature starting from the age of our puberty. All too often we are enforced to reluctantly pay our monthly tribute to our parents and pay attention to the minutest details of what our parents have to say. Psychologists and self-help books are consulted by parents on the ground of how to make their children less rebellious. Seldom we regard it as a virtue rather than a vice. But what is wrong with being rebellious?

If our rebellious nature is severely condemned, it is perhaps because it offends the Confucian virtue of filial piety. This virtue reminds us that parents ought to be worshipped as gods, rather than regard them as secular beings who are susceptible to errors and flaws, we should feel the need to submit our thinking to parental authority instead of the rigours of rational examination. To challenge their opinions is to disrespect them. It is a societal convention that we should stifle our doubts and follow the flock because we are deemed too inferior to commit an intellectual offence against the idealised figure of Confucius. But is the age-old wisdom of Confucius still applicable in the twenty-first century?

The virtue of filial piety may have been overlooked. Confucianism seems only to painfully inflict pre-modern ethical codes upon us, while presuming morality has an objective criterion, it enforces our mind to submit to tyranny rather than autonomy and therefore is falsely raised to a status of intellectual superiority. The fact that we offer verbal offence against our parents suggests something optimistic about the maturity of our minds, a sign of the independence of mind and the ability to protest against the common tendency to rely on intuition, emotion, and custom, rendering our parents imperfect mortals.

Moreover, our parents are solely responsible for taking care of us. Whether it is the fact that it is their inability to regulate sexual impulse or the outcome of rational decision, they successfully deprive us of the right to choose to be born on this planet. We are merely the products of some highly intuitive minds who wish to spend a night together sharing the same bed for the sake of sensual pleasure.

Isn't this what liberal education is all about? Are we to accept our destiny that we cannot be pioneers of difficult, unfathomable truths? The virtue of filial piety seeks to destroy the freedom to exercise our autonomy. It lowers us as something below humans. Perhaps The act that we have not buckled our doubts and retracted our thoughts because others have complained should deserve praise rather than blame.

Filial piety only teaches us how to obey our duty, but only through spontaneous impulse, we learn how to love our parents.



  1. I think the teachings of Confucius bears a lot of wisdom that is still applicable in the 21st Century. Just like the Bible and other ancient teachings, it is the fact that people take it literally, word-for-word, that causes problems, and sometimes even war and destruction.

  2. Daveed,

    Yes, the teachings of Confucius still bear a lot of wisdom. But I think Confucius has been over idealised by the Chinese. I prefer Taoism myself.

    And yes, people do take it "too" literally for most religious texts. Most disciples just run contrary to what the founders of religions teach.


  3. Are you aware that there're further development from the Ancient Confucianism much later?


  4. One of the primary criticisms of Confucian thought is that the notions of filial piety and respect for tradition, authority cause Confucian cultures to be slow to change. Basically, Confucian cultures are highly conservative (small c conservative, meaning conserving rather than changing old ways), whereas other cultures are quicker to change established patterns (for better or for worse).

    I blogged a little about this a few months ago.


    Perhaps Confucian filial piety helps explain why this counter-cultural revolution that began in the 1960s seems to have had surprisingly little effect in HK so far.

  5. Henry,

    Of course I know that, but that's not the point. I still value Taoism over Confucianism.


    That helps explain why Chinese were better at the arts, but not science. Taoism is more liberal than Confucianism. Unfortunately, it never has had much a place in Chinese culture.


    P.S. When I speak of Taoism, I actually mean philosophical Taoism rather than religious Taoism.

  6. Perhaps we shouldn't label each philosophy/religion by the name and say this is the exact content of each one. Neo-Confucianism tried to combine what the believers consider as good/valid points from each one, and made a new philosophy. For me, this is how things progress and evolve. Philosophies, religions, even languages go through this evolution process.
    Even Bruce Lee combined different forms of martial arts to suit his own body and style. This turned out to be Jeet Kune Do, which is more a philosophy. At the end of the day, what's in a name?

  7. You spoke my mind, Daveed.


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