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Filial Piety

Updated: Mar 21, 2023

Dear Asian Youth,

Her feet drag across the dimly lit hallway of her mother’s apartment building. She has repeated this path once a month for the past three years. The overhead light flickers, her heart races. She pauses in front of the wooden door, a bead of sweat trickling down the side of her face. She clutches her black handbag tight. She takes a deep breath and knocks.

The door flings open, threatening words shower her with never-ending despair, “Where is the money? Give me this month’s amount, full. I swear I have never seen anyone as ungrateful as you, if your brother didn’t need this money to buy his house, I would disown you!”

“Mother… I, I barely have enough for myself.”

“I don’t care! You are my daughter! You are obligated to give me money and help out your brother! Remember, I gave birth to you, everything you have is because of me!”

Tears circle the girl’s eyes, her words are trapped in her throat. She watches as her mother rummages aggressively through the black handbag, seizing the brown envelope full of cash. After getting a hold of the money, her mother throws the handbag onto the dusty floor and slams the door shut. The girl is left alone in the hallway, stunned. She shakes with heartache and anger. At that moment, she did not want to be her mother’s daughter…

As astonishing as it may sound, this is a reality for many young individuals in China and many other parts of the world as well. However, it originates from one of China’s most well-known and well-practiced doctrines. In Chinese, there is a common saying that goes “百事孝为先”. In English, it roughly translates to “out of all things, filial piety should come first”. Filial piety is probably one of those phrases that not many people are familiar with, though you might understand what it means after reading the definition. Filial piety refers to the virtue of respect toward one’s elders and ancestors. However, this is not a widespread belief in most of the Western world. Truth be told, I think ‘filial piety’ was merely created to be an overly-sophisticated translation.

The concept of filial piety originates from Chinese Buddhist/Taoist ethics, and has arguably been one of China’s most important moral tenets for the past 3000 years. Acts of filial piety are considered the moral duties of the young, which includes offering great respect and support toward one’s elders. Generally, children are obligated to adhere to their parents’ wishes, take care of their parents when they are old, and work diligently to provide them with material comforts. The reasoning behind this obligation is the eternal debt that children have towards their parents for giving them life. Western beliefs often center around individualism, announcing that each person is an autonomous body once they have left the womb. In Chinese culture, however, familial relations intertwine and connect every individual to the other. If you examine the Chinese character ‘孝(xiao)’, it actually illustrates the meaning of filial piety. The top portion of the ideogram is a part of the character ‘老(lao)’, which refers to the elderly. The bottom portion of the ideogram is the character ‘子(zi)’, which is a term used for a child (son). The elderly above the young symbolizes the concept of filial piety, where the older generation is supported and carried by the younger ones.

Though the concept seems harmless at first glance, filial piety has dark and twisted implications. I invite you to revisit the little anecdote in the beginning of this piece. Many households view filial piety not as a request or suggestion, but rather a demand and an expectation. This demand may slowly morph into a guilt-tripping method of manipulation. Some parents use their children as money-shaking-trees, eating off of every last cent. Other parents who might not have lived a life they wanted will in turn force their unfulfilled dreams onto their offspring. They single-handedly draft up a life plan for their children - what schools to attend, what job to work at, when to get married, how many kids to have, where to buy a house etc. When children start to disagree with their elders or choose to pursue their own lifestyle, parents often express grave disappointment and anger on the grounds that filial piety was not honored. In more serious cases, where parents manifest toxic traits and inflict physical or emotional abuse through heavy gaslighting, it teaches young vulnerable minds to accept various forms of manipulation and abuse and accept them as acts of ‘love’. These toxic actions are rarely questioned due to the rooted ideals of filial piety - where disobeying is strictly forbidden. In these cases, filial piety acts as an imprisoning chain that binds children to their abusers.

When it comes to Chinese-Americans or other Asian-Americans, there enlies a moral dilemma with filial piety. In Western culture, personal passion is highlighted as the ultimate pursuit. However, in pursuing one’s dream, they may not be fulfilling the wishes of their parents. Should I chase my dreams or settle down to respect my parents vision for me? Unfortunately, I can’t give you an answer. Each household is different and not all views will align, so it is up to you to decide which path you choose. What I can say is that filial piety is originally a respectable virtue set off to instill gratitude and love. Please, parents, do not let it become a tool for control and manipulation. I strongly encourage all readers to have an open conversation with your parents about this concept of filial piety. Tell them if you feel pressured or anxious, and let them know where you are coming from. Hopefully having such discussions will help facilitate a safer and more supportive familial environment.

- Eva

Cover Photo Source: South China Morning Post


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