Chinese Spirit of Filial Piety and Fraternal Love


For over two millennia, the Chinese have advocated Ruist thought which has as its two most important principles: filial piety and fraternal duty. Filial piety (also known as family reverence) refers to the duty children owe their parents; fraternal duty refers to love between brothers and their living in harmony with one another. The concept of filial piety and fraternal duty are as interdependent as lips and teeth. Showing filial obedience consists of following the wishes of one’s parents, and parents are happy to see that brothers love and respect each other as good brothers should. Confucius (551–479 BCE) said, “It is only because exemplary persons (junzi) serve their parents with filial reverence that this same feeling can be extended to their lord in the form of loyalty (zhong). It is only because they serve their elder brother with deference (ti) that this same feeling can be extended to all elders as compliance (shun).” Thus, traditional filial piety and fraternal love in fact included some other virtues.


The Chinese attach great importance to filial piety. Today in China, the way children treat their parents is still influenced by the traditional concept of filial piety. Children are told to “support and look after your parents; be respectful to your parents.” Respect for one’s parents entailed many things: hair went uncut and care was taken not to hurt one’s skin because both hair and body were treated as a gift from one’s parents. Another way of showing respect was if a parent made a mistake, the child should dissuade the parent by speaking softly with a humble and respectful attitude.


Confucius said, “Filial piety and fraternal love are the basis of goodness (ren).” It was thought that as long as a man kept filial piety and fraternal love in mind, he would not go against his superiors and cause trouble. Those who have been nurtured in the spirit of Ruism firmly believe that filial piety and fraternal love are the foundation of all virtues. Some even blame the lack of filial piety as the root of any wrong thought and behavior. Thus arose the idea that filial piety would transform itself into loyalty (duty). Filial piety and loyalty appear, on the surface, to be unrelated, but the spiritual essence is the same. The former is the norm of human relations within clans, while the latter is the extension of that principle to the society.


The Xiaojing (Classic of filial piety) was written during the Warring States period (475–221 BCE) of the Eastern Zhou dynasty when the rites had become corrupt and vassal states were regularly annexing one another. It stresses the importance of wise and able rulers and loyal and submissive subjects. Ancient rulers all promoted filial piety because it was the basis of all other virtues, and filial subjects would make for a stable social order. The rulers first made their realm peaceful by educating the people to be filial and to love their brothers; education extended this basis by teaching them loyalty to their rulers and love for their state.  


There are many thought-provoking stories about filial piety and fraternal love in ancient Chinese literature. Although some of the stories have been polished and modified, one can still see the relationships between the father and the son, the elder brother and the younger brother that the author intended to portray.


One of many stories about filial piety tells the story of Shun of the Yu kingdom moving heaven. One of the Five Emperors in ancient times, Shun treated his father and stepmother with filial respect since childhood. However, Shun’s stepmother was a narrow-minded person and often vilified him in front of her husband. Shun’s father was an honest and kindhearted person, and he deeply believed what she said about Shun. Shun’s younger brother was his stepmother’s son and was just like his mother: arrogant and insolent toward Shun. Shun never blamed anyone for his mistreatment and continued to treat his stepmother with respect, and his younger brother with love and care, wishing to guide him so that someday he could correct his errors and make a fresh start.  


The filial love finally moved Heaven, which sent divine elephants to help Shun cultivate the land and divine birds to help him weed. Hearing about Shun’s filial behavior, Emperor Yao sent servants to serve his parents, he even gave his daughters Ehuang and Nüying in marriage to Shun. Furthermore, he abdicated in favor of Shun. Shun, a commoner, became the emperor. It was his filial piety and devotion that moved Heaven.


The concept of the family in China differs from that of Western culture: in China, there is a strong sense of family and clan; this forms the traditional character of the Chinese people. Examining just the character for “filial piety” (xiao), one can see that it visually implies that one is submissive to one’s parents, and carries out various filial behaviors such as supporting and looking after one’s parents and taking care of funeral and burial matters when they die. Westerners are more individual-oriented; the relationship between parents and children is relatively more balanced. They advocate free development of a child, and the family relationship is more relaxed.

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