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Filial Piety in Chinese Religion

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Filial Piety in Chinese Religion

by Robert Reese, 2003

Filial piety was an integral part of Chinese culture and therefore was embraced by three of China's main religions: Confucianism, Buddhism, and Daoism. Among the three, Confucianism, with its well documented social hierarchy, supported the ideals of filial piety the most. Buddhism and Daoism also supported filial piety in some of their texts, but had monastic systems that prevented monks and nuns from being filial children.

The term filial piety refers to the extreme respect that Chinese children are supposed to show their parents. It involves many different things including taking care of the parents, burying them properly after death, bringing honor to the family, and having a male heir to carry on the family name (Brians 1). Practicing these ideals is a very important part of Chinese culture. Therefore, one would expect that filial piety would be incorporated into the major religions of China as it has been.

The ideal of respecting and behaving properly towards one's parents fits perfectly with Confucianism's ideal of respecting and behaving properly towards all elders. Confucius himself addressed the subject in the Analects:

When your father is alive observe his intentions. When he is deceased, model yourself on the memory of his behavior. If in three years after his death you have not deviated from your father's ways, then you may be considered a filial child. ("Confucian Teachings" 20).

According to Confucius, respect to one's father while he is alive is a given -- something that even animals do. But, to be a filial child, one must respect his parents even after their death. Confucius goes on to cite further specific examples of what a filial son should do for his parents. Among them, children should never offend their parents, never speak badly of them, not travel far away without purpose, always be conscious of their parents age, and protect them whenever necessary (21). These things were not all that was required of a filial child. Rather, they were an just a few rules that Confucius' disciples felt were important enough to be included in the Analects.

The concept of filial piety was exhibited in other Confucian texts as well, such as the Book of Rewards and Punishments. Although this text was technically a popular religious text, rather than a Confucian one, it highlighted many Confucian ideals, such as filial piety. It describes good, virtuous people seeking immortality as those who "exhibit loyalty to their ruler, filial piety to their parents, true friendship to their older brothers" (143). Contrarily, those who are evil "insult their ruler and their parents behind their backs" (143). According to this text, it is impossible to be a good, virtuous person without showing respect for one's parents. The inclusion of filial piety in this popular religious work also helps to show how widespread the belief in filial piety was in China. Although it received a great deal of support and promotion from Confucianism, filial piety was not limited to Confucians -- it was a widespread part of Chinese culture.

Filial piety is also mentioned in Buddhist texts. In the Mangalasutta, it is said that the love of the parents "can never be compensated even if one were to carry one's parents on the shoulder without putting them down for a hundred or a thousand years" (Hallisey 246). Here, it is explained that the reason for filial piety is to show gratitude and attempt to repay one's parents for the tremendous amount of love and caring that they devoted. The text also mentions more specific examples of how a child can show respect for his or her parents, such as bathing them and providing them with food and drink (245).

Although many Buddhist and Daoist texts support the idea of filial piety, their monastic intuitions lie in direct opposition to one of the main responsibilities of a filial child -- having a male heir in order to carry on the family name. Precepts of the Perfect Truth Daoist Sect says that "All those who choose to leave their families and homes should join a Daoist monastery, for it is a place where the body may find rest" (146). Both Daoist and Buddhist monks were required to leave their parents behind to live a cloistered life, an action that certainly does not concur with the concept of filial piety. Furthermore, they are required to remain celibate and can therefore not have any children. Without having children, one cannot have a male heir to carry on the family name. Because having a male heir is a core component of filial piety, a Buddhist or Daoist monk can not be a filial son.

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