Last updated: March 24, 2019
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Western people might wonder why once upon a time in China, choosing a wife or husband for one’s life was not his or her decision but their parents’, or one must mourn for their deceased parents at least three years. The answer is about the definition of morality. Different conceptions of morality have guided different cultures in different directions regarding a central question of human existence: Does morality require filial piety (or filial obligation) of children toward their parents? Confucianism, which remains influential in Chinese culture, answers an emphatic “yes”, while Western culture’s response is ambiguous, to say the least.

Confucianism underlies the familial relationships in Chinese culture, specifically the values of filial piety, thus differing from Western culture. An understanding of Confucius, the concepts of Confucianism and their impacts on relationships and behaviors in Chinese familial life will be discussed followed by examples from specific case studies in Hong Kong and Taiwan. Confucianism’s roots are traced to the teacher-prophet Kongzi whom we call Confucius. He lived in a corrupt society in Shandung, on the northeastern coast, during the sixth century B. C Although Confucius lived in the fifth and sixth centuries B. C. his teachings still form the basis for family values. Confucius is remembered as being both the first and the most renowned great Chinese philosopher. Confucius’ family structure as a youth was more atypical than typical of what we might expect. Although he was the son of a magistrate in what is present day, Shandong, his father died when he was very young and he was raised by his mother in great poverty. After a brief stint as a government official during his younger years, he resigned from government duty to begin teaching.

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His teachings attracted many disciples. He reentered public office when invited to do so at the age of fifty to briefly serve as magistrate then be honored with assignment to the highest post in the state which could be obtained by a commoner such as himself. Even more important than his governmental duties, however, was the philosophical guidance he provided for almost all aspects of human affairs. According to Confucius, there were five basic concepts which lead mankind to living a good and productive life, while at the same time, enable him to make a positive contribution to his society.

First, there is Jen, which is, quite literally, a combination the Chinese words for human being and the number two, with the implication being that emphasis must not be placed on a single individual, but on along with others in a relationship, whether it be familial, friendship or in the workplace. The principle of Jen has been described as goodness, or the highest of all moral virtues. The Eastern religious authority Huston Smith explained in The world’s religions: our great wisdom traditions, Jen is the principle of respecting others, “an indivisible sense of the dignity of human life wherever it appears”. 172) The next important concept is Chun tzu, which can be translated to mean either superior person, human excellence, or maturity. Confucius believed relationships are essential for human happiness and also for the overall well-being of society. Chun tzu is a person who is secure enough to consider the needs of others. The third principle is Li, which like many aspects of Chinese philosophy and society, has dual meanings. First, it describes propriety, or the proper way to conduct oneself. The way to achieve this, Confucius taught that man should always be guided by that which provides goodness for himself and others.

Li also explains how to develop harmony through personal and social relationships. It is dependent upon the five constant relationships which have been historically built throughout the cultural development of China – the relationships between parent and child, husband and wife, elder and younger sibling, elder and younger friend, and finally, ruler and subject. The concept may appear simple as parents loving their children, spouses and siblings getting along well, friends helping each other, children caring for their parents.

Differently in the West, most social unrest is the result of the breakdown of family structure, violence caused by friends or spouses having a disagreement. The fourth basic principle of Confucian thought is Te, which has been translated to mean power. According to Confucius, only if a leader can set a moral example, can he be successfully followed by his subjects. The final principle of Confucian thought is Wen, which can be accurately described as the aesthetic and spiritual expressions which are necessary to sustain culture.

In addition, Li refers Confucius’ rules of propriety which has shape much of family values. In Confucianism, propriety is defined as the quality of being proper, of conforming to contemporary uses and customs. These rules practically extend to every aspect of ancient Chinese lives. There are expectations of proper conduct inherent not just in personal familial affairs but in their dealings with humanity as a whole. The same expectations that they have in their families are, in fact, present in practically all institutions and organizations.

Li also mentions Confucius’ conception of the “man of humanity” simply as an extension of his thoughts regarding propriety. The man of humanity varies in his behavior according to the social expectations to which he is exposed. In dealings with his elders he is respectful, in dealings with his children he is loving. The family takes a central place in Confucianism. Their interrelationships, as mentioned above, are determined on the basis of five basic human relationships: ruler-minister, father-son, elder brother-younger brother, husband-wife, and friend-friend.

Kung, Hung, and Chan clarify that three of these basic human relationships are familial and have clearly defined generations, age, and gender hierarchies (33). These authors further explain that the family and the state are integrally related and the family is a means through which the state exerts social control over its subjects in general. The Chinese word for “nation”, after all: “consists of two characters ‘guo’ and ‘jia. ‘ The former means country, and the latter family. Hence the country is the family and the family is the country” (Kung, Hung, and Chan. 3) Life according to many philosophers is an ongoing struggle between the values of just and unjust, right and wrong. Some think that this struggle is in reality an artificial struggle, others think that it is mankind’s true purpose in life to be moral and just. Confucius’ concepts of “proprietary rule” and “man of humanity” would fall under the latter view, that man’s true purpose was morality and justice and his basis for family values insured that that would be the case both within the family and within society as a whole.

Deutsch observes that: “Confucianism promotes harmonious relations among people primarily through hierarchical relationships, in which the subordinate member owes obedience and loyalty in exchange for responsibility and care from the super-ordinate member”. (Deutsch, 393) Confucius argued that social well being requires adherence to the rules of propriety, in fact, that harmony must be regulated by the rules of propriety. He makes this contention in acknowledgment of the conflict which can be caused by behavior which falls outside the norm. The man who is disrespectful to his elders is also disrespected.

The man who is unloving to his children is unloved as well. Socially unacceptable behavior affects not just the one who is rebelling, not just the one they are rebelling against, but indeed society as a whole. Conflict creates more conflict in Confucius’ view. If Confucian thought could be defined in two words, the most appropriate would be, “filial piety. ” For Confucius, this was the cornerstone, upon which everything hinged. In the Confucian Analects, it was written, “The Master said, ‘A youth, when at home, should be filial, and, abroad, respectful to his elders. He should be earnest and truthful.

He should overflow in love to all, and cultivate the friendship of the good. When he has time and opportunity, after the performance of these things, he should employ them in polite studies'” (Confucius, 12). Filial piety emphasizes li, which defines the goodness; hsiao, which specifically refers to love of family;jen, in terms kindness toward strangers; and chung, which is translated to mean demonstrating loyalty to one’s “true nature,” but can also have nationalistic implications (Weiss 194). If man is able to exhibit filial piety in his relationships and in the conduct of his life, Confucius believes that his benevolence will be rewarded.

However, several Western moral philosophers claim that children and adults do not have moral obligation to demonstrate their filial piety towards their parents no matter how much sacrifice parents had for them. Norman Daniels believes that there exists a “basic asymmetry between parental and the filial obligations” (Daniels, 29). He also state that the obligation of caring for their children of parents a “self-imposed” duty, whereas children’s obligation of caring for their parents is “non-self-imposed” and thus cannot be morally required.

Jane English also argues that “a filial obligation would only arise from whatever love she or he [the adult child] may still feel for them [her parents]. ” (English, 152) Li states that filial piety is loyalty to one’s family, in ancient China encompassed three types of behavior. First of all, one must support his or her parents. In other words, it is the obligation of any children to care for their parents, even when they have passed away. This seems to be very simple on its surface, but it is actually ery complicated and influential over other Chinese cultural aspects. For instant, marriage which serves as a primary factor in familial harmony reflects this great influence. Under Confucianism, marriage extends not just between two individuals but between two families. In “The Analects” Confucius specifies that it unites two surnames to continue the husband’s familial line. When a woman entered the marriage, she became a member of her husband’s family and took on the filial obligation to take care not only of him and her children but also his parents.

Therefore, children’s filial obligation is applied not just towards their parents who gave birth to them, but also towards all the people whom are considered to be their parents. Moreover, children still have filial obligation even when their parents have already passed away. They mourn and offer a memorial services and sacrifices to parents after death. This relates to Chinese worship tradition in which Chinese people burn incense, votive paper to serve their deceased ancestors, and take care of their parents’ graves to show their piety.

Secondly, one must “honor, revere, and obey” his or her parents (Li 211). Confucius said, “Filial piety means to be able to support one’s parents. But we support even dogs and horses. If there is no feeling of reverence, wherein lies the difference? ” (Li 211). Confucius did not see the injunction to honor one’s parents as a burden or obligation, but rather as a natural way to follow social rules in a manner that is willing. In ancient Chinese family, parents’ words were the most powerful that could control their children’s life, even their marriage decision.

This is because they used to have an old opinion that once parents give birth to a child, his or her life belongs to the parents. This conception is now, however, less serious, but still exists. Chinese people still consider their parents’ suggestions as important guides as they are always thankful to their parents who gave them the greatest present that is the life. Western people have a different argument regarding parents’ sacrifice for their children. In her famous essay What Do Grown Children Owe Their Parents? Jane English wrote: “The quantity of parental sacrifice is not relevant in determining what duty the grown child has” (151). However, regardless the contradictory opinions that filial piety is required as a moral obligation or not, children, as the nature of humanity, still have significant responsibility for their parents. The third behavior that demonstrates Confucian regard for filial loyalty is to produce an heir. This requirement, in particular, strikes the Western mind as odd. However, Li points out that what is frequently overlooked is the religious aspect of this injunction.

Unlike other religions that offer an after-life in heaven, in Confucianism, immortality consists of having one’s blood living on in descendants and to live on in the memory of one’s family. This can only occur if there are descendants. In Chinese tradition, the children will have their father’s family name which represents a family line. The length and also the strength of a family line are measured by how many generations (having the same family name) there are. This custom in which only a son can have ability to maintain the continuity of the family line became the root of the discrimination against women in ancient Chinese society.

With the need to produce an heir, every family had a desire to have a son, and every man was allowed to have as many wives as he wanted until he got a son. This being the case, women were considered not important and subservient to men. This prejudice has, however, faded away in modern China, but no one can deny its influence on China one-time. Ho conducted a study that examined the role of Confucian filial loyalty in relation to parental attitudes, and as a function of personality and social cognition. The study collected data from sample populations in Hong Kong and Taiwan.

The result of this study indicate, first of all, that filial attitudes tend to be moderately associated with parental attitudes and child training that stresses ” obedience and indebtedness to one’s parents, impulse control, and proper conduct” (Ho 349). In other words, from a Western point of view, children raised by Confucian standards are “good” children in that “proper” conduct is emphasized. From this, one can reasonably assume that these children seldom intrude on the world of adults with the rambunctious behavior that Westerns regard as a right of childhood.

This sort of controlled behavior is undoubtedly interpreted by many as a positive impact of Confucian beliefs on children’s conduct. Ho’s study also found, however, that people who endorse traditional filial and/or Confucian child training attitudes tend to have less skill at verbal fluency. They generally adopt a passive, uncritical, and uncreative orientation toward learning. When order and obedience are stressed as vital to everyday life from early childhood, it is logical that children would not have the opportunity to practice oral skills.

Also, factors such as individual creativity imply separation from, rather than identification with one’s parents. With this in mind, it is perhaps not surprising that Ho also found the people in Hong Kong and Taiwan that adhered to traditional Confucian concepts also tended to hold fatalistic, superstitious and stereotypic beliefs. Ho describes them as “authoritarian, dogmatic, and conformist” (349). The data resulting from this study also suggested that when parents’ approach to childrearing is rooted in filial piety, it has the tendency to result in highly rigid thought processes in their children, suggesting low cognitive complexity.

These results substantiate the position of those that argue that the Confucian emphasis on filial piety encourages both authoritarian moralism and cognitive conservatism. To conclude, Confucianism has many influences in regard to family values. Of the most important is its influence on the relationships that occur between individuals. The individual’s obligation to the family and indeed the society as a whole is paramount to these values. While the strict definition of these relationships has changed somewhat over time, they still play a critical role in shaping familial life. A certain degree of filial piety is a positive cultural aspect.

Family cohesiveness provides a firm foundation on which societies can build. However, too much of a good thing can somehow have negative consequences as well. Confucianism carries family loyalty to such an extreme that places severe boundaries on individuality, as the person is taught that the individual only has value through the family unit and via filial piety. On other hand, there are times when a concentrated group effort is required and when these situations occur, the Confucian worldview can be beneficial. Therefore, whether Confucian filial loyalty is negative or positive largely depends on the circumstances and the cultural content.