Filial Piety and Confucianism

The religion and philosophy of Confucianism has had a deep impact on the Asian way of life from ancient times right up into our present age. The practice of filial piety within Confucianism still influences a vast amount of people today.

Let us first define what filial piety is. Filial piety (xiao shun) is the primary duty to one’s parents – a fundamental virtue for the Chinese way of life. Throughout the Analects, Confucius talks a great deal about the virtues for particular types of human relations, such as the virtue of filial piety (xiao) between parent and child.In classical Confucianism filial piety was commonly understood to consist of three key moral obligations; respect for one’s parents, honouring (or not disgracing) them, and supporting them financially.

From this relationship with one’s parents, Confucius states is the Analects, that “When your parents are alive, serve them according to propriety; when they die, bury them according to propriety; sacrifice to them according to propriety” (Liu, p.237).

From the Confucian point of view, familial relations (parents and children, husband and wife, and elder and younger) are more important than the ruler-minister or friend-friend relation. The latter may end voluntarily, but familial relationships can never be deliberately forsaken. Kinship is consequently a crucial prerequisite in the Confucian notion. As Confucius claims, “filial piety and brotherly love are the roots of humanity” (Fan, p.356-357).

There is an interesting example of Confucius’ stance on filial piety and it shows that it should take precedence over everything else. Within the Analects, the Duke of She tells Confucius: “In my country there is an upright man. When his father stole a sheep, he bore witness against him”. Confucius says: “The upright men in my community are different from this. Fathers conceal the misconduct of their sons and sons conceal the misconduct of their fathers. Uprightness is just to be found in such mutual concealment” (Liu, p.234). Placing this example and many others found in the Analects together, we can see that the Confucian ideal was to forfeit all for filial piety and brotherly duty, as if anything else, such as decorum, honesty, righteousness, the empire, people, or even humaneness itself, by contrast, seems to be insignificant.

“Filial piety and brotherly respect are the very root of humaneness” – From this Confucian viewpoint, then, if kinship love can be genuinely ingrained in one’s heart, all the other qualities of personal qualities will then spring from it as their source. This is the very reason why filial piety is always held to be a fundamental virtue in Confucian beliefs. Filial piety is simply the basis, not the final destination, of ethical tradition.

Examples of filial piety can also be found in pre-Confucian texts. For instance, there is the famous legend of young Shun (later to become one of the greatest of China’s sage kings) in the Classic of Doctrines (Shangshu): “His father was obstinately un-principled; his step-mother was insincere; his half brother Xiang t was arrogant. He has been able, however, by his filial piety to live in harmony with them, and to lead them gradually to self-government, so that they no longer proceeded to great wickedness (Fan, p.370).

It is filial piety, above all other concerns, that inhabits the dominant place in Confucian belief. It could be safely claimed that filial piety is the essential force flowing through the entire structure of Confucianism.


Fan, Ruiping (2002) Reconsidering Surrogate Decision Making: Aristotelianism and Confucianism on Ideal Human Relations, Philosophy East and West, University of Hawai’i Press.

Liu, Qingping (2003) Filiality versus Sociality and Individuality: On Confucianism as “Consanguinitism”, Philosophy East and West, University of Hawai’i Press.

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