All cultures, in one way or another, place varying levels of importance on caring and respecting for one’s parents. For various Asian and Middle Eastern cultures, particularly those in China, South East Asia and Saudi Arabia, it is almost expected that a child is suppose to care for their parents in old age.
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Unfortunately, these traditions do not exist to the same extent within Western cultures such as those within the U.S., U.K. and some parts of Western Europe. In such countries, independence from one’s parents is often a state of being that is celebrated and even at times necessary in order to conform to the expectations placed on adults within such societies.
It is this inherent societal divergence in attitudes regarding the care for the elderly that helps to set the stage in explaining the concept of Filial Piety (xiao) from the Chinese Confusician tradition. Filial Piety (Xiao) can be described as virtue that places a distinct emphasis on respect for an individual’s parents or ancestors which manifests itself in acts such as:
- Caring for one’s parents in old age
- Treating one’s parents with respect both at home and in public
- Acting in a manner that does not bring shame on the family
- Showing the necessary love and support to one’s parents
- Lastly, performing necessary sacrifices in order to ensure that one’s parents are given the appropriate level of care
In a way, Filial Piety can be defined as actions that are heavily based on the concepts of tradition and indebtedness wherein showing respect and caring for one’s parents is an inherent part of Chinese cultural traditions while, at the same time, it is a way in which a child “pays back” his/her parents for their care while he/she was still a child.
Explaining the Origins of Filial Piety through the Concept of the Family Unit
In trying to understand the reasoning behind the concept of Filial Piety, it is necessary to see the inherent divergence between the Western nuclear family and the Chinese extended family. It is often the case that in most western societies a nuclear family consists of a mother, father, and child within the same household. This is the basic social unit seen in most western societies which continues to be prevalent to this very day.
Historically, the Chinese on the other hand had a distinctly different family unit which can be characterized as being extended rather than being nuclear. It was often the case that Chinese households consisted of a husband and his wife along with the mother and father of the husband within the same household.
Early independence from one’s family was not a trait that was often practiced throughout Chinese society which placed a greater emphasis on the development of strong familial bonds.
This often manifested itself in some of the affluent families within Chinese society living within the same compound consisting of a grandmother, grandfather as well as having several aunts, uncles and other members of the family often being located within the same large building.
Members of the family often contributed towards the betterment of the family’s situation with the grandparents often acting as a source of information in order to conduct all manner of business or social transactions due to the way in which older people within the Chinese culture are viewed as having more intelligence and wisdom.
It was due to this version of a family unit that the concept of Filial Piety (xiao) manifested itself within the Chinese culture.
The combination of respect for the elderly along with the close family ties emphasized by the way in which families at the time were composed resulted in a distinct predilection to emphasize better treatment and respect for elderly family members which over time evolved in the modern day version of Xiao (Filial Piety).
The same concept of Filial Piety (though not in the same words) can be seen in Judeo-Christian and Islamic traditions within the Middle East as well as in some cultures in South East Asia such as in the Philippines which defines it as “utang na loob sa kamaganak” (roughly translated as a feeling of gratitude towards one’s family).
Such societies place a distinct emphasis on the creation of extended families as well as respect for the elderly and, as such, it is not surprising that they would have a similar concept of Filial Piety.
It is based on this that it can be stated that the concept of Filial Piety is not something that is exclusively unique to the Chinese Confusician tradition but rather manifests itself in cultures and societies that place an emphasis on developing close family ties and extended families.
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This is one of the reasons why such a concept is largely absent within the cultures of the U.S. and Western Europe due to a greater emphasis being placed on independence with the elderly being viewed as a burden rather than a source of knowledge and wisdom.
How is Filial Piety Sustained?
When it comes to the use of Filial Piety what you have to understand is that it is merely a manifestation of the concept of “cultural identification” linked to the sense of community that is inherent in us all. Various studies have shown that man (i.e. humanity) is a social creature and actually craves societal contact and desires to be identified with a particular type of group.
As a result, this manifests itself in people continuing to internalize various forms of behaviors and attributes in order to integrate themselves into a culture despite such actions often resulting in an adverse situation (i.e. having to live with one’s parents for an extended period of time).
The Future of Filial Piety
What you have to understand though is that what is known as culture to most people is actually a dynamic process that constantly changes over the years into different iterations. To a certain extent, it can be stated that the different cultural periods throughout history are nothing more than stages in a development cycle that never truly ends.
It is based on this perspective that the cultural distinctions that we have at the present will very likely undergo even more changes in the coming years into something completely different to our present day experience of culture.
In fact, though the concept of Filial Piety is several hundred years old it is dwarfed in comparison to the thousands of years that humanity has existed wherein the concept of Filial Piety was not even developed. As such, within the next hundred years Filial Piety may undergo a distinct change or even disappear altogether as a result of the progress of humanity’s cultural march towards the future.