Analects Book 1: on filial piety


Filial piety (孝/xiào) is one of the best known of the values taught by Confucius, probably because it was so heavily promoted by a succession of imperial dynasties starting with the Han who drew a direct link between obedience to parents and obedience to the ruler.

In Book 1 of the Analects, however, it is the disciple Youzi rather than Confucius who explicitly makes this connection when he declares in Chapter II: “A man who respects his parents and elders is not likely to question the authority of his superiors. Such a man will never provoke disorder.” Never afraid to make bold statements, Youzi also goes on to claim that, “Respect for parents and elders constitutes the essence of goodness.”

While the disciple Zixia doesn’t necessarily draw the same direct connection between filial piety and obedience to authority as Youzi, he certainly sees a correlation between them in Chapter VII, when he describes a “learned man” as one “who devotes all his energy to serving his father and mother, who is willing to sacrifice his life for his ruler.”

Confucius, on the other hand, focuses solely on the duties and obligations of a good son towards his parents in life and death when talking about filial piety in Book 1. In Chapter VI, he advises: “At home, a young man should respect his parents.” “When the father is alive, observe his son’s intentions,” he says in Chapter XI, before continuing, “When the father is dead, watch his son’s conduct. If after three years he has not deviated from his father’s path, then he may be called a dutiful son.”

The disciple Zengzi expands on the importance of showing respect to parents when they are dead in Chapter IX when he urges the ruling class to fully observe the funeral and ancestral worship rites: “When the dead are shown proper reverence and the memory of distant ancestors is kept alive, the people’s virtue is at its highest.”

Even though he was a hard-liner on certain aspects of filial piety such as observing the traditional three-year mourning period after the death of a parent, Confucius was a lot more nuanced in his approach than the common clichés of blind obedience that have arisen about it in the two thousand years since his death would suggest. Indeed, as we will see in Book 2, his main concern was that filial obligations should be carried out in the right spirit rather than simply out of a sense of duty. As he tells Zixia in Chapter VIII of the book, “It is the attitude that counts.”

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