In his response to Meng Yizi, the head of one of the Three Families that were the real power in the state of Lu, Confucius keeps his answer as blunt as possible, simply telling him that it is to “never disobey”.
When his disciple Fan Chi asks him what he meant by that reply, Confucius says that a filial son should serve his parents according to the rites while they are alive and bury and honor them according to the rites when they are dead. Some commentators interpret this comment as confirming Confucius’s belief that adhering to the conventions of the rites was even more important than upholding the values of filial piety. Others suggest that that he was making a subtle dig at Meng for regularly breaking the conventions of the rites by holding ostentatious ceremonies that should only been reserved exclusively for members of the ruling family.
When Meng Wubo, the son of Meng Yizi, asks Confucius about the same question, Confucius takes a different tack, replying that, “The only time a son should make his parents worried is when he is sick.” Presumably, his point is that while a son can’t prevent himself from becoming ill, he can make sure that he doesn’t engage in any behavior that would be a cause of concern for his parents.
In Chapter VII, Confucius unleashes a hugely entertaining rant at his disciple Ziyou, castigating those who “regard themselves as dutiful sons simply by feeding their parents” with the same lack of respect that they “feed their dogs and horses.” “It is the attitude that counts,” he tells his disciple Zixia in Chapter VIII. “If young people just offer their help when there is work to do, or serve their elders wine and food when they need to drink and eat, how could this ever be considered as filial piety?”
Towards the end of Book 2, Confucius links filial piety with good governance and social stability. In Chapter XX, he tells Ji Kangzi, the de facto ruler of the state of Lu, that he would gain the loyalty of the people by showing them that he was “a good son and a loving father.”
In the following chapter, he goes on to argue that all men can contribute to the smooth running of the government “simply by acting as a good son and being kind to your brothers.”
Although Confucius never gave a single definition of the meaning of filial piety, he was very clear that he saw it as the duty of both the ruler and his people and the foundation of social stability and cohesiveness. Failure to practice it not just according to the proper conventions but also in the right spirit would lead not just to the breakdown of families but also society.