What is the nature of filial piety? Confucius gives five different answers to the same question in Chapter 5 to Chapter 8 of Book 2 of the Analects.
In his response to Meng Yizi (孟懿子), Confucius keeps his answer as curt as possible, simply telling him to “never disobey”. Since Meng was the head of one of the Three Families that were the real power in his home state of Lu and notorious for holding overelaborate ritual ceremonies to display their influence and wealth, in all likelihood Confucius didn’t see any point in going into further details. It was not as if Meng would follow his advice anyway.
When describing this incident to his disciple Fan Chi (樊遲), Confucius further elaborates on the subject by saying that a filial son should serve his parents according to the rites while they are living or dead. Some commentators interpret this comment as confirming Confucius’s belief that filial piety is subordinate to the rites. Others go as far as to see it as a subtle dig at Meng Yizi for regularly breaking the conventions of the rites with his ostentatious ceremonies.
Confucius takes a slightly different tack when addressing the same question from Meng Yizi’s son Meng Wubo (孟武伯), giving him the rather sound though probably futile advice that “the only time a son should make his parents worried is when he is sick.”
Perhaps because he feels less constrained when in the company of his disciples, Confucius turns to more down-to-earth language when discussing the subject with Ziyou (子游) and Zixia (子夏). “These days, people regard themselves as dutiful sons simply by feeding their parents,” he angrily complains to Ziyou, before adding “but they also feed their dogs and horses.”
Ultimately, he concludes to Zixia: “It is the attitude that counts.” To show true filial piety, a dutiful son can’t just go through the motions when carrying out his responsibilities towards his parents. He has to fulfil them in the right spirit as well.
Meng Yizi asked Confucius about filial piety. Confucius said: “Never disobey.” While Fan Chi was driving him in his chariot, Confucius told him: “Meng Yizi asked me about filial piety and I replied: ‘Never disobey.’” Fan Chi asked: “What does that mean?” Confucius replied: “When your parents are alive, serve them according to the rites. When they die, bury them according to the rites, and make sacrifices to them according to the rites.”
Meng Wubo asked about filial piety. Confucius said: “The only time a son should make his parents worried is when he is sick.”
Ziyou asked about filial piety. Confucius said: “These days, men regard themselves as dutiful sons simply by feeding their parents. But they also feed their dogs and horses. Unless they show their parents due respect, what’s the difference?”
Zixia asked about filial piety. Confucius said: “It is the attitude that counts. 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?”