Analects of Confucius Book 1: Confucius on filial devotion


Filial devotion (孝/xiào) is one of the best known of the values taught by Confucius, not least 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 follower Youzi rather than Confucius who explicitly makes this connection when he declares in Chapter 2: “A man who practices filial and fraternal devotion is unlikely 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, “Filial and fraternal devotion is the root of goodness.”

While the follower Zixia doesn’t necessarily draw the same direct connection between filial devotion and obedience to authority as Youzi, he certainly sees a correlation between them in Chapter 7, when he describes a “learned man” as one “who devotes himself to serving his parents, who dedicates his life to his ruler, and who is true to his word with his friends.”

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 devotion in Book 1. In Chapter 6, he advises: “A young man should be devoted to his parents at home and respectful to his elders outside it.” “When the father is alive, observe his son’s intentions,” he declares in Chapter 11, before continuing, “When the father is dead, watch his son’s actions. If after three years he has not deviated from his father’s path, then he may be called a filial son.”

The follower Zengzi expands on the importance of showing respect to the memory of your deceased parents in Chapter 9 when he urges the ruling class to fully observe the funeral and ancestral worship rituals: “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 devotion 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 8 of the second book, “It is the attitude that counts.”

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