Once the accepted norm, traditional forms of filial piety are becoming a remnant of the past. Yudith Ho revisits an ancient Chinese virtue.
Wang Kai and Wang Rui, two brothers from China, reached national fame for their grand display of filial piety. In 2007, they built their mother Wang Yuxia a 5,000-yuan (US$730) carriage fitted with beds, windows and heating panels to realise their late father’s dream of taking their easily carsick, 81-year-old mother sightseeing across China. Unable to afford more luxurious methods of transportation, they power the carriage with their own feet: Wang Kai pulls the carriage while Wang Rui pushes it from behind.
On their first trip three years ago, they travelled through 25 provinces and two municipalities to reach Hong Kong. This year they plan to carry their mother all the way to Taiwan from the Heilongjiang province in the northeast. By March this year, they were travelling through Fujian province in southeast China, having travelled on foot for more than 4,500km. Unsurprisingly, many have been moved by their demonstration of love. Some shower them with daily necessities and gifts. Universities and organisations invite them to share their inspiring story and to teach filial piety. Businessmen have also offered them financial help, but the brothers draw the line at accepting cash gifts. ‘We are not doing this for money or fame,’ says Wang Kai. ‘We are just spreading the virtue of filial piety.’
Their story, published in English on the China Daily website, has been met with a mixture of approval, admiration and, more and more commonly, incomprehension. A commenter on the site questions the mother’s acceptance of such a selfless gift from her sons. Many see filial piety as foolish instead of as a virtue to be held in the highest regard.
THE FOUNDATION OF VIRTUE
According to written records, Confucius (born 551 BCE), a Chinese thinker and philosopher, was the first to formulate the concept of filial piety, or xiao shun. In the Xiao Jing document (Classic of Filial Piety), the philosopher teaches his disciple, Zeng Shen, the various aspects of filial piety that extend beyond a nuclear family. At the time, the document, and also filial piety, was considered so intrinsic and important to the fabric of Chinese society that it was made the required text for the Chinese Imperial Civil Service Exams for almost two thousand years.
In Xiao Jing, Confucius explains that filial piety is ‘the foundation of virtue and is what all teaching stems from. The virtue of xiao shun is relevant and fundamental in many areas of human life, like wealth management, leadership principles, government structure, retributive justice and even the pursuit of world peace’. In it, he continues, ‘Of all the species in the world, humans are the most precious. Of all human conduct, nothing is greater than xiao shun. In xiao shun, nothing is greater than revering the father. In revering the father nothing is greater than associating him
Generally speaking, filial piety includes showing love and taking care of one’s parents, obeying them, maintaining the honour of the family’s name, ensuring the continuity of the family by producing male heirs and respectfully advising one’s parents if they stray. It also involves mourning their sickness and deaths as well as carrying out sacrifices to sustain them in the afterlife. In today’s most practical terms, however, it means caring for one’s parents in their late and vulnerable years in return for them having once taken care of us when we were young and helpless.
TIES THAT BIND
Even though thousands of years have passed since Confucius first conceived of it, filial piety has more or less stayed the same in China. Young adults are still expected to marry and produce sons as soon as possible, leading some of the more career-driven ones to hire temporary boyfriends or girlfriends to appease their parents during annual Chinese New Year visits. It is also taboo to send one’s ageing parents to live in an old folks’ home instead of letting them stay at home. This is so despite the rising tendency of adults, regardless of gender, to be fully employed. As such, the stresses of modern living have made it almost impossible for children to have time to properly care for their parents.
Filial piety among overseas Chinese communities, such as those found in Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei, is similar to that practised in China, although it is often diluted due to influences from surrounding communities. However, two ceremonies in honour of filial piety that are still largely observed by many Buddhist and Taoist Chinese communities are the wedding tea ceremony or ‘Lap Chai’, and Tomb Sweeping Day or ‘Qingming’.
Lap Chai is usually held before a wedding ceremony, either the day before or the morning of, as a gesture of gratitude to the parents of the bride and groom for having given birth to them and raised them well. It also serves as a symbol of having been accepted as part of the family. Both the bride and groom will serve tea to their extended families, going in order from oldest to youngest and from male to female, calling each of them by their official family title. In return, the newlyweds will receive red envelopes, or ‘hong baos’, containing money or jewellery as a symbol of good fortune.
Qingming is held each year on the 15th day after the spring equinox according to the Chinese lunar calendar—usually around early April. On this day, Chinese families go to the columbarium (tombs of ancestors) to present offerings of flowers, food, tea and wine. Joss sticks are burned to bring prayers up to the heavens, and joss papers are burned to represent money in the afterlife. In countries where Qingming is not a declared holiday, Buddhist and Taoist Chinese observe the ceremony at the nearest weekend.