Joseph S. Wu





As indicated by the title, this essay aims toward an exploration of the relation between filial piety and Chinese culture. The term "relation" may refer to a variety of concepts, including mathematical relation, physical relation, spiritual relation, natural relation, social relation, cultural relation, and even metaphysical relation. Among all the mentioned examples, "metaphysical relation" seems the most attractive one, but it is primarily a speculative concept. The other concepts are just specified or even oversimplified. None of these concepts can fit into the relation between filial piety and Chinese culture. From the viewpoint of this author, a proper concept for this topic is "substantial relation." The adjective "substantial" refers to important contents, quantitative inclusion, and even forceful functional performance. With these important qualities, substantial relation can perform an important vital function to relate filial piety and Chinese culture in a proper way.

Now, a very important question is: What is filial piety? Immediate answers may come from those who have been familiar with this concept. One answer could be: It is the root or foundation of Chinese culture. Another could be: It is a unique creation of

Chinese culture. These two answers are not mistaken, but they are unclear and not quite to the point. So, the author of this essay will aim toward an interpretation of filial piety through the exploration of Chinese culture. First of all, some relevant characteristics of Chinese culture will be exposed. Then, the meaning of filial piety will be interpreted. Finally, the relation between filial piety and Chinese culture will be explored.


The most valuable and relevant characteristic of Chinese culture is its artistic quality. This has been a significant quality acknowledged by many international scholars. It was about half a century ago, an American scholar, George Rowley, wrote in the preface of his Principles of Chinese Painting characterizing Chinese culture saying: "The Chinese way looking at life was not primarily through religion, or philosophy, or science, but through art." 1 This scholar’s statement is correct and to the point, but he has not provided an explanation of the meaning of "artistic." In fact, no scholar there-after has done any proper explanation. Now, the author of this essay will attempt an exploration of the meaning of being artistic. The most effective method is comparing the artistic with the scientific.

The basic interest of the scientific consists in observing and understanding of a natural matter, particularly the matter’s reality. But the basic interest of the artistic concentrates in appreciation or creative performance, with the interest of attaining beauty rather than factual truth. As to the approaching method, the scientific one concentrates on analysis or experimentation, using symbols in a direct or logical way, but the artistic one concentrates on intuition or imagination, with the use of symbols in a suggestive or metaphorical way. In addition, the subject-matter of the scientific has to be factual and rational, but the subject-matter of the artistic does not need to be factual or rational at all. As to the performance process, the scientific has to be logical and following a definition as well as an experimental order, but the performance of art can ignore this kind of logical matter. Instead, the artist’s performance consists in creation or imitation of a model as well as a natural object. As to their functional performance, the scientific performs the function to establish knowledge and technology, and the artistic, instead, just nourishes human feeling and establishes some styles of personal action. In the main, modern Western culture is scientific, but Chinese culture is still artistic, even in common life. A very unusual characteristic of Chinese culture is the dominant function of the artistic, which has controlled other aspects of the culture. What is relevant to this essay is the influence of the artistic upon the moral aspect of life. In a certain sense, Chinese morality has been shaped and established by the function of the artistic. At the same time, this artistic function has provided an opportunity for the birth and growth of filial piety.

 The morality of Chinese culture has the following four qualities: (1) Artistic quality. (2) Humanistic quality. (3) Self-control quality. (4) Harmonization quality. The first quality has been explained in this essay to some extent. The second one is related to the first, but is also related to the major theme of this essay. Chinese humanism in morality, exhibits itself as a major contrast to the morality of the traditional Western world. In traditional West, the ultimate moral authority is God or Spirit. All the moral rules are based on this Spirit. But in Chinese culture, the ultimate moral authority is still the human world. In a certain sense, Chinese morality has transcended the world of spirits or the world of religion. This means, in Chinese culture, the practice of moral life is not following the spiritual authority or God, but to follow humanistic reflection and sensitivity. Filial Piety is a humanistic expression of an individual’s natural feeling toward his parents, without any relation to God or a spiritual authority. As to the third quality, self-control is the control of oneself without following God or Spirit. This quality is not possessed in the same way by individuals of the traditional Western world since they need to obey God or Spiritual Authority. As to "harmonization," it is also a Chinese artistic moral action. This moral action represents an interest of acceptance of varieties of ideas and ways of performance. It is in fact a very important condition for the growth of social life.

 To sum up, characteristics of Chinese culture are too many to mention. What we can do in this essay is just selecting what is relevant to filial piety. The relevant aspects include what is artistic, what is naturally humanistic, and what is special interest for promoting humanistic morality. Filial Piety is just a natural product of these cultural qualities, and itself, is also a cultural quality of Chinese culture.


Now, it should be the time for us to ask a major question:

What is Filial Piety? This question appears so general that it could be interpreted in many different ways. Because of many different meanings of the question, there could be many different answers. Now, we have to set a limit on this question. This limit consists in the relevance of filial piety to Chinese culture. So, we can ask specific questions instead of a general one. A specific question which is relevant could be: What is the position of filial piety in Chinese culture? This question could be considered relevant to the major theme of this essay. An immediate answer could be: Filial piety is a kind of natural feeling. But this answer is not yet to the point, since there are many types of natural feeling in human life. So, we have to ask another question specifically: What is the unique quality of filial piety in Chinese culture? A proper answer could be: Filial piety in Chinese culture is an individual’s natural feeling toward his parents. It is composed of natural sensitivity, caring love, sincere concern, and even natural respect. In fact, all these are natural consciousness toward an immediately related person--a parent. These feelings, in Chinese culture, are not products of a Spirit. So, we can also say, that these feelings are humanistic, because they are the product of purely human beings.

Now, let us move from the natural to the cultural. Culturally filial piety is the leading principle or fundamental basis of Chinese morality. Before dealing with filial piety, let us ask a simple question: What is morality? The question itself appears very simple, but the answers can be complicated. In the current Western world, some maintain that the source of morality is reason. Some maintain that it is sympathy, and some insist on the ultimate value of universal love. There are still many other answers. But in Chinese culture, morality consists in value judgments based on human relations. Filial piety just refers to the most immediate and necessary human relation. An individual, as usual, could have many types of human relations. Examples may include relations with friends, cousins, brothers, sisters, uncles and aunts. But none of these relations are more immediate or necessary than the relation of a child to his parents. So, filial piety is the most fundamental relational basis from which other types of moral feelings are developed. Confucius clearly confirmed this point saying: "Filial piety is the foundation of morality." This confirmation is meaningful if the action of filial piety is well-understood in its relation with human life.

The relation between filial piety and human life is also a substantial topic. Now, for the sake of relevance and for the sake of simplifying selection, we are going to explore how filial piety performs its action in life. The most relevant aspect is its position in family life. Family has been an extremely important substance of Chinese society. Family is naturally prior to society or country. Integration of family is a necessary starting point for attaining a well-controlled country or a peaceful world. As to the relations within a family, the Chinese people emphasize the relation between parents and children, particularly emphasizing children’s love and respect for their parents. So, Chinese family life is, in reality, the life of filial piety. Even up to now, Chinese families are still controlled by the reflective power of the concept of filial piety. In addition to its control of family life, filial piety has also powerfully controlled the social life and many other aspects of Chinese culture. So, filial piety is not only a foundation of morality, but also a fundamental basis of Chinese culture.


This section is, in fact, a continuation of last section. The main theme of last section is "the position of filial piety in Chinese culture." A simple question comes up to ask: What is the position? The answer given in last section is that "Filial Piety is the leading principle or fundamental basis of Chinese morality." This answer has already touched upon a very important relation between "filial piety" and "Chinese culture." This section will just continue to provide further observation and exploration.

First of all, a very important relation between the two is their mutual creation. Instead of being created by God or a Super-Spirit, filial piety has been a product created by Chinese culture. In traditional West, moral principles, in general, are created by God or Spiritual Authority. But in China, all the principles are products of human culture, or cultural creation. The human creative process started with the beginning of Chinese culture, together with the birth and growth of human feeling toward one’s parents. The feeling is, in reality, the feeling of filial piety. At the same time, this type of feeling performs educational function to create family life, social life, and cultural life. This creative operation appears a response to the initial creative process. In a certain sense, filial piety and Chinese culture are just co-subjects or co-objects, being a creator or a creature of each other. In this mutual-creative process, both filial piety and Chinese culture are interacting together, and even integrated together. 

Now, we move to a second important topic. This topic is very unique in the world. In traditional West, religion is valuable and necessary. But in Chinese culture, there exists no formal religion at all. According to the common sense of Chinese people, China has three major religions. These religions are Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism. Nevertheless, Confucius is natural and humanistic. He is not a God, but only a human being.

Then, how can Confucianism be called a religion? As to Taoism, it is not a formal religion at all. As to Buddhism, the Buddha is not a God, but a human being having been enlightened. So, Buddhism is totally different from other religions of the world. According to Buddhism, any person can become a Buddha through the process of enlightenment. Now, a question is: Is Chinese culture without a religion? The answer to this question is both "yes" and "no". . The affirmative answer just confirms what has been considered a fact. The negative answer just recognizes a different one. In our essay, this different one is the recognition of filial piety as a substitute for religion in Chinese culture.

Now, we are facing a new question: Why can filial piety take the place of a religion? Or, why can filial piety become a religion? To get a proper answer, we have to explore the nature and essential qualities of a religion, together with cultural environment. From the viewpoint of the author, the essence of a religion should possess: (1) an exploration of transcendent reality, (2) a spiritual expection for ever-lasting life, and (3) an accomplishment of a proper relation with immediate persons or spirits. The reason that filial piety can take the place of religion or can become established as a religion is simply that it has been naturally grown up with these three conditions. The first condition is one of intuition and well-trained speculation. The second one and the third one are psychological in humanistic and natural ways. Nonetheless, the third condition is, an exploration of the opportunity to attain a relation with immediate persons. This is a unique psychological operation. For Chinese culture, persons and spirits both belong to the human world. So, the expectation of this condition can be accomplished. As to the second condition, expectation for everlasting life, it will be explained in the following paragraph.

In the world of Chinese ethics, the essential meaning of filial piety is not only loving and respecting one’s living parents. It also implies the meaning of respecting and loving those parents and ancestors who have already died. Filial piety also performs a function to liberate human beings from the fear of death. In fact, in the whole world, death is a serious cause for the growing of religion. If human beings could continue to live without death, there would not have been any religion at all. Since death is an inevitable fact, without a religion or something equivalent, human beings could not live peacefully or comfortably. As indicated, filial piety performs an important function to liberate human beings from the fear of death. Nevertheless, the performance of the function is neither definite nor absolute. In Chinese culture, the initial way for conquering death is giving birth to a male-child, and hoping the male-child to continue to produce male descendants. According to Chinese traditional valuation, only the life of the male can attain continuity of family life. This is an important idea of a male-centered society. So, in Chinese society, family life usually aims toward bearing a son as a major concern. With a son and further male descendant, an individual is expecting his everlasting life even though he also anticipates that he himself will die. This type of family life in continuation is the life of filial piety. With the consciousness of filial piety, the family will work toward a production of Sons and grandsons, with the hope of everlasting life. Now, we can confirm that, filial piety is performing religious function in Chinese culture, but the performance is just artistic, natural, and humanistic.


In reality, the major purpose of this essay consists in an exposition of a unique quality of Chinese culture. This unique quality is filial piety which is not possessed or even shared by any other culture in the same way. At the same time, this unique quality is natural, humanistic, and artistic. Its birth place, growing field, and maturity home are just the same place, the human world. It is, certainly, the product of Chinese culture. But it also performs the creation of cultural qualities. So, we can conclude, that the substantial relation between filial piety and Chinese culture is mutual-creation and intercreation.

The author of this essay has been a performer of filial piety. He is also a sincere member and scholar of Chinese culture. When he completed his B.A., he was offered a teaching position in a high school. What has interested him the most was the teaching of Chinese classics, with a required text of Hsiao Ching. In fact, this classical text has been established as a sageous text 7 from the beginning of the Chinese culture. This indicates a great importance of filial piety, the basis of Chinese morality.

Unfortunately, in the contemporary world, filial piety and Chinese culture are no longer intimately related. It is probably the result of the influence of modernization. In the process of modernization, only physical science and commercial performance have been effectively covered. Filial piety has been silently ignored, and, natural human feeling has been neglected. If we want to maintain the value of our traditional morality, filial piety should receive a proper recovery through education. With an effective proper education, filial piety and Chinese culture can continue to perform their mutually creative life for the future world. (The End)



 1. George Rowley, Principles of Chinese Painting (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1947), p. 3

2. In comparative approach, this essay just compare Chinese culture with traditional Western culture rather than the Western current culture. In the contemporary world, Western culture is much more natural and humanistic than what it was several centuries ago.

3. This quotation is selected from Confucius’ communication with Tseng Tzu. It has been recorded in the first chapter of Hsiao Ching.

4. The English term "Taoism" covers, in reality, two types of Taoism in Chinese culture. The Chinese language terms are "Tao Chia" and "Tao Chiao". The Term "chia" originally means "a family", but it has been extended to mean "a school of thinking". The term "chiao" originally as well as currently means "teaching" and "religion". So, "Tao Chia" refers to the philosophy of Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu. "Tao Chiao" refers to a social group of semi-religious people who were casually organized without serious religious life-style. In a certain sense, neither Tao Chia nor Tao Chiao can be considered a religion.

5. This author has published articles on Chinese culture. In recent years, he has been working on his forthcoming book (in Chinese) Reflection upon Chinese Culture which will be published soon.

6. This teaching position was offered to this author in 1959 by Tak Ming High School in Hong Kong. Tak Ming’s Chinese original is the personal name of Dr. Sun Yat-sen. This high school was very well-known for its cultural performance in teaching.

7. Hsiao Ching is one of the thirteen classics in Chinese culture. The term "Hsiao" means "filial piety," and the term "Ching" means "a classic." When a book is called "ching", it is a book of noble position. In the Chinese tradition, the thirteen classics are considered very noble in the culture.