Three years ago, I asked my father what his greatest fear was. I was expecting him to say – old age, death, ill health, regret – or something similar.
He said, “What I’m most afraid of in all of life is disappointing my parents.”
I paused a bit. “But, Dad… your parents are dead.”
“It does not matter,” he replied.
My father’s response surprised me at the time because I assumed that my father, being older in age, had more pressing concerns. What I failed to understand was just how overriding and important the concept of 孝 [xiào] or filial piety is in the mindset of Chinese people. 孝 is, in fact, the mandate by which almost all Chinese live.
Confucius (551–479 BCE) is the person who delineated the meaning of 孝 in the Classic of Filial Piety. Together with other teachings attributed to Confucius (most famously, the Analects), Confucius ultimately tried to answer one question: How does one create a stable and harmonious society? (Confucius lived at a time when China was in great turmoil with many warring, feudal states.) His answer was humanistic – if one can cultivate virtue and moral behavior in the individual and in individual relationships, then, like spokes of a wheel or like the rays of a sun, stability and harmony on a micro level will emanate throughout society so that proper action for oneself and the greater whole, as well as respect for good government ensues. According to Confucius, the great ruler is a sage who rules not so much with law and fear of punishment (the sword) as with moral authority, fairness and benevolence.
Confucius’ most famous saying, the Golden Rule, is an example of his humanistic philosophy: Do not do unto others as you would not want others to do unto you. The concept at bottom, similar to many other philosophies and religions, is that an individual’s actions (and the consequences of those actions) are not separate from those around you. If someone exhibits poor action, it may make those around them suffer, or even make others behave poorly themselves. If someone shows good conduct, then it will benefit those around them and make others want to emulate their actions. What sets Confucianism apart is that it is completely secular in its philosophy. It does not concern itself with matters of the afterlife or God or gods and does not assume an a priori idea that man is innately born “good” or “bad”. It also does not contain elements of mysticism (unlike, for example, many aspects of Taoism). In this sense, Confucianism is a guide that sets forth practical steps on how to become an upright person in society through education and cultivation of virtuous action, thought and behavior in the individual, and, in many ways, how to create a polite and respectful society.
There are 5 virtues or the Five Constants in Confucianist ethics: 仁 Humaneness, 義 Righteousness or Justice, 禮 Propriety or Etiquette, 智 Knowledge, and 信, Integrity. But the building block of all societal values and the virtue of highest importance in Chinese culture which underpins the societal structure is 孝, or how to respect, take care of and honor your elders and, in particular, your parents. Translated in real terms, what you do and how you conduct yourself, and to a large degree, your successes and failures, are brought about by education and are a reflection of your parents, your parents’ parents and so on. Your behavior and conduct are, in fact, daily rituals to show your love and respect for your elders. The individual therefore should make subservient their self-interest, needs and desires to what is good for a greater whole, and, immediately, to show honor, respect and love for one’s parents and heritage. Heritage, in this sense, does not depend upon the class you were born into or certain privileges you may have inherited by birth; it means, whether rich or poor, noble or peasant, one’s ancestors and parents instilled in their children an understanding of moral and ethical conduct. In this way, Confucianism is a completely democratic, moral education.
Many people in the West have questioned or wondered why East Asians often tend to excel in school and are driven to work very hard. In the Confucianist world, there is little emphasis on or belief in “talent.” The emphasis is, rather, on dutiful action in order to to exhibit 孝 or show one’s love and respect for one’s parents. It is, in fact, one’s duty to take care of your parents in all ways, emotionally and otherwise. Likewise, the parent has a duty to make sure that his or her children understand right from wrong, understand proper conduct and how to exhibit respect in and to society.
The teachings of Confucius spread throughout Asia and much of Southeast Asia and, to this day, underlies many social structures throughout Asia, from Japan, Korea to Thailand, Malaysia, etc. Ironically, Confucius did not live to see the success of his teachings and, in many ways, regarded himself as having failed in his ambitions.
Personally, I have to say I struggled a bit with what I regarded as a rather strict and less individualistic mindset of Confucianism and the concept of 孝 because I was born and raised in the U.S. I did not have many of the freedoms that my peers had. I certainly felt a lot of pressure to excel (and, in many ways, still do). I also found later that there were not a few American-Chinese like myself who grew up in the U.S. but, for whatever reason, were more accepting of their parents’ values and did not struggle so hard as I did with growing up between disparate cultures and therefore felt little need or desire to rebel in their youth (which in the West is taken for granted and almost regarded as a necessary stage of life.) But, regardless or irregardless of Confucianism, in the end, I understood that my parents ultimately loved me and did their best to raise me with good values and, really, just wished for me to be happy, no matter what I chose in life.
I have also posted an article here that gives, in brief, an excellent insight into the philosophy of Confucius: http://psihologploiestimarinasasu.wordpress.com/2013/02/18/confucius-confucianism/