Xiao 孝 Has Never Meant Blind Obedience or Blind Submission

There is a totally unfounded idea among a lot of people that xiao means blind obedience. Why, just the other day someone came up to me and said, we can’t just say xiao; we’ve got to say xiao for modern people, because nowadays you can’t have just blind obedience. Goodness! Does xiao mean blind submission to authority? Is that what the sages have taught?

No, definitely not. As we can see from just Di Zi Gui (“Rules for Students”) alone, even such a text, meant to be a primer for children, teaches that parents may be wrong sometimes. Moreover, Di Zui Gui teaches that when parents are being unrighteous, xiao requires offspring to remonstrate and dissuade. Di Zi Gui (see P. 9) actually spends a lot of time on how to remonstrate and dissuade, and on persisting in doing so even if one incurs wrath and punishment from one’s parents.

One of the most important Confucian works, the “Annotations to the Thirteen Classics (十三經注疏)”, says that there are three things that are very un-xiao, and one of them is to blindly obey one’s parents even when there is error and thus to entrap one’s parents in moral unrighteousness. (於禮有不孝者三,事謂阿意曲從,陷亲不義,一不孝也。)

In Xiao Jing (孝經), when Confucius is asked whether if a son is obedient to his parents, then he should be considered xiao, Confucius says, “What kind of talk is that? What kind of talk is that? (是何言歟?是何言歟?)” Then he goes on to explain that having a son who will remonstrate and dissuade keeps a father from falling into moral unrighteousness.

Thus, no, xiao has never meant blind obedience and blind submission, not in the old days, and not now.

Feng Xin-ming

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