Xiao is not Just Duty 孝不限于义务
People ask me why I translate xiao as being good to parents and not being dutiful to parents or being dutiful as a son or daughter. It’s because xiao is more than just duty; it is a whole way of living one’s life. Xiao Jing, the first and most authoritative Confucian work on xiao, says that the xiao of people occupying various positions in society, such as emperors, ministers, officers, commoners, and so forth, is to be good at their callings. Xiao Jing also says that to be xiao, one must not only serve and provide for one’s parents well, but must also engage in good conduct both inside and outside the family.
Also, being dutiful often conjures up grim-faced carrying out of some painful task or of some sort of sacrifice, but xiao also includes the normal day-to-day life, the normal day-to-day interactions with parents, some of which may be joyful, like playing and not drudgery. One example is keeping parents up-to-date on one’s activities and situation, which is one of the demands of xiao (see verse 12, p.7 Xiao Jing : often truly xiao offspring have such a good relationship with the parents that updating them means enjoyable and relaxing conversation that all parties look forward to. Another example is respectfully listening when parents teach: offspring should have a relation with parents healthy enough that offspring realize the teaching from parents are greatly beneficial and something to look forward to. Teaching by parents can be fun and enjoyable: I remember well myself looking forward to and greatly enjoying the Sunday afternoon teaching of Chinese classics by my father to my brothers and me as young children.
Therefore, I feel xiao is better translated as “being good to parents”.
Feng Xin-ming 冯欣明