Xiao Shouldn’t be Translated as “Filial Piety”
Some people ask me why I translate xiao into English as “being good to parents” rather than the prevalent translation of “filial piety”. That’s because “filial piety” is open to cultish interpretation.
What cultish interpretation? Well, around 1000 C.E., an intellectual movement came into dominance in China, and some people in that intellectual movement added some tendencies toward absolutes, excesses, metaphysics and cultish thinking onto Confucianism, originally a set of reasonable and practical tenets.
When it came to xiao some people with this mode of thinking advocated a sort of god-like worship of one’s living parents, a self-deprecating all-pervasive guilt feeling, constant self-punishment as a form of “offering” and piety, excessive emphasis on obedience and prostration, excessive grieving to the point of quitting all duty and staying night and day next to the parent’s grave for a full three years, and so forth and so on.
It was precisely when this mode of thinking was at its zenith, during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), that Jesuit missionaries working at the Emperor’s court coined “filial piety” as the term for xiao.
I think xiao should mostly be a normal day-to-day activity of being good to parents and acting in their fundamental interests. No god-like worship of one’s living parents is needed, no self-deprecating all-pervasive guilt feeling is called for, and no extraordinarily painful, self-punishing, excruciating exertion or sacrifice need be involved, except under certain special circumstances. Instead of a subjective state of mind, i.e. a “piety”, I think xiao is more of an objective state, i.e. a way of conduct, indeed, as Confucius and Zeng Zi have said in Xiao Jing (The Classic of Xiao), a whole way of living one’s life.
Thus I think it is more accurate to translate xiao as “being good to parents” than as “filial piety”.
Feng Xin-ming 冯欣明
July 6, 2008 edited July 11, 2008