Posts Tagged ‘孝’

Xiao Shouldn’t be Translated as “Filial Piety”

Sunday, July 6th, 2008

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.

什么过度崇拜?就是公元一千年左右,有一股思潮在中国上升为主流,而这思潮中的一些人,对本来是一套合理实用原则的孔教,加上了一些绝对、过分、形而上学、过度崇拜等倾向 。

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

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Xiao is not Just Duty   孝不限于义务

Saturday, June 28th, 2008

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

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Why Should One be Xiao, or Good to Parents?

Sunday, October 7th, 2007

Why should one be xiao, or good to parents? Well, one practical and utilitarian answer is that only by so doing can one get one’s own children to be xiao to onesel. Kids learn mainly by example, and if one is not xiao or good to one’s parents then one can expect one’s own kids too, sooner or later, to not be xiao or good to oneself. Yes indeed, when I was a young boy my grandmother used to admonish my brothers and me: “Those who are xiao and compliant bear xiao and compliant sons; those who are disobedient and defiant bear disobedient and defiant children. (孝順還生孝順仔,忤逆還生忤逆兒。)”

There is another, more compelling case for being xiao: one should be good to parents because one needs to repay, or reciprocate, the kindness from one’s parents. Parents give birth to, raise and educate one, and that is a great kindness, or en- (恩). Indeed, of all people in the world, the persons who have done the most for one are one’s parents. If nothing else, they’ve given one one’s life. Even if they are adoptive parents, they have still raised and educated one. So one owes a huge debt to one’s parents. In traditional China, the repayment or reciprocation of kindness (報恩 bao` en-) is very important; it is considered a strict moral obligation to repay or reciprocate kindness, to bao` en- (see my blog of February 24, 2007). It would indeed be a great moral trespass to forget kindness and renege on one’s obligations. In Chinese, this repayment of the kindness from one’s parents is called bao` da` fu` mu^ en- 報答父母恩. That, according to traditional Chinese thinking, is the reason for being good to one’s parents, for being xiao.

Feng Xin-ming

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Character and Conduct are More Important than Academics

Monday, September 3rd, 2007

“After achieving right conduct, if there’s energy left over then study books. 行有餘力則以學文。 ” (Di Zi Gui page 6.)

Conduct and character are most important and certainly comes before book learning, i.e., before academics. That is the traditional view of authentic Chinese culture.

Of course, I don’t mean to set the two up as opposite and mutually exclusive: conduct and character on the one hand and academics on the other. Good heavens, no! In fact, the two should go together: the youngsters who have good conduct also know they should exert themselves at academics and achieve the best they are capable of. In fact, achieving the best one can in all areas of endeavor, study as well as career, is considered an indispensible part of xiao 孝 (how in Cantonese), or being good to one’s parents.

The reason I bring up conduct and character as being more important than and coming before academics is because there seems to be an idea among some parents that as long as their children get good grades, it does not matter that they are often impolite, inconsiderate, rude, self-centered, mean, disrespectful, and sometimes even dishonest, especially to parents and siblings.

Actually to not have good character and conduct is to not know how to interact with people, and to not know how to interact with people is to guarantee failure and misery in life. Also, to not have good character and conduct is to have no inner, moral strength, and to have no inner, moral strength is to not be able to cope with the many storms and setbacks that are bound to be encountered through one’s life. Also, to not have good character and conduct is to have no compass in life, to not know right from wrong, to bend every which way the wind blows and not be able to choose the correct option at critical junctures of life. Only with good character and conduct can a successful and happy life be guaranteed.

Therefore, yes, if one has to choose, choose conduct and character over academics!

Of course, that is usually not the choice; the choice is whether to have both conduct and character on the one hand and academics on the other, or to have only academics.

Even though traditional Chinese culture is one that values and emphasizes academics for thousands of years, authentic traditional Chinese culture in all its wisdom knows that, despite the importance of academics, character and conduct is more important than academic success.

That is also why American elite colleges don’t look just at grades, but also at other characteristics that often have to do with character and conduct, to decide whether to accept applicants. Often the colleges will accept someone with outstanding character over someone with better academics.

Feng Xin-ming

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Xiao` (孝), or Being Good to Parents and Ancestors

Tuesday, May 29th, 2007

In Traditional China, 孝 xiao`, or being good to parents and ancestors, is considered the foundation of civil society and the guarantee of moral behavior. (See Xiao Jing, “The Classic of Xiao.”) The idea is that when one is brought up being good to one’s parents and ancestors one will be conditioned to be good & respectful to all the other people that one deals with outside the family. Also, one will diligently fulfill the duties pertaining to one’s station in life, so that one will make one’s parents and ancestors look good, and so that one will maintain the means to support one’s parents and make offerings to one’s ancestors. Thus, the Emperor or Son of Heaven will rule well and be kind and respectful to his subjects, because he has been conditioned that way by xiao and because he wants to bring glory to his ancestors by winning praise from his subjects. Likewise, the Dukes, the Ministers, the Officers, and the Common People, i.e. all the classes of people in society, will also diligently fulfill their duties and be good and respectful to all people they deal with. Thus great order reins, and moral conduct is guaranteed.

Unlike most traditional societies, Traditional China has basically been a secular society. Organized religion has not been the dominant force in Traditional China. At the foundation of morality is not divine commandment but secular xiao`, taught by the secular philosophy of Confucianism. In order to understand the Traditional Chinese worldview, it is essential to understand xiao`.

Feng Xin-ming

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“A Man’s Ability may be Great or Small…” A Revised Quotation from Chairman Mao

Sunday, April 8th, 2007

Speaking of China’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution and the Campaign to Criticize Lin Biao and Confucius in our last blog, Chairman Mao, the author of those two disasters for all Chinese, comes to mind. Ya know, I have respect for Chairman Mao, even though so much of what he has done is so wrong. I respect him because he has been sincere in trying to help mankind, he has always been honest, and he has tried his best to do what he has believed in. Alas, however, what he has believed in is so wrong! Totalitarianism, for goodness’ sake! Yet, a lot of it is historical circumstances: given China’s two-thousand-year-old totalitarian heritage, what do you expect? Even today, most Chinese people are still pretty totalitarian-minded. They think the one-child policy is great and the state has the right to dictate your number of children; most Chinese people think the government’s wholesale tearing down of Beijing’s historical hutong neighborhoods to “beautify” the city for the Olympics is justified; for the government to have almost unlimited power doesn’t bother most Chinese people, so long as it’s “used wisely”… Heck, they even think, in total disregard for two thousand years of Chinese tradional verdict, that that ultimate totalitarian, the First Emperor of Qin, the granddaddy of all Chinese totalitarians, is a pretty good guy, as in the popular Chinese movie “Hero”!

But back to the topic: the relevant thing about Chairman Mao is a quotation of his* that many have learned by heart forty or so years ago, and I am going to change that quotation a bit to make it valid from my point of view. Here it is, the quotation revised:

“A person’s ability may be great or small, but if he has xiao` 孝 (being good to parents) ti` 悌 (being respectful to elders) and li^ 礼 (courtesy) yi` 义 (sense of moral obligations), then he is already noble minded and pure, a person of moral integrity, a person of value to the world.”

Now I think, revised, that’s a really, really good quotation. Many Chinese parents today, nay, many parents, period, today, only know to push their kids to achieve high, but do not know that morals, character and conduct are more important than grades and study. Many look down upon people who are not as “smart” or “capable,” as in, for example, people with lower school grades, not realizing that what makes a person truly useful to the world and truly capable of achievement is his morals, character and conduct. All who are moral and have good character and conduct deserve our utmost respect, regardless of grades or “ability.”

Feng Xin-ming


*”A man’s ability may be great or small, but if he has this spirit (the spirit of absolute selflessness - F.X.), he is already noble minded and pure, a man of moral integrity and above vulgar interests, a man of value to the people.” Mao Zedong, QUOTATIONS FROM CHAIRMAN MAO TSE-TUNG, Foreign Languages Press, Peking (Beijing), 1969, p. 172, “Serving the People - In Memory of Norman Bethune.”

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