In Confucian philosophy, filial piety (xiào) is a virtue of respect for one’s parents and ancestors. [It] means to be good to one’s parents; to take care of one’s parents; to engage in good conduct … to bring a good name to one’s parents and ancestors; … to obtain the material means to support parents as well as carry out sacrifices to the ancestors… Filial piety is considered a key virtue in Chinese culture… While China has always had a diversity of religious beliefs, filial piety has been common to almost all of them…” – Wikipedia

I often listed to National Public Radio (NPR) on my way to work. It helps pass the time during my commute. I heard an interesting story earlier this week about a new law in China that enforces filial piety. [More on how later.] This piece was interesting to me for two reasons: (1) the religious aspect — filial piety is inherent to ancestor worship in China (and we Heathens practice ancestor worship) and (2) the demographic aspect — China has changed drastically economically and demographically in the last 20 years (I’m a demographer by training). This story has become even more interesting to me now that I’ve done a little research.

The Religious Aspect

I should start by saying I was wrong to assume filial piety exists in China solely in the context of religion. I thought it was part of Taoism or Buddhism. It wasn’t. Well, at least not originally. Let me explain a little. Filial piety (including ancestor veneration) spread in China as part of Confucianism, a philosophy (not a religion) that spread through China during a time known as the Spring and Autumn Period when China’s feudal system was breaking down and fiefdoms were emerging as political states.

As best as I can tell, Taoism was already an established religion in China when Confucianism emerged and didn’t include filial piety as a belief or practice. It wasn’t until Confucianism took hold of the Chinese imagination that filial piety and ancestor veneration truly became part of of the social fabric and social contract. Buddhism disseminated into southern China from India much later (compared to the timing of Taoism and Confucianism) and also did not include filial piety as a religious tenet. Religions in China changed to adopt parts of Confucianism (not all of it), and it appears filial piety was one of those parts that became pervasive across religions. Using the previous examples, Taoism (which was already in China) adopted ancestor veneration, and Buddhism (which spread to China) had to adopt filial piety before it could win the hearts and minds of new “converts.”*

So, this part of the story about legally enforcing filial piety was interesting to me because I thought it was about religion. But it wasn’t, not really. It’s still fascinating to me, though, because it’s about actively valuing relationships.** [BTW, There is a debate over whether or not Confucianism is a religion, but I won’t get into that here. Feel free to comment on your opinion!]

The Demographic Aspect

My graduate degree is from UT Austin in Demography. I’ve read lots of books and articles about how shifts in the economy lead to migration, encourage and discourage having children, and change social interactions. For an example closer to (my) home than China, think about the Industrial Revolution in Europe and in the U.S. If you’re history is a bit rusty (like mine), just know what is happening in China happened in the Western world, too, during the 1800s.

The Chinese economy has undergone great changes and growth in the last 30, even 10, years. People are moving from rural to urban areas for work and because their government is encouraging them to. But they are not taking their parents with them. Many send money home to help support their parents, but they are not there in person to take care of them. And the demands of the modern, urban life make it difficult for adult children to visit their parents.

Here’s where the new law comes into play. The Chinese government (National People’s Congress) passed a law in July 2013 called the “Protection of the Rights and Interests of Elderly People.”

The law…has nine clauses that lay out the duties of children and their obligation to tend to the “spiritual needs of the elderly.” Children should go home “often” to visit their parents, the law said, and occasionally send them greetings. Companies and work units should give employees enough time off so they can make parental visits.” – E. Wong, NYT

It appears that monitoring is left to individual families and parents. That is, parents have to sue their children for breaking this law. As of yet, there are no designate any punishments for those who do not show sufficient filial piety. Still, this law stands as a stark mark of the change in the social landscape and social contract that has followed in the wake of economic development in China.

I wondered if any changes had, by extension, happened in the practice of ancestor veneration in China. I can’t find anything that says it has changed, but I can’t find anything that says it hasn’t changed either. There are still huge festivals dedicated to ancestor veneration, so I guess that means it’s still important. Does anyone know if ancestor worship is still widely practiced in people’s homes and families?

What are your thoughts on China trying to maintain family bonds, specifically filial piety, through their legal system? This can easily become a complex issue in terms of reporting neglect and prosecuting it. If you think about it, though, this isn’t unique to China in general terms of enforcing family bonds — we require parents to care for children or be held liable for neglect. And as I understand it, if an elderly parent is in your care (in your home), you are liable for their health and well-being, too. We just don’t have a law that says you HAVE to visit your parents.


* If someone can clarify this point — that Confucianism brought filial piety and ancestor worship to China and was adopted by religions in China — that would be great!
** Confucianism took filial piety to extremes, though. Of the 24 models of filial piety, number 13 is a sad tale of a couple choosing a parent over a child during a famine.
+ Featured image: Bank of Hell banknote. These are burned by the Chinese in memory of their ancestors and meant to send them comfort in after life.