Over thousands of years of history, the Chinese created an unique culture with specific ethics and moral code. Nowadays, more than ever, Chinese traditional values play an important role in contemporary history.

Respecting and taking care of the aged parents is regarded as an obligatory duty in China. Chinese people believe that only those who are concerned with and practice filial devotion to their parents would be honest, faithful, and be grateful to others and seek ways to return their kindness.

Filial piety (Chin.孝, xiào) is a constant act when children offer love, respect, support, and deference to their parents and other elders in the family due to the fact that parents give life to their children, support them and providing all necessary. Therefore, children are forever in debt to their parents and are expected to respect and serve their parents all their lives obeying parent's wishes, taking care of them when they are old, and working hard to provide them with material comforts, such as food, money, or pampering. Filial piety applies to anyone who is older in age - and even the state. There is an old Chinese saying: Of all virtues, filial piety is the first (Chin. 百善孝為先).

Xiao (孝)

The Chinese character for filial piety is xiao (孝). The ideogram is a combination of the characters lao (老), which means old, and er zi (儿子 ), which means son. Lao is the top half of the character xiao, and er zi, representing the son, forms the bottom half of the character.

The son below the father is a symbol of what filial piety means. The character xiao shows that the older person or generation is being supported or carried by the son: thus the relationship between the two halves is one both of burden and support.

The original meaning of xiao appears to have meant "providing food offerings to one's ancestors," and ancestors meant both living parents and those long dead. Xiao means that the same credo of discipline, devotion and obedience in serving elder should be used when serving country or ancestors.

The origin

The Chinese philosopher Confucius (551–479 BCE) is historically authoritative in promoting xiao a pivotal part of society. Confucius described filial piety and argued for its importance in creating a peaceful family and society in his book, Classic of Xiao written in the 4th century BCE. The book contains a purported dialogue between Confucius and his student Tseng Tzu. The book is about how to set up a good society using the principle of filial piety. Filial piety is central to Confucian role ethics.

Learning about Xiao is a classic thought of Chinese education up until the 20th century. Filial piety was taught by Confucius as part of a broad ideal of self-cultivation (Chin. 君子, jūnzǐ) toward being a perfect human being. Filial piety was seen as the basis for an orderly society, together with the loyalty of the ministers toward the ruler, and servitude of the wife toward the husband.

In the history

There are many stories which show filial respect in ancient China. One of the most famous collections of such stories is The twenty-four cases of filial piety (Chin. 二十四孝) compiled by Guo Jujing, a Yuan Dynasty (1260-1368) scholar from Fujian Province. The 13th story of the collection narrates how a man called Guo Ju (Chin. 郭巨) buried his son alive so that his mother could eat.

Guo Ju was a man living in poverty with a wife, mother, and child. One day he proposed his wife to bury their son due to lack of food, because their son shares mother’s food. He further explained that they can have another child, but cannot replace his mother. His wife agreed with his future doing.

During digging the grave for his own son, he suddenly discovered a vase full of gold in the soil – a gift of Heaven to the filial son.

The meaning of this tale is obvious: when faced with the dilemma of having to choose between one’s parents and one’s children, one always has to choose the parents. This is the hierarchical principle of the superiority of the elder over the younger. It is the duty of children to take care of their parents at all costs, even if that means sacrificing one’s own children.

Food theme takes part in most tales about filiality. The word yang (Chin. 養/养) means to feed or raise, summarizes an aspect of filial piety. In Chinese culture, food is a symbol of parental care on the one hand, and represents the debt of children towards parents on the other hand, is a constant motive power in Chinese society.


Filial piety involves the role of the parent to the child as well. The father has a duty to provide for the son, to teach him in traditions of ancestor worship, to find a spouse for him, and leave a good heritage.

The idea of filial piety became popular in China because of the many functions it had and many roles it undertook regarding the family as a fundamental unit that formed the root of the nation. The virtue of xiào was meant to regulate how the young generation behaved toward elders in the extended family and in society in general.

Since the Han dynasty 漢朝 (2nd century BCE–3rd century CE), misbehaving towards parents and elder was punished by beheading. Behavior regarded as unfilial such as mistreating or abandoning one's parents or grandparents, or refusing to complete the mourning period for them was punished by exile and beating, at best. From the Han dynasty onward, the practice of mourning rites came to be seen as the cornerstone of filial piety and was strictly practiced and enforced.

Contemporary China

In contemporary China, filial piety is rendered with the words Xiao xun (Chin. 销魂), meaning 'respect and obedience'. Respect for the family is the only element common to almost all Chinese people.

Since the 1950s in P.R. China appeared socialist measures led to the dissolution of family businesses and more dependence on the state instead.

In modern Chinese societies, filial piety expectations and practice have decreased. Due to family planning and popularized individualism, families are becoming smaller. Elder lost their inherited status due to the emigration of young people to cities and the independence of young people and women. However, the state introduced special legislation in order to promote filial piety.

Many aspects of filial piety in contemporary China has changed. Husband and wife relationship came to be more emphasized, and families' relation of husband and wife's have become more equal. Kindness and courtesy are replacing obedience and subservience in communication with the elderly.

The tradition of respecting the old and loving the young has been carried forward in modern times. At present, the aged and the young in China have their own holidays: Elders’ Day and Children’s Day.

The government of P.R. China has promulgated specific laws to protect women and children; and the law also stipulates in explicit terms that Chinese citizens have the obligation to support parents and rear children.

Understanding filial value

Respecting the aged and loving the young is a traditional Chinese virtue. For thousands of years, people have always considered it social responsibility and behavioral norm. Mencius in the Warring states period (475 BC - 221 BC) said that one should respect the elderly relatives of other people as one‘s own, and take good care of others’ children as one’s own.

In China, those who ignore these moral tenets will not only be criticized by public opinions but also be punished by law.

In as early as the Han Dynasty, the government issued orders frequently advocating and encouraging and rewarding behavior related to treating the senior with filial respect. At that time, the government distributed a kind of walking stick to those over 70, and those with the stick could get special treatment and care.

In the Qing dynasty (1644 - 1911), when Emperor Kangxi and Emperor Qianlong reigned, they held large—scale activities to show respect for the senior; each time, the emperor held a banquet in person for more than 1 000 seniors aged 65 and over in his palace.

Chinese people treat their offspring with love and education, with kindness and strictness, embodying a strong sense of moral responsibility. A number of books on educating children left by ancient people, such as Advice to my son and Parental instruction, are precious tracts on moral education.

It is the pleasant virtue of respecting the aged and loving the young that ensured the harmony of the family and stabilization of society. It also provided a firm social base for the development of the Chinese nation.