Xiao or being good to parents and ancestors is a basic tenet of traditional Chinese society and therefore fundamental to the Chinese heritage. It is not possible to understand traditional Chinese society, Chinese history, or the Chinese heritage in general without some understanding of xiao. Further, once one understands the true meaning of xiao, one will realize that it is suitable and beneficial for not only China and Chinese, but also for the world and everyone in it.
The True Meaning of Xiao
Let us first examine the true meaning of xiao.
How to be good to parents is thought by most people to be pretty obvious, to be something they already know how to do, but actually it's not necessarily obvious, nor is it necessarily something they already know how to do.
First, how can one be good to already deceased ancestors? Do they still possess consciousness? Does xiao require that we believe in spiritual beings and a supernatural world? No, Confucianism's xiao does not have a religious prerequisite and is compatible with any religious belief or lack of belief. To be good to ancestors is, first and foremost, to be good to their memory and their name. Whether one thinks that ancestors still possess consciousness, or are to be prayed to, is up to the individual; whether one believes that the ancestors' spirits exist or not is not that important, as long as one is good to their memory and their name, then the same kind of conduct consistent with xiao naturally appears. And conduct that is good to one's ancestors' memory and name is conduct that is good, conduct that is moral, and includes conduct in all aspects in life.
Actually in Confucianism being good to one's parents, like being good to one's ancestors, is also, first and foremost, being good to their name and reputation. Again, that means that xiao guides all of one's conduct toward what is good, including conduct while at one's post at work, not just conduct involving direct contact with one's parents.
Here we must make clear that conduct involving direct contact with one's parents like respecting parents, looking after the daily living of parents , and supporting and caring for aged parents, is very important in Confucianism. This is conduct where offspring know and repay the kindness bestowed by parents and sensed directly by the offspring, kindness such as loving the offspring, looking after the daily living of offspring, and raising and educating offspring while they come of age. Knowing and repaying kindness is a fundamental principle guiding relations among people in Confucianism, a fundamental traditional Chinese ethic, and of course an important integral part of xiao.
Because, however, xiao's first principle is to be good to the name and reputation of parents and ancestors, therefore the authoritative Confucian classic Xiao Jing does not expound xiao as only a fine ethic where one repays the kindness of parents in raising and educating one, or as a "filial (son's) piety" state of mind as the West's prevalent translation of xiao would have one believe, but as a way of life. Xiao is a way of life that makes people behave as good persons and live moral lives.
Xiao Is the Guarantee of Civil Society and Moral Conduct
If everyone follows this way of life, a good society will naturally result. That is how xiao causes a society to be civil and people's conduct to be moral. Therefore, in the original classics of Confucianism, especially in Xiao Jing, xiao is the basis of civil society itself and the guarantee of moral conduct.
With xiao, even if one does not believe in an afterlife or that there is an omniscient God who always knows whether one is doing right or wrong, one will do good and not evil even in the face of adverse consequences because to fulfill one's relationship-defined obligations to one's parents and ancestors, i.e. to carry out xiao, one must contribute to keeping the family name good and not besmirch it. And that family name goes on, even after one's life is over. Thus, with xiao, people with no religion or even atheists will also be good people, will also make sacrifices for what is moral and just.
Because in traditional China xiao has been the pillar of good order and good behavior in society, therefore even emperors must possess xiao in order to possess legitimacy as rulers. In fact, the posthumous honorific titles of almost all Chinese emperors, except some early ones and the founders of dynasties, include the word xiaoNote 1. By the way, this again shows that one cannot understand historical China without understanding xiao.
For an authoritative description by Confucius of xiao as a way of living a good life, being a good person and bringing about a good society, please click here to read: Xiao Jing (with English translation and commentary).
Three Reasons Why Xiao Is So Important
So the reasons why traditional China has placed so much importance on xiao may be summarized as the following three points:
- Xiao leads people to persist in good behavior because to be xiao one must be good to the reputation of one's parents and the name and memory of one's ancestors.
- Xiao leads people to become good people, because when one respects and treats one's parents and ancestors well, one also learns to respect and treat other people well, and will then naturally become a good person. For example, the emperor who is xiao naturally extends his respect and good treatment of his parents to his subjects. In this way when enough people in a society practice xiao, that society becomes a civil and moral one.
- Xiao leads people to "know kindness (zhi en" and "repay kindness (bao en)". From knowing the kindness of parents and repaying their kindness one learns to know the kindness of others and repaying their kindness. And this knowing and repaying kindness is an important part of a person's basic conscience, as well as an important part of the basic principle underlying human relations in human civilization and the operation of human civilization itself. From the modern point of view, this basic principle, a principle upon which human civilizaion has relied to come into existence and to continue existing, is that people must, in order to help each other by each doing different work, exchange mutually beneficial actions and objects. Knowing and repaying kindness is an important integral part of this principle of mutually beneficial exchange.
Xiao Is Suitable for Modern China and the Entire World
The above three points make xiao not only suitable for and beneficial to traditional China throughout history, but also suitable for and beneficial to modern China. Today's China still badly needs a guarantee as strong as what xiao has historically provided, of the civility of the social order and the morality of people's behavior.
As for being suitable for the world, xiao is not based on any one religion and so is compatible with any religion. Historically, Imperial China, which holds xiao as its basic belief, has been compatible with and has taken in many religions and their adherants, religions such as Islam, Christianity, Zoroastrianism, Judaism, and so forth. The tenet of xiao does not have any fundamental conflict with any religious doctrine, and can be accepted into and complement any religion's doctrine. For example, traditionally the Christian churches in China have always mentioned and stressed xiao, unlike those in the West. Buddhism, which comes from India, once rooted in China, also comes to stress xiao. Therefore xiao and its three points mentioned above is compatible with any society or country in the world.
Even when that society or country already has a fairly effective belief system to guarantee the civility of the social order and the morality of people's behavior, such as a very widely practiced religion, xiao can still complement and strengthen this guarantee. With xiao a religious society will become even more civil and the people will become even more moral.
At the individual level, the same benefits hold for a religious person.
At the same time, since xiao is not religious, it is also compatible with a society that is not that religious. Indeed, although traditional China has not been an atheist society and people have generally believed that "look three feet up and there's god" and that "retribution will take place whether it's during this life or the next", the practice of religion and the worship of god have not constituted the main activities that govern society, nor have organized religion and priests held socially recognized political power or ruling positions. Traditional China has, very uniquely in the history of world civilization, been a society that hasn't been very religious. Yet xiao has not only been compatible with but has also been a guiding principle for this society.
Likewise, at the individual level, the tenet of xiao is compatible with anyone who is not that religious or is even atheist.
So, xiao is suitable not only for traditional Chinese society for the last several thousand years, not only for modern Chinese society today, but also for the whole world and everyone in it. With today's decline in morals and ethics, xiao is more needed than ever.
Xiao Has Been Wrongly Denigrated During Modern Chinese History
Unfortunately, over the past century xiao has been so denigrated by various intellectual forces that it is now identified in many Chinese people’s minds with yu xiao (愚孝), i.e. foolish or blind xiao. Especially since the 1920’s, blind xiao is laughed at and considered along with yu zhong (愚忠), i.e. foolish or blind loyalty, to be the reasons for China being backward and poor despite all the thousands of years of civilization. Mention xiao to a Chinese person today, and chances are he or she will either not know the word at all or think that it means blind obedience to parents. Sigh!
To make matters worse, there is some truth in the charge of foolish blind xiao: since the 1000’s C.E. during the Song Dynasty, there has been an intellectual movement lasting several centuries to convert xiao and Confucian teaching in general from a set of practical and reasonable tenets into a metaphysical cult of absolutes and excesses. Besides an almost god-like worship of one's parents while they are still alive, there are other errors. For example, the version of the book The Twenty-Four Xiao (“二十四孝”) published in 1604 during the Ming Dynasty under the emperor’s patronage, has a story supposedly about exemplary xiao where the protagonist, in order to spare food for his parents, goes to kill his own son.
This kind of “exemplary xiao” is completely opposite to Confucius’ original teachings. Xiao demands valuing the next generation very highly: to not have offspring is to be extremely un-xiao to one's parents and ancestors. Also, the flip side of xiao by the offspring is kindness by the parents: qin ci zi xiao (亲慈子孝), i.e. “parents be kind; sons be xiao.” Confucius says in Xiao Jing that looking after one’s own body and health is the beginning of xiao. This proves how much the parents and ancestors in Confucianism love their descendants: the beginning of being good to parents and ancestors, i.e. xiao, actually is for the descendants to look after themselves well! How can xiao allow the killing of the descendants, the grandchildren, to spare food for the grandparents? Xiao absolutely cannot. That "exemplary xiao" is totally aberrant.
While during the two hundred years of early and mid-Qing Dynasty (1640’s to the 1840’s) reasonableness is somewhat restored by the popularization of such tracts as Di Zi Gui (弟子规) and a general intellectual trend away from the cultish excesses of the previous five centuries or so, some cult-like thinking has still revolved around xiao, and is partly responsible for the vulnerability of the entire concept to wholesale attack and denigration during the twentieth century.
Today, such erroneous cultish excesses belong to the past; we must not treat them as integral parts of xiao. What we need to revive today is the meaning that Confucius has originally set for xiao in Xiao Jing and the tremendous positive role that xiao has always played historically in China.
We that think xiao is indeed a most important foundation of civil society and a strong guarantee of moral behavior, is much needed by everyone, not just Chinese, and is suitable and beneficial to both China and the world today. To revive xiao, we have started this xiao webpage. Please peruse and feel free to send us your valued comments.
- Feng Xin-ming