What is Filial Piety?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Filial piety, or xiao is a concept originating with Confucianism that outlines the way in which family members should interact with each other. It is based on a hierarchical relationship, in which parents and older family rank more highly than children and younger family members, and men rank more highly than women. In the Confucian system, those of higher rank have the responsibility to care for and raise those of lower rank, and those of lower rank in turn have the responsibility to respect and obey those of higher rank. There are also a number of related concepts in Confucianism, including ren, or altruism, and yi, or righteousness, as well as concepts of state governance.

The character xiao, which is translated as filial piety.
The character xiao, which is translated as filial piety.

Basic Tenets

In its most basic form, filial piety is relating appropriately to one's family members. For young family members, this includes respecting elders, obeying them, taking care of them as they age, advising them as necessary, and loving them. For those who are older, it includes providing for the younger ones, raising them correctly, giving them the opportunities they need to succeed, and teaching them how to be a good person. It is seen as the concrete application of the love that is seen to naturally exist between family members. All of the tenets of xiao apply to both living and dead family members.

A statue of Confucius, who is credited with popularizing the idea of filial piety.
A statue of Confucius, who is credited with popularizing the idea of filial piety.

Practical Application

Practically speaking, xiao breaks down into several key responsibilities. Parents and elders have the responsibility to provide for children and raise them to have the appropriate suzhi, or cultivation. This includes giving them every opportunity they possibly can, such as enrolling them in good schools, smoothing the way for them to get a job, or buying them things and giving them money. Additionally, elders often provide care for grandchildren or other younger family members if their parents are working or studying. Due to this, many Chinese people live with several generations of family members.

A multi-generational Chinese family.
A multi-generational Chinese family.

In return for the care and material goods, children and younger family members are expected to be obedient and to take advantage of the opportunities elders give them. By doing this and becoming successful, they can bring pride or face to the family, so that their parents can see that their work and raising has paid off. Younger family members also are expected to care for their parents when they get old and no longer work, and to produce children to continue the family line.

Filial piety is relating appropriately to one's family members.
Filial piety is relating appropriately to one's family members.

In addition to relationships with living family members, filial piety is also required in relationships with ancestors. This usually takes the form of ancestor worship. Many families visit their ancestors' tombs or shrines periodically to provide them with food, money, or goods they might need in the afterlife, and having a continuous family line is seen as very important, since it guarantees that there will always be someone to look after those who die. As a whole, the ancestors are seen as supporting China and in need of respect, since they may influence how the world works for the present generation.

Related Concepts

The concept of filial piety is closely related to other Confucian concepts, including ren and yi. For instance, if a child is lacking in ren, then his elders have a responsibility in terms of xiao to help him develop it. These concepts can even trump other obligations, in some cases. For example, if a father was doing something wrong, then his child would be obligated by yi to correct him.

The rules for family relationships are also connected to beliefs about how a government or a state should be run. In Confucianism, the family is taken as a model for the state, with the leader as the father of the family and the subjects as the children. As such, citizens of a country are seen as owing piety to their leader, and he or she is seen as having a responsibility to care for them and teach them the appropriate way to act.


This concept originated with Confucius, who was a Chinese teacher and politician in the 3rd and 4th century BCE. His work formed a philosophy that later took on religious significance, and it still widely practiced today. Xiao specifically was first mentioned in The Classic of Filial Piety, which contains instructions on how to act in specific types of relationships. It is thought to date back to about 400 BCE.

Filial piety requires parents to provide for and support their children and others from younger generations.
Filial piety requires parents to provide for and support their children and others from younger generations.
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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Discussion Comments


@Monika - I think it depends on what kind of family you come from. While we don't exactly have filial piety in this country, a lot of people put tons of pressure on their kids to "succeed" and "make them proud." Also, a lot of families do expect parents to provide their kids with opportunities, such as a college education.


Filial piety sounds like it places a lot of pressure on people. If someone in your family isn't succeeding, it's the fault of the whole family! Either the older people didn't provide the proper opportunities, or the younger people didn't take advantage of them.

I'm glad we don't have a strong tradition of filial piety in America. It's bad enough trying to worry about doing well for myself, without having to worry that I'm also reflecting badly on my family too!


@ceilingcat - You're definitely looking at things in a very "western" way. As the article said, people who subscribe to Confucius' filial piety ideas are more concerned about the family as a whole, not just the individual. So if you subscribe to that world view, you would think that even if two people are miserable in a marriage, it would be better for them to stay together to keep the entire extended family happy.


@anon155653 - Having an intact family isn't always a good thing if two people are miserable together. Staying married "for the sake of the children/family" can often lead to more heartache than just getting divorced. So maybe this incursion of "modernism" into the eastern world is a good thing.

I'm sure people won't completely abandon the idea of filial piety. But even the best ideas need some adaptation as the world changes and evolves. Just staying true to tradition because it is tradition isn't always a good idea.


Filial piety is a very important part of Chinese culture and it is deeply ingrained in Chinese people's minds. In many ways this dedication to the well-being of one's parents is admirable and certainly provides stability and harmony in families as well as in society as a whole. On the other hand, this ancient concept can also cause incredible heartache and frustration in the modern world, where the development of people as individuals is becoming more and more valued.

In most Chinese minds, a person's happiness is forever tied to the happiness of his or her parents. While this is admirable, the Chinese tendency to sacrifice the dreams and passions of an individual, often at the whim of an elder, is sometimes unfathomable to a Western mind.


Filial piety is something that has been imbibed in us- mostly in the third world countries or eastern cultures. This is the reason why we have many intact families as compared to our western counterparts. However, the sad thing is that the scenario is changing due to the invasion of modernism.


Basically I think they are saying that filial piety is having respect, loyalty, and consideration for parents/elders.


we can see "filial piety" earlier then chinese cultures, let's say even in elephant cultures. some say we humans are so advanced due to the grandmother or elders being in the family and a family being tight to begin with, like not eating one's child like a reptile. so mammalians gave birth to filial piety?




I'm so lost. What are they trying to say?


so are they saying rebel, or don't rebel?


Very confusing.


is filial piety a figment of our imagination?


really helpful =]


This rocks!




I don't understand.

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