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Philosophical foundations of filial piety

HUANG QIXIANG | 2017-03-21
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Family and Filial Piety
Author: Zhang Xianglong
Publisher: SDX Joint Publishing House


I was very surprised that a serious philosophy work like Family and Filial Piety could attract so much attention, as it incurred criticism as soon as it was published. But despite my surprise at the quick and ardent response from academia, the reaction is reasonable, since family and Xiao, meaning filial piety, as a gene of traditional Chinese culture, has suffered constant sabotage. But still, it has remained alive in Chinese people’s subconscious.

The book aims to examine the philosophical foundations of filial piety. Elaboration on family issues account for a big part, because views about family and filial piety are inseparable. On the one hand, as Zhang Xianglong said in the introduction of the book, comprehension of the conception and behavior relating to filial piety is the key to understanding family and the uniqueness of humanity. On the other hand, filial piety first takes shape between family members. In Confucius’s view, there can be no filial piety without a home and no home without filial piety. Filial piety is one pillar of Chinese civilization, as well as the essence of Confucianism.

However, filial piety and familial ethics encountered increasing criticism after the 1840 Opium War. Chinese scholars blamed the disaster on the military, industry and ultimately culture at that time, claiming it was Confucianism that accounted for China’s decline and inability to fight against foreign invasion. Scholars like Chen Duxiu, Xiong Shili, Fu Sinian and Hu Shi all criticized filial piety and familial ethics, believing that these creeds hindered the development of Chinese society. Similarly, in the West, Bertrand Russell argued that filial piety is the only thing that betrays common sense in the Confucian philosophical system.

At present, filial piety is not facing a good situation. The opposition to filial piety peaked in the 1960s and the 1970s. After the reform and opening up in 1978, filial piety faced less criticism with a better political, ideological and cultural atmosphere. But at present, the tide of materialism and globalization, shrinking families and the prevalence of individualism are all eroding these traditions at a deeper level. Senior citizens are experiencing more marginalized social status, and the intergenerational relationship that was once characterized by “bringing up and reciprocation” is seriously imbalanced. Among those factors that affect the living standards of Chinese old age groups, the lack of filial piety is the root cause.

Zhang has studied filial piety from philosophical perspective for more than a decade. He ties the philosophical basis of filial piety to the relationship between human nature and the ethics creed. When we examine filial piety from multiple angles such as human revolution and family bonds, it presents some complexity and fragility. When a broader anthropological vision is introduced, especially the phenomenological view of time and the idea of modern language, the relationship between filial piety and human nature is revealed. Zhang believes that the key is recognizing that the parent-child relationship is essentially a life, time relationship, while elaborating on the relationship between the life, time relationship and inner time consciousness inspired by the phenomenological time view, then the relationship between filial piety and human nature is clearly shown.