In order to understand Chinese culture and society it is fundamental to understand the Chinese family. The family in China was not only a social unit, but it represented a whole codified ideology that pervaded the state and the society for thousands of years. Many of the differences between Chinese and Western thinking are comprehensible only from the point of view of the unique place that the family has in Chinese culture.
|Illustration from the Classic of Filial Piety (source: Wikipedia)|
Without doubt, the pillar of the Chinese family structure was the concept of filial piety. In Chinese, filial piety is expressed by the character 孝(pinyin: xiào). The character xiao is made up of an upper and a lower part. The first part is derived from the character lao (老, pinyin: lǎo), which means ‘old’. The second part is the character 子 (pinyin: zi), which means ‘son’. There are different interpretations of the meaning of the character xiao:
1) the old are supported by the younger generation;
2) the young are burdened and oppressed by the old;
3) the purpose of the family is the continuation of the family line (chronological, from top to bottom) (see Ikels 2004, pp. 2-3).
Filial piety was a central value in traditional Chinese culture. Its importance went far beyond that of the biblical commandment “honour thy mother and thy father”. Filial piety was and still is a value based on strict principles of hierarchy, obligation and obedience. It is no exaggeration to say that it was the very foundation of the hierarchical structure of the Chinese family and thus of the Chinese society as a whole. That does not mean that the idea of filial piety has not changed over the centuries or that children are always filial. But we need first of all to understand what xiao means, where it comes from, and how it was practised in the past, before we can examine the exceptions and the changes.