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Taiwan’s Mother’s Day and the Foot-Washing Ceremony – An Example of Public Display of Filial Piety

An old Confucian proverb says “Filial Piety is the Highest of All Virtues” (百善孝為先). Mother’s Day is one of those occasions in which the importance of filial piety in Taiwan’s official public discourse and education system can be clearly observed (read my post about filial piety to know more about it).

On May 9th and 10th, foot-washing ceremonies were held in several schools and public places in Taiwan. Children wash their mother’s feet in a symbolic gesture of filial devotion. This act goes back to the Confucian ideal of children’s submission to parents and taking care of them in their old age. 

In Shoushan Zoo, in Kaohsiung City, mothers and children gathered in the afternoon. After kissing their mother’s cheek the children said “I love you” and took part in the foot-washing ceremony. On this day, parents and children could enter the zoo free of charge (note).

On the video below you can see an example of foot-washing ceremony, in which the children hand to their mothers tea and then wash their feet (洗腳奉茶).




A similar, but more solemn ceremony was held in Qiying High School, in Chungli City (中壢市). A student of the school, Huang Yixian (黃議賢) handed over tea to and washed the feet of the mother of one of his classmates, Li Weijun (李偉峻), who unexpectedly died of illness in March of this year, leaving his mother alone. In order to comfort the mother and made her feel the happiness of parenthood again, Huang took the initiative of inviting her and performing the ceremony in her dead son’s stead. 

More than 7000 students of the high school and their 220 mothers gathered on the campus. The children sang the song “The Heart of Gratitude” and then called “Mom, I love you” (媽媽我愛你).  They also held contests in composition writing, calligraphy etc.

Li Weijun’s mother said that since she was a single parent her son had always been particularly filial to her. He shared the responsibility for the household, worked in a restaurant during the holidays to pay for his living expenses, and worried for the family more than for himself even after he got sick. She thanked the school for giving her the chance to enjoy the feeling of filial piety again. 

The school director, Wu Qingtang (吳慶堂) stated that filial devotion (孝順) is a duty of every son and daughter. Regardless of one’s career success, – he said -, one needs to understand filial piety, and the Mother’s Day ceremony let children have a first-hand experience of it (note). 

Another proof of the centrality of filial devotion in Taiwan’s moral discourse is that a foot-washing ceremony was held in the Control Yuan of the Republic of China. The President of the Yuan, Wang Jianxuan (王建煊), referred to the fact that Mother’s Day was a sad occasion for ROC President Ma Yingjiu, as his mother has passed away. Ma expressed his regret for not being able to hold his mother’s hands in his any longer. In his speech at the foot-washing ceremony, Wang therefore urged all children to appreciate the time spent with their mothers (note). 

There are a few points I find remarkable about Mother’s Day in Taiwan:

  • The way in which filial piety, a thoroughly Confucian concept, is enforced and endorsed by the state. We should always bear in mind that despite economic modernisation Taiwanese children are still imbued with traditional moral values taught in schools and sponsored by the state. 
  • The importance of ceremony and ritualism. I have talked about this in my posts about filial piety and ritualism. Mother’s Day is an intriguing contemporary example of it. As we have seen, the feeling of filiality is expressed through a ritualised collective act, in which the individual is subordinated to the social role that family ideology prescribes. However, I am not suggesting that children don’t feel love for their parents, on the contrary. But it is fundamental to understand how these feelings are nurtured and shaped by a Confucian discourse on filial piety, and how they are expressed in a public, formalised way.
  • The foot-washing ceremony demonstrates proper hierarchical roles and seeks to ingrane them into children’s minds. They should learn to accept these roles as a natural and obvious fact. In this respect, it is interesting to note how this Confucian foot-washing ceremony is the exact opposite of the Christian foot-washing symbol. 
Interestingly, in mainland China, as well, washing parents’ feet is a way to propagate filial virtues. Here is one example of foot-washing ceremony in China. 

Another example is the promotion system introduced by the CCP in 2006 in Jinchang City, Gansu Province. The system is based on traditional Chinese values of filial piety and on the old idea that only a filial son is a good official. Officials’ personal matters are examined, most especially whether they show proper filial devotion to parents, whether they take proper care of their spouses and children, and whether they have good relations with their neighbours. 

Moreover, special events have been held in recent years that aim at publicly displaying filial devotion. For instance, on International Women’s Day kindergarten children are invited to wash their mother’s feet. This again shows that foot-washing is associated with filial devotion in Chinese culture (see Brady 2011).
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1 reply »

  1. “The foot-washing ceremony demonstrates proper hierarchical roles and seeks to ingrane [sic] them into children’s minds. They should learn to accept these roles as a natural and obvious fact. In this respect, it is interesting to note how this Confucian foot-washing ceremony is the exact opposite of the Christian foot-washing symbol.”

    Yes, the Confucian *ceremony* perpetuates conventional social hierarchies and power structures, regardless of the actual circumstances and relationships obtaining in the family, whereas the Christian act is a fundamentally transgressive *action* that challenges received ideas of who is worthy of respect and love. The former is an act of submission and conformity, the latter one of humility and compassion.

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