In Chinese culture, one of the teachings which govern relationships is filial piety (Xiao) considered first among the 100 virtues that human beings should live by. Literally translated, it means the ideal relationship between father and son - the sacred duty of each to the other. But it goes much further. Father and son is interpreted as ancestors, parents and children and, further yet, the whole family.
It is the duty of parents, to nurture, guide and care for their offspring - physically, mentally and spiritually until adulthood - and how parents are to be treated by their offspring, especially in old age. Filial piety also has a direct bearing on behaviour between two brothers. In other words, filial piety speaks directly to the importance of family life and relationships and behaviour within and among relatives in a family.
This concept is closely related, if not directly so, to the Biblical injunction to children "honour and obey your parents" , and beyond your parents, your departed ancestors. This is deeply rooted in the lives of the vast majority of Chinese people. In most ancient peoples, there are to be found similar tenets which the west has erroneously termed ancestor worship. This should be termed "remembering, respecting and honouring ancestors and forbears". It also means that you do nothing to dishonour the family, and everything to bring them respect and honour.
Respect for departed
Filial piety is said to have originated with Confucius and, along with the physical and mental nurturing and care, it involves remembering them with respect, even in death. So you will find at Chinese family celebrations like weddings, New Years' celebration and birthdays, food, wine and tea are laid out for the ancestors at the family shrine before the celebration and feasting begins.
This act of offering food and drink to dead relatives is seen twice a year when siblings and other relatives gather at the Chinese Cemetery for Gah San. It is said that this gives the departed prestige in the realm of the dead. It is, perhaps, this remembering with respect and honour that informs the many memorials we see in the press daily, and in the naming of scholarships and institutions, perpetuating the memory and work of the departed loved one. Yet sometimes there is criticism of other people's beliefs and customs.
The story is told of a Westerner placing flowers on the tomb of his wife and observing a Chinese man placing food and wine on his wife's tomb . "When do you expect your wife to come to eat that food?" he asked mockingly. Came the reply, "Oh, just the same time your wife comes to smell the flowers."
There is similarity of this aspect of filial piety of honouring the dead the world over; some sing to them, some dance, some present food, some give flowers and toys while others play music in remembrance and homage. With the Chinese, the perpetuation of the family name is paramount, hence the need to have as many sons as you can in each succeeding generation. This is the main reason why boys are preferred to girls. The girls marry and their names change. They then belong to other clans and will bear their sons who will carry on those names for a very long time if not forever.
Could this be what was meant by the Biblical commandment, " Honour thy father and they mother that thy days may be long upon the land ?"
We are not so different after all.
- Courtesy of the Jamaica China Friendship Association