Professor Sandra Lee
26 May 2008
Confucianism and Filial Piety in Chinese culture
Western people might wonder why once upon a time in China, choosing a wife or husband for one’s life was not his or her decision but their parents’, or one must mourn for their deceased parents at least three years. The answer is about the definition of morality. Different conceptions of morality have guided different cultures in different directions regarding a central question of human existence: Does morality require filial piety (or filial obligation) of children toward their parents? Confucianism, which remains influential in Chinese culture, answers an emphatic "yes", while Western culture's response is ambiguous, to say the least. Confucianism underlies the familial relationships in Chinese culture, specifically the values of filial piety, thus differing from Western culture. An understanding of Confucius, the concepts of Confucianism and their impacts on relationships and behaviors in Chinese familial life will be discussed followed by examples from specific case studies in Hong Kong and Taiwan. Confucianism's roots are traced to the teacher-prophet Kongzi whom we call Confucius. He lived in a corrupt society in Shandung, on the northeastern coast, during the sixth century B.C Although Confucius lived in the fifth and sixth centuries B.C. his teachings still form the basis for family values. Confucius is remembered as being both the first and the most renowned great Chinese philosopher. Confucius' family structure as a youth was more atypical than typical of what we might expect. Although he was the son of a magistrate in what is present day, Shandong, his father died when he was very young and he was raised by his mother in great poverty. After a brief stint as a government official during his younger years, he resigned from government duty to begin teaching. His teachings attracted many disciples. He reentered public office when invited to do so at the age of fifty to briefly serve as magistrate then be honored with assignment to the highest post in the state which could be obtained by a commoner such as himself. Even more important than his governmental duties, however, was the philosophical guidance he provided for almost all aspects of human affairs. According to Confucius, there were five basic concepts which lead mankind to living a good and productive life, while at the same time, enable him to make a positive contribution to his society. First, there is Jen, which is, quite literally, a combination the Chinese words for human being and the number two, with the implication being that emphasis must not be placed on a single individual, but on along with others in a relationship, whether it be familial, friendship or in the workplace. The principle of Jen has been described as goodness, or the highest of all moral virtues. The Eastern religious authority Huston Smith explained in The world's religions: our great wisdom traditions, Jen is the principle of respecting others, "an indivisible sense of the dignity of human life wherever it appears".(172) The next important concept is Chun tzu, which can be translated to mean either superior person, human excellence, or maturity. Confucius believed relationships are essential for human happiness and also for the overall well-being of society. Chun tzu is a person who is secure enough to consider the needs of others. The third principle is Li, which like many aspects of Chinese philosophy and society, has dual meanings. First, it describes propriety, or the proper way to conduct oneself. The way to achieve this, Confucius taught that man should always be guided by that which provides goodness for himself and others. Li also explains how to develop harmony through personal and social relationships. It is dependent upon the five constant relationships which have been historically built throughout the cultural development of China -...
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