Filial Piety (xiào) Part 2

By Prof. Enrique N. Soriano 

The word ‘filial’ means ‘of or due from a son or daughter’ and the word ‘piety’ means in this context ‘dutiful and devout’. So, in English, the virtue that is ‘filial piety’ basically means – a dutiful and devout son or daughter. There was this story during the Three Kingdoms Period (the period between the foundation of the state of Wei in 220 AD and the conquest of the state of Wu by the Jin dynasty in 280) about a son by the name of Wang Pou. His mother was afraid of the sound of thunder when she was still living. After she died, whenever Wang heard thunder, he rushed to her grave to hug her tombstone and comfort her.

According to writer, Vincent Cheok, the Chinese word or character for filial piety is: 孝 and pronounced ‘xiào’. The top portion of the character for xiào, shows an old man and underneath, a young man supporting the old man. So strictly speaking the Chinese ‘virtue’ that is epitomized by xiào is not just between parents and children, but for any ‘younger’ person for an ‘elder’ person. The younger/elder dichotomy is just a metaphor or allegory.

Filial piety is arguably China’s most important moral tenet. A concept of Chinese philosophy for more than 3,000 years, xiào today entails a strong loyalty and deference to one’s parents, to one’s ancestors, by extension, to one’s country and its leaders. It also requires children to offer love, respect and support to their parents and other elders in the family, such as grandparents or older siblings. Acts of filial piety include obeying one’s parent’s wishes, taking care of them when they are old and working hard to provide them with material comforts, such as food and money. In a well written article by journalist Lauren Mack, the idea is that parents give life to their children, and support them throughout their developing years, providing food, education, and material needs. After receiving all these benefits, children are thus forever indebted to their parents. In order to acknowledge this eternal gratitude, the children must respect and serve their parents all their lives. As part of our governance intervention as family business advisors, it is our mandate to communicate to family members across all generations the significance of this powerful value.

Authors Jun Yan and Ritch Sorensen also examined the “effect of Confucian values on succession in family business”. According to them, the more a Chinese family adheres to principles and values underlying Confucian philosophy, the less resistance there is to orderly succession. In families and organizations, filial piety sets forth strict rules of obedience based on a top-down hierarchy, starting with the father, down to the mother, elder children, and younger children (or entry-level employees), in that order (Rae & Witzel, 2008). For overseas Chinese family businesses in particular, filial piety is seen as the main source of stability for the family (Redding, 1990) preserving intergenerational trust and ensuring the smooth flow of succession.

Consequently, when the relationship between the family firm’s principal and the family member who is next in line is strong, networks and social capital cultivated by the current generation may more easily be passed on to the next generation. When filial piety is manifested in the family business culture, there is a lower incidence of conflicts between the head of the firm and other employees, and even among family members who are involved in the business.


Prof Enrique Soriano is a World Bank/IFC Governance Consultant, Senior Advisor of Post and Powell Singapore and the Executive Director of Wong + Bernstein, a research and consulting firm in Asia that serves family businesses and family foundations. He was formerly Chair of the Marketing Cluster at the ATENEO Graduate School of Business in Manila, and is currently a visiting Senior Fellow of the IPMI International School, Jakarta. 

He is an associate member of the Singapore Institute of Directors (SID) and an advisor to business families worldwide, a sought after governance speaker at conferences, and book author, more than 200 articles and publications, including two best-selling Family Business books (Ensuring Your Family Business Legacy 2013 and 2015). You can read Prof Soriano’s business articles for free at