The Real Dangers of Filial Piety

By Prof. Enrique N. Soriano

Writer Aris Teon of the Greater Chinese Journal described filial piety as a “central value in traditional Chinese culture and its importance went far beyond that of the biblical commandment “honor thy mother and thy father”. He goes on to explain that “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 it is time to decipher and understand what filial piety means and how it was practiced in the past, before we can tackle its significance and attendant dangers.

There is a powerful story culled from the 24 Exemplars of Filial Piety, a collection of tales about filial piety compiled by Guo Jujing, a Yuan Dynasty (1260-1368) scholar from Fujian Province. That story was about a poor man named Guo Ju who was burdened with a wife, mother, and child. One day he said to his wife: “We are so poor that we cannot even support mother. Furthermore, our son shares mother’s food. Why don’t we bury the child? We can have another child, but if mother dies, we cannot replace her.” The wife did not dare to contradict him. He began to dig the grave for his own son, and suddenly he discovered a vase full of gold in the earth – a gift of Heaven to the filial son.

The meaning of this tale is clear. When faced with the dilemma of having to choose between one’s parents and one’s children (or wife, for that matter), one always has to choose the parents. This is the hierarchical principle of the superiority of the elder over the younger. It is the duty of children to take care of their parents at all costs, even if that means sacrificing one’s own children. The pre-eminence of filial duty is clearly demonstrated by the following Chinese saying: Of all virtues, filial piety is the first.

But a client of Chinese descent from Florida questions filial piety and cites weaknesses and possible abuses under the pretext of blind loyalty and obedience. He cites its inherent flaws and he shares his insights, “my personal understanding of filial piety is to respect and love our parents, family ancestor and family elders. But it doesn’t mean we have to follow the orders and wishes of our parents without discussion. It is not teaching us to accommodate our core values to the whims of our parents. We must avoid these negative understanding of filial piety. If we can extend our love and respect to our enemies, then we will be following the teaching of Sun Tzu’s “Art of War”. And if we can extend our respect and love to sinners then we will be following the teachings of Jesus Christ in forgiveness. I read the news that a daughter in an Amish family was sexually abused by her own father. Is this because of the teaching of filial piety? After what happened how can the daughter love and respect her father? So filial piety doesn’t mean you have to make your parents happy by surrendering “self”. The filial piety of the daughter is a challenging one. She can love and respect her father by strengthening “self” and protecting her core values and rising above what her father did to her. 

Lastly, we can never control the outcome, but we can strengthen the “self” no matter what.”

I couldn’t agree more.




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