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Filial Piety and Family Violence in China

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China Power

Filial Piety and Family Violence in China

Is there a connection between China’s emphasis on filial piety and high rates of elder and child abuse?

Filial Piety and Family Violence in China
Credit: Chinese mothers and children image via Yanfei Sun /

Chinese often say, “filial piety is the most important of all virtues,” and it’s observably true.

The Chinese reality show “Where Are We Going, Dad?,” about celebrities and their kids, attracted a heart-stopping 75 million viewers per episode. And last month, the reality show “The Greatest Love,” about celebrities and their parents, became China’s most watched show. In an article about the show, Sue-lin Wong writes, “there is no human trait more important than filial piety.”

Except a 2001 study of Chinese elder abuse found a prevalence of 22.8 percent, and a study six years later recorded a prevalence of 36 percent. The lead author of the second study, Xinqi Dong of the Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, says it’s rare to see Chinese parents report their own children for abuse, suggesting that the actual rates may be significantly higher.

This month, Dong released research showing that filial piety may indirectly cause stress and depression in caregivers. His findings showed that Chinese adult children reported feelings of isolation, anxiety, chronic insomnia, and restlessness. Among those who have kids and are simultaneously caring for their parents, 40 to 70 percent showed signs of clinical depression. This, he says, may increase the likelihood of abusive behavior.

But elder abuse is only half the story. Confucianism stresses a son’s respect for his father (Confucian language is arrantly sexist), but the doctrine of the Rectification of Names says that fathers have responsibilities too. In “Confucian Theory of Norms and Human Rights,” Wejen Chang writes, “Only when a father behaves as a correct father can a son be expected to behave as a correct son.”

And yet, according to a meta-analysis of 47 studies, the prevalence of physical child abuse in China was found to be 36.6 percent, which is “significantly higher than either the international or the Asian estimate.” Not only this, but child abuse is commonly associated with filial piety, as in the expression bang xia chu xiaozi, or “filial sons from cudgels come.” Spare the rod and spoil the child, in other words. Kwong-Liem Karl Kwan, professor of counseling at San Francisco State University, writes, “Filial piety includes certain moral principles that are conducive to child abuse.”

One of these is the view that, as the Global Times put it, filial piety supports “the idea that children are parents’ property.” This echoes Jill E. Korbin’s Child Abuse and Neglect: Cross-Cultural Perspectives, which says that according to the tenet of filial piety, children were “the sole property of their parents” and “could be dealt with in whatever manner their parents chose,” including “severe beatings, infanticide, child slavery, the selling of young girls as prostitutes, child betrothal, and foot-binding.”

However, I asked Weiming Tu, dean of the Institute for Advanced Humanistic Studies at Peking University, senior fellow at Harvard’s Asia Center, and one of the world’s preeminent Confucian scholars, whether Korbin’s analysis rings true.

“This is a distorted, and I would say erroneous, view, for a number of reasons,” he told me. He referenced the Rectification of Names, saying, “The son’s responsibility is to help the father to become more fatherly. The father disciplines the son, of course, but the son is obligated to see to it that the father acts according to the fatherly principle.”

He added, “The notion of obeying an abusive father is totally distorted and, I would say, against basic Confucian principles.” So the son shouldn’t be rebellious, but the father is required to improve, and the whole relationship is governed by the principle of shu, or reciprocity. The idea that you have to care for your parents, even if it destroys your mental health, or that a child is the parent’s property, and must always obey, is a distortion of filial piety that heightens levels of elder and child abuse, dividing families and laying waste to the very relationships it seeks to sustain.

One possible solution is already under consideration: The Beijing People’s Congress is currently drafting regulations concerning parents who pay their children to nurse them, which critics say contravenes filial piety. A filial son shouldn’t be paid to care for his parents, the argument goes. He should be happy to do it for free. But by financially incentivizing their kids to care for them, or hiring professionals, Chinese parents may actually be promoting filial piety by alleviating stress in the relationship and letting both sides focus on what matters most.

After all, Tu says, the most important value in Confucianism isn’t filial piety, but self-actualization. This also challenges the idea, taught in Confucian workshops, that total obedience is crucial to proper family dynamics. More important is growth, which, from time to time, requires challenging authority. Tu observes, “The son cultivating the father is part of the game.”