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A Brief Look at Filial Piety, Indebtedness, and the Gospel in the Chinese Context


Filial piety has long been part and parcel of Chinese culture.

Confucius, arguably the most influential philosopher in Chinese history, extolled this virtue in his famous work the Analects. And despite the many changes modernization has brought to the traditional Chinese family, the virtue of filial piety seems to have remained firmly rooted in the Chinese mind. In addition to the lasting influence of Confucian thought there appears to be another common, albeit it unofficial, myth reinforcing the practice of filial piety.

One evening, a few years back, for reasons I cannot exactly remember, the topic of sex education came up in conversation with some Chinese friends. During the discussion my wife asked how parents typically respond when children pose the universal question "Where did I come from?" In disbelief we listened as nearly everyone present recounted the same experience of being told that he or she was abandoned at birth only to have been rescued heroically by his or her current set of parents. Some were discovered in or beside a garbage can while others had been discarded in a field. At first we assumed this to be an isolated response, but through subsequent conversations, across various regions in China, it became clear that this kind of story is in fact fairly universal.

Initially, the story sounded like an obvious evasion of discussing the biological reality of conception. After further reflection, however, it appears that the story is largely intended as a means to reinforce filial piety, at least according to our observations. By placing themselves in the role of savior, parents instill a sense of indebtedness in their children at a very early age. And despite the fact that children eventually learn the fictitious nature of the story they are still deeply influenced by the need to reciprocate such selfless and sacrificial love.

It is difficult to judge how deeply this myth has influenced the Chinese mind. Yet, whatever the degree of influence, knowing this popular story does provide an additional point of connection for discussing the Truth that there is indeed a Savior who rescues "lost children" from certain death and this Savior does long for our filial piety. However, the piety He requires is not the kind that is based on works of reciprocity as He has already paid our debt in full.

From the ChinaSource Blog Team: For more on the influence of Confucianism in China today - watch for the 2014 Spring issue of the ChinaSource Quarterly "Confucius and Christ: Conflict, Compromise or Communication?" coming out later this month.

Mark Totman

Mark Totman is an expat with over a decade of experience living in China. He enjoys writing on a wide range of China-related subjects including language, culture and history, particularly as these subjects facilitate greater understanding of the Chinese context and encourage beneficial lives of cross-cultural service. View Full Bio