The Root of Virtue, and that from which Civilization Derives
Among the virtues espoused by the great Kong Fu Tzu, filial responsibility and love within the family reign supreme. The family is the central unit in the Confucian paradigm, and the course of Chinese history shows the weight of hsiao upon individual persons and the people as a whole, for good and for bad. Though there is no doubt that concepts of filial duty untempered by jen lent themselves to much corruption and a negative stratification of society, hsiao is a concept that has been, sadly, lost to too great of a degree in the backswing. Hsiao, coupled with jen, would save society at large from many of its ills, especially in America where “kill your parents” is the spoken and unspoken attitude of far too many. We will examine three areas that would benefit from greater implementation of the concept of filial responsibility: interpersonal relationships, healthcare, and maintenance of proper action within society.
It is disheartening and, frankly, frightening to watch the quick, almost immediate degradation of the parent-child relationship that occurs when a child reaches a certain degree of autonomy. Whereas a three- or five-year-old emits a constant stream of “I love you, Daddy,” or “I love you, Mommy,” a common pre-teen stream of speech is rife with “I hate you” and disrespect. Similarly, most of us had no problem with, even great love for, our friends’ parents, until that friend became a spouse and those parents became in-laws. Too often there is an immediate separation that takes place, and the family unit becomes fractured. Both of these situations are natural and to be expected, and it is not reasonable to expect any philosophical or religious system to immediately remedy the age-old problems, but the healing of rifts within families, and the preventing of new ones, would be made much more likely through the institution of hsiao. “When your parents are alive, serve them according to propriety; when they die, bury them according to propriety; sacrifice to them according to propriety.” One of the greatest lessons I ever learned came in a Priests’ Quorum lesson, from my advisor. “If you want to love someone, especially someone you don’t particularly care for now, the best way to build that love is by serving them.” I have found this to be true in every case. The natural way of things is for closeness to breed frustration at times, and the natural way out of this frustration is service tailored properly to the situation. It is easy to only look downward and forward in finding those for whom service is needed: my parents served me, and I will serve my children, and they will serve theirs. But reciprocity and gratitude requires looking back up the chain and serving those who served us first. From commentary on an ancient Chinese mural of crows, “when their mothers are old and too weak to scavenge, crow offspring bring food, chew it up, and place it in the beaks of their mothers. By doing so, they repay their mothers for nourishing them when they were young and feeble.” Service for family, including parents and siblings, can do naught but improve all the relationships a person has. By placing hsiao at the apex of one’s value system, love and gratitude will surely grow, and, on a world- and country-wide level, peace and harmony will increase.
In conversations with friends of Chinese descent, I found an interesting attitude prevail with regards to how healthcare should work. The general feeling is that the social system that places the care of the elderly into state-funded institutions is, at its lightest, an insult. Families care for families, and that is the end of it. Only in extreme cases should an outside organization take primary care responsibility (no living family, etc.). Healthcare is a family affair, and families should be in charge of the decisions. This is not only relevant in geriatric care; as Western medicine and medical practices have made their way into China, and as the Chinese have made their way to the West, differences of opinion in general bioethics have come to the front of the line for consideration. Fierce Western individualism and autonomy clash with Chinese consanguinity and collective, and the argument is about who gets to decide what. In Confucian thought, families balance yin and yang in decision making, partly (perhaps largely) through balancing yin and yang in the decision makers. Mothers and father in particular, but also brothers and sisters, assist in bringing the family to a decision that is best for all. Confucian bioethics recognizes what Western bioethics only hints at: there are situations in which the individual afflicted is not able to make the best decision, for his or herself or loved ones. Hsiao shares responsibility horizontally and vertically, and, in typical Confucian fashion, ideally resists dogmatism or egoism and remains flexible. A person imbued with hsiao recognizes the wisdom his or her elders possess and sacrifices some independence, trusting in a greater overall outcome. In every case the interest of the individual becomes the interest of the family, hasty medical decisions are avoided, and perpetual care is given without any extra cost to the medical organizations or taxpayers. One can imagine Medicare and Social Security being completely rewritten in the wake of hsiao. Many modern social ills relative to healthcare would, in the course of a few generations, be greatly reduced.
In 1530 the Jiajing Emperor said, “The sage reveres heaven the same way he reveres his kin.” Propriety and positive action in society can only be maintained by those with an active reverence for what is right. In Confucian thought, one cannot care properly for higher moral ideals without subscribing to the highest moral ideal, that of hsiao. “When a man’s father is alive, look at the bent of his will; when his father is dead, look at his conduct. If for three years he does not change from his father’s way, he may be called filial.” In order to protect the family name and the feelings of one’s parents, one should guard one’s actions. Remaining close to parents, at least in heart, is similar in principle to the Jain injunction to never stray too far from home. A person alone is free to make all manner of mistakes and then slip away into anonymity, but a person within a family unit has an identity that must be maintained and improved upon. It is instructive that hsiao extends even beyond the mortal life of one’s parents – as before noted, one should “sacrifice to them according to propriety,” sustaining their memory and accounting to them for one’s actions. Continuing in the way of one’s parents for the obligatory three years would be a fascinating study indeed – the wisdom or folly of the parent would become more fully known, and in either case the child would become acquainted with the parent in a way that would be difficult to replicate in any other method. Three years of mourning become three years of introspection, affording the opportunity to examine one’s own actions in the light of one’s parents’ actions. Fast-paced society, so eager to throw off the accoutrements of yesteryear as one would so many shackles, would slow. Some may say a slow society is a bad thing, but what benefit has blind haste? To paraphrase Thoreau, the human’s grand possessions and grandiose actions have far outstripped the human’s humanity. Slowing to observe the lives of one’s parents in the spirit of filiality could perhaps prevent people from rushing headlong into mistakes that were already made and already corrected by the previous generation. Hsiao, properly implemented, would produce thoughtful, careful, respectful individuals, who would then form a thoughtful, careful, respectful society.
Indulge, if you will, a moment of personal reflection. I recently left the care of my mother and father to cleave unto my wife and start a new family. Home is no longer the stucco house I grew up in; home is now four blocks south of campus. It is my wife who asks me how my day was, not my mother or father. I am here, this is new – they are there, that is old. It is easy to forget, in all of this change, to be filial. In truth, that two-story cookie-cutter house was never home in the first place – home was, and is, where family is. I call my little basement apartment “home” now, and when I refer to “going home” I see a small red Ikea couch instead of the orange tree in front of 12775 N. 58th Ave, but the reality is that I still have a home in Glendale – in fact, I have two now. The wings of both sets of my parents cover me. There is still much love to be shared, advice to be had, and lessons to be learned from the wonderful people I call parents. Hsiao is real and alive in Latter-day Saint doctrine, though the West Wind sometimes obscures it. The areas I outlined that would be improved by hsiao were selected because they are areas that I wish to have hsiao improve in my life. In interpersonal relationships, let me remember that family is first and all are family. In my future medical practice, let me remember that I will treat not just individuals, but individuals within families. In my public life, let me act in a way that speaks highly of my upbringing; let me consider the ways of my parents and learn from their conduct. In short, let me aspire to the status of a Chun Tzu, and let me do it through aspiring to Confucius’ highest virtue – hsiao.
 Hsiao Ching, 3rd Century BCE. P. 195. Rites vs rights: maintaining social order in China and the West. Ken Baskin. Source: Chinese Management Studies Vol. 3 No. 3, 2009 pp. 187-199 q Emerald Group Publishing Limited 1750-614X DOI 10.1108/17506140910984050. Life Design Partners, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA. www.emeraldinsight.com/1750-614X.htm
 See the writings of Lu Xun for examples and commentary, especially the collection Diary of a Madman and Other Stories, trans. William A. Lyell.
 Analects 2:5. P. 237 Filiality versus Sociality and Individuality: On Confucianism as “Consanguinitism.” Qingping Liu. Source: Philosophy East and West Vol. 53, Number 2 (April 2003), pp 234-250. Published by University of Hawai’i Press.
 P. 150. Sons and Mothers in Warring States and Han China, 453 BCE - 220 CE. Miranda Brown
(University of Michigan). Source: NAN NÜ 5.2. Published by: Brill, Leiden. 2003.
 P. 577. The Family and Harmonious Medical Decision Making: Cherishing an Appropriate Confucian Moral Balance. Xiaoyang Chen & Ruiping Fan. Source: Journal of Medicine and Philosophy, 35: 573–586, 2010 doi:10.1093/jmp/jhq046 Advance Access publication on September 20, 2010. Published by: Oxford University Press, on behalf of the Journal of Medicine and Philosophy Inc.
 Cf. Ibid. P. 579.
 P. 569. The Ritual Formation of Confucian Orthodoxy and the Descendants of the Sage. Thomas A. Wilson. Source: The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 55, No. 3 (Aug., 1996), pp. 559-584. Published by: Association for Asian Studies Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2646446
 Analects 1:11. P. 238 Filiality versus…
 Especially Walden