Confucianism, the Literati, and Chinese Imperial Traditions

Religious Beliefs

What is the principal Confucian virtue?

Behind all the other virtues, what makes a good Confucian tick is “filial devotion” or xiao. The Chinese term is composed of “son” with “old” placed above it. Confucius taught that all other moral virtue, and indeed civilization itself, flows from filial devotion. As a bare minimum, one should do no harm to one’s parents. Filial devotion culminates in doing one’s family proud. Traditional texts go into great detail about how one ought to treat parents, summarizing ideal behavior in five duties: reverence always, joyful service, solicitude for ailing parents, sincere grief at a parent’s death, and proper ritual veneration thereafter. Lack of filial devotion was a most serious offense. Individuals could be put to death for cursing their elders. Filial devotion was the very bedrock of social order, a fundamental acknowledgment of authority on the family level, without which there could be no exercise of authority in society at large. Chinese tradition regards society as built on the family. Sons and daughters do not “go out” into the world as they reach maturity. Rather than “leaving the nest,” they invest themselves in the family, knowing that their children will do the same. Only in that way can the foundations of society as a whole remain firm.


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