Editor’s Letter: Filial Piety

by Diana Rahim

Thinking about the topic of filial piety and all that it connotes, my mind had gone immediately to a poem by Kahlil Gibran called “On Children.” It was one of those unforgettable poems that struck an essential point of contention in parent-children relationships, the rawest nerve. The one that told parents that their children are not theirs to own and control; that their children are not really theirs at all. It was one of those poems that expressed this point tenderly, as good poetry often can: They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself. / They come through you but not from you, / And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.”

Filial Piety is a familiar concept in Asian societies. We grew up acknowledging it as a value valourized in our communities, bearing noble connotations popularly conceived to be rooted in love and respect for one’s parents, and thankfulness for the difficulties and sacrifices that comes with parenthood. On the other hand, it also perpetuates itself through a rhetoric of guilt, prides an almost uncritical deference to one’s parents, and enforces a hierarchical order based on power relations — features that might not take too kindly in family dynamics that are less than ideal.

The problem of filial piety is not so much that the idea of loving and respecting one’s parents is bad – of course this can be a good thing. And listening to your parents is especially a good idea as a young child for basic reasons of survival and safety. When your parent tells you not to touch the hot pan, or to cross the road when the red man is lit, it’s really not wise to be a rebel. But of course life will present you with far more complicated situations. Reality is not so simple, and when it comes to a concept that ipso facto defers to parents an almost reverential stature, where you are taught to respect them simply because of their status of being a parent, it doesn’t take too much thinking to realise that this is not something that can handle the complications that are natural to human relationships.

The concept of filial piety is an idealization of the parental role. The idealization of anything is often already a trigger for trouble. For a start, idealization is a kind of reductionism. One that upholds itself through too simple an exaplanation or understanding of what the experience of parenting, and the expectations required of children should be.

When the parents you have are not the kind of parents that ought to be idealised; if they are abusive or unhealthily controlling; if they have brought you emotional and psychic pain, how do you then cope with the concurrent message drilled by the expectation of filial piety that you have to defer to their authority, and that they are people you ought to respect, and love? If they were any other person, these might not be people you would respect at all. The discussion on how the language of love can be used to enforce certain problematic ideas and ideals in my last letter may be of value here.

The submissions that came in for our call-out are almost heartbreaking in the way the writers try to negotiate this crisis. So much must have been done in their minds to try to reconcile the pain caused by their fathers, along with the expectation to forgive such transgressions, and on top of that, even to continue to respect and love them.

I would argue that the concept of filial piety, though it may appear to come from a place that valourises love between child and parent, is in fact a concept that inhibits a more true and loving relationship. It is entirely normal for parents to be human and blunder. They will most certainly hurt their children, as our own experiences with our parents have shown us. This doesn’t necessarily make them bad, but an inability to work on those wrongs, to continue to hurt their child because they are unable to see the hurt caused by their actions, and their lack of incentive to be introspective about their own behaviours because a concept of deference confers them a kind of power to always be in the right, will only result in a more strained relationship. Being a parent is not an inherently so honourable a job that it can confer you almost uncritical power over another human being.

The control that a parent has over a child is not benign. And perhaps the concept of filial piety is so strong because it goes hand in hand with socialization. It is part of a function of ideology. What kind of ideology this is is perhaps a whole other argument. But for a start, filial piety communicates an “acceptable” and “ideal” kind of relationship between child and parent – it communicates what is considered a “good” family unit. And as we know, the notion of “family values” is not apolitical. The family is often the site where ideology is transferred through socialization since they are the first point of contact for the children as they grow up. The ideal family unit is often emphasised through a country’s legislation, its messages, and the way it distributes its resources. Are we comfortable with this kind of ideology that prioritizes one form of family? Are we willing to look into why a certain kind of parent-child relationship is valourised?

Concurrently, the way the family is ordered can sometimes give us a clue into how the state is then ordered, after all, it is the state that has a hand in enforcing and encouraging the kind of family unit that it prefers. So is it any surprise then that our own state is often accused of being paternalistic, as treating their citizens like children?

In your dreams, what would the ideal parent-child relationship look like? Perhaps for many of you, your relationship with your parents may have been ideal, even through difficulties. This question is perhaps not quite a question you can relate to. But even then, try to think of what kind of relationship would be one that fosters genuine connection and respect, that does not burden either parents or children with expectations that struggle to commensurate with reality, and that can equip people with the ability to do the difficult emotional work of growing with each other as individuals, instead of reaching for an outdated, conservative concept that would immediately confer one party with respect and authority.


illustration by Ishibashi Chiharu