Coming from a Muslim background, I had been under the impression that Islamic tradition’s emphasis on respecting one’s parents is strikingly exacting: for example certain Quranic verses (such as 17:23) enjoin the reader to not even utter a spoken expression of exasperation (“uff” in Arabic) while conversing with one’s parents. To my surprise, Confucian tradition’s instructions, as laid out in the Analects, for dealing with parents turned out to be overwhelmingly more emphatic than any tradition I have previously read about. A man of excellence is described as someone “who exerts himself to the utmost in the service of his parents and offers his person to be service of his lord” (I:7). This significance attached to service of one’s parents makes it look like almost an article of faith, not just good behavior. Confucius directs his disciples: “What is difficult to manage is the expression on one’s face. As for the young taking on the burden when there is no work to be done or letting the old enjoy the wine and the food when these are available, that hardly deserves to be called filial” (II:8). “Managing the expressions on one’s face” can be implied to mean interacting with one’s parents with a polite countenance instead of annoyed or angry facial expressions (a directive certainly a degree higher than merely controlling verbal expressions of frustration). Clearly, for Confucius materially providing for parents is worthless without being being kind and reverential towards them even in conscious and unconscious body language. To me, this was not only a profound suggestion but also one displaying incisive insight into human nature, and awareness of the incredible patience required when living with aging parents. Against these observations, it was interesting to note that one could trace an ethical as well as, remarkably, a political dimension in Confucius’ stress on filial reverence. Ethical: i) Confucius believes filial reverence to be a mark that distinguishes humans from animals: “Nowadays for a man to be filial means no more than that he is able to provide his parents with food. Even hounds and horses are, in some way, provided with food. If a man shows no reverence, where is the difference?” (II:7). ii) It is also apparent that Confucius teaches love and respect for parents out of moral concerns of gratitude and reciprocity. For instance, in (XVII:21), when Yu articulates his displeasure with the custom of three years mourning period in the wake of parents’ death as too long, Confucius expresses his disapproval by rhetorically asking whether or not Yu was given three years’ love by his parents. iii) One can also deduce that Confucius suggests parents, on account of their old age, deserve comfort and a sense of security: “Give your father and mother no other cause for anxiety than illness.” (II:5). The following teaching appears to me remarkably specific in the context of staying connected to parents and keeping them informed: “While your parents are alive, you should not go too far afield in your travels. If you do, your whereabouts should always be known” (IV:19).
Political: Even more interestingly, Confucius seems to add a larger societal or political dimension to being an obedient son: “Simply by being a good son and friendly to his brothers a man can exert an influence upon government. In so doing a man is, in fact, taking part in government.” (II:21). This appears to imply that since the purpose of the government is to keep order in the society, one could work towards that larger end by starting with being an obedient or ‘good’ son at home. In the same vein, “he is good as a son and obedient as a young man [will not have the inclination]… to start a rebellion.” (I:1). Children who develop the temperament to respect and not transgress authority at home, certainly of the parents, will grow up to be citizens with no penchant for inciting rebellions in the society or causing anarchy of any kind.
To conclude, one can identify an ethical aspect in the Analects’ emphatic teaching of filial piety wherein it can be seen as an end in itself: individuals are to cultivate excellence and benevolence within their own character to be true gentlemen. However, one can also view a political dimension in these teachings whereby filial reverence is seen as a means towards another end: a well-ordered society wherein children’s deference for parents will be reflected in citizens’ respect for order and authority. Thus, it can be interpreted as an attempt to reform the character of the society by reforming the character and conduct of the individuals at the familial level.
Postscript: It has been pointed out to me that the Quranic verse I refer to in the article does not merely speak of the ‘speech aspect of good treatment of parents’ but has wider connotations. To this I fully concede. To clarify, I focused on the second part of the verse فَلَا تَقُلْ لَهُمَا أُفٍّ which particularly deals with spoken expression; whereas the first part of the verse says بِالْوَالِدَيْنِ إِحْسَانًا ‘ihsaan’ being ‘beautiful treatment’ which encompasses a wide range of behavioral goodness in addition to speech. After my initial encounter with the Analects, I suppose I was just struck by the incredible ‘frequency’ with which filial piety is mentioned in the Confucian tradition; but the ‘scope’ of this piety might not be much different from what is commanded in the Islamic tradition. Last year, when I mentioned to one of my teachers that I feel like the emphasis on filial piety in Confucian tradition appears overwhelmingly more forceful than Islam’s, he said: “That is not accurate! Confucianism hoists up the idea of heaven to be a source of virtue and moral order overruling human efforts, and Islam simply places it under the mother’s feet!”