An Asian American mother and daughter smiling and hugging each other

Filial Piety & Its Impact on Asian American Mental Health

In Chinese (and many Asian) cultures, the term filial piety is typically associated with the roles of family dynamics and family traditions. Pronounced as “xiào” (孝) in Chinese, it’s often described in Confucian thought as a virtue of unending love and respect for one’s parents and ancestors; often engaging in good conduct towards such family members but depending on the family itself, also including grandparents and older siblings.

Chinese philosopher, Confucius, is often seen as having a pivotal role in establishing filial piety as a norm within family dynamics, arguing for its use in fostering a peaceful family. Its origins stemmed from the meaning as “providing offerings to ancestors”, with ancestors defined as elders who are still alive as well as those who have passed on. However, its meaning has changed over time with respect to one’s roles and responsibilities within the family and how ancestors are defined and respected.

Often times, filial piety can look like:

  • Respecting the familial hierarchy
  • Ensuring male children in the next generation
  • Hiding one’s mistakes or misgivings
  • Showing love to parents and elders
  • Maintaining courtesy

While the concept has been used frequently within AAPI families, the philosophy has also been critiqued by other figures in Chinese culture. Lu Xun (1881 – 1936) was an influential scholar who has been vocal against the presence of such a hierarchy as defined in filial piety. Xun argued that it provides a strong privilege and power towards elders which prevents the younger generation from fostering their own thoughts, ideas, and autonomy. This in turn would prohibit individual growth seen in contemporary times as crucial in development.

In this writing, we will explore the different types of filial piety, take a look at the representation of its meaning from the Chinese character, and address its impact on mental health and individuality within the AAPI community. 

Types of Filial Piety

With filial piety being deeply rooted in Asian traditions and family dynamics, it is clear that the philosophy is not going to disappear from the culture. Even in other societies in Western culture, the concept of respect within the family can be seen, though how it looks might differ from family to family. There are 2 different forms of filial piety that can be identified: reciprocal and authoritative.

Reciprocal Filial Piety

Reciprocal filial piety is seen as voluntarily showing support, love, and care for one’s parents which stems from genuine appreciation. This type of piety is often viewed through the good nature of both family and interpersonal relationships, which fosters a stronger parent-child dynamic. While there is still the general stance of filial piety in terms of the parent directing the child and asking for honor and respect, this is generally done with much more warmth and compassion. Such that reciprocal filial piety focuses on being able to recognize and honor the fact that the child has individuality and in turn allow the child to encompass stronger emotional and spiritual care for their parents as they grow.

Authoritative Filial Piety

In contrast to reciprocal filial piety, authoritative filial piety focuses on pushing away the individuality of a child. Such that one’s actions of honor and respect are done so out of obedience to the norms and roles, focusing on submission and compliance. In this case, a child would care for their parent because they are supposed to through obligation rather than freely wanting to. There is also a stronger focus on family hierarchy. Such that seniority is pivotal in authoritative filial piety and needing to meet the expectations of said senior members of the family such as parents, and patriarchs or matriarchs. 

While the respective aspects of filial piety exist within Asian culture, the two are not exclusive to either one or the other within an individual. Rather, they can coexist and promote the same outcome and work within the family at varying levels. Such that both types seek to promote reduction of conflict and intergenerational support. However, it still depends from situation to situation as many traditional families have been instilled with the philosophy that the honor, face, and respect within the community is also seen as important. Such that many within the community might consider respect towards one’s family elders as having “good xiào”.

Looking at The Character

The character for filial piety, 孝, is also a representation of its meaning. The character itself is a combination of both the characters “lǎo” (老) and “ér zi” (儿子), which mean “old” and “son” respectively. The top half of 孝 illustrates the character for “lǎo” while the bottom half illustrates “ér zi”. This is indicative of the meaning behind filial piety in how the older generation is supported by the son or younger generation. It can also be said then that the character represents both support and burden from different perspectives. 

Family Dynamics & Mental Health

Within family dynamics, filial piety can be seen within many Asian families as a normalized value. It stems from the concept that parents give life to their children, providing provisions to them such as home and food through life and into adulthood. As such, the children are then indebted to their parents and acknowledge it by continuing to honor, respect, and serve their parents through their adulthood.

Younger Asian Americans who grew up with both Western and Asian cultures may struggle with such expectations from their family members. These expectations are often generally focused on strong financial success, needing to be in a particular career field, having a male heir, or being expected to provide help when asked to immediately. Family members such as parents may also see their children’s opinions on filial piety, based on a Westernized upbringing of self-expression and individuality, as selfish and place blame on the culture and environment they were brought up in as a response to the perceived disrespect of traditions.

With relation to mental health of the AAPI community, our previous post indicated the statistics in the increase of mental health needs for the population. As it stands, AAPIs continue to have a low rate of seeking professional help for their mental health when compared with other racial and ethnic groups. 

Aside from the various stigmas that surround the AAPI community about mental health, filial piety’s roots in maintaining a hierarchical profile within family dynamics can have an impact on one’s mental health as well if expectations are taken too far.

While some have suggested that there are benefits towards personal growth and relationships, there have also been strong arguments about its negative impact on self-expression and independence. Such that the expression of one’s emotions within AAPI cultures are often times considered as weak or unfounded. So if one were to not be able to express sadness or be told that their feelings of sadness were wrong or invalid by someone such as a family member, it can significantly impact their emotional well-being. Questions such as whether or not one has any say in life or whether the choice to honor parents are of one’s own volition also continue to create uncertainty and confusion in many AAPIs as they struggle to honor their families while striving to achieve their own successes.

Because many AAPI communities embrace the hiding or strong control over expressing emotions, it can also be difficult for one to fully acknowledge their true selves without being perceived by the family as one who bickers too much or can’t solve their own issues. This can also defer back to the cultural expectation of remaining silent through personal struggles.

The expectation to continually pay reverence towards one’s family of origin can also create challenges in adulthood when interacting with one’s own family being established due to the perceived need to have the family of origin be dependent on them. Many might feel misunderstood or conflicted with themselves as they struggle to maintain their face and uphold the filial ideals. Even with mental health struggles, the decision for treatment would likely be one that is made by other family members as a group rather than the individuals struggling themselves because of the hierarchical system placed in filial piety. Because mental health continues to be seen in the AAPI community as a weakness or failure, access to adequate services in a timely manner may not occur while the decision process continues to be made, leading to increased trauma for those involved in the experience.

Closing Thoughts

At its core, filial piety, 孝, focuses on a tradition of honoring and thanking familial elders for the efforts they’ve brought forth and the sacrifices made. Healthy practices of filial piety can deepen the strength of the relationship within family dynamics particularly ones that children have towards their parents. More often than not, however, it can be seen as taking the form of an authoritative hierarchical structure that reinforces an order of respect and stronger lack of individuality and self-expression.

While it is important to differentiate between reciprocal and authoritative filial piety, it is also important to recognize the changes and adjustments that this philosophy would need to adapt in current times. It is important to honor the tradition and philosophy, while also being able to take into consideration the changes in time and acknowledgment of its impact towards interpersonal relationships within family.

In bringing to light the issues and circumstances that affect mental health within the AAPI community, continuing to raise awareness about such barriers can open doors further for the population to gain insight into oneself, interpersonal relationships, and family dynamics. Aside from expectations being placed by culture and tradition to have respect and strong reverence, there are also many perspectives within the culture and population that would ask for reconsideration in seeking outside help.

Individual traumas and histories continue to affect members of the AAPI community externally in conjunction with the family dynamics at play with filial piety. To have a safe space to untangle the knots created by such dynamics is equally important as respect for our family members; especially as the negative impacts possibly created by expectations demanded by others create a detriment.

Additional Readings

Permission to Come Home: Reclaiming Mental Health as Asian Americans by Jenny T. Wang, PhD

Demystifying Psychotherapy: A Chinese-American Therapist’s Perspective

Views on Mental Health & Traditional Beliefs in Chinese Culture