Recently, a primary school in Hong Kong asked its students to kneel and serve tea to their mothers and fathers as a gesture of filial piety, a Confucian-inspired attitude of respect and service toward parents. While tea ceremonies are often performed by Chinese brides for their future in-laws, the school’s instructions suggested this might also be a worthy practice for children to direct toward their own parents.
The school’s decision drew significant attention and pushback from Hong Kongers, many of whom perceived the exercise as a way to compel their children to unconditionally follow authority. Since Hong Kong was returned to China in 1997, numerous parents have consciously tried to avoid raising their children to blindly follow authority—something they believe the Chinese government would desire. Others argued that forcing students into a subservient position was a sign that the administration was trying to encourage unconditional obedience from its students.
The school’s principal defended her public institution’s instruction apologetically, claiming that the practice was in line with the fifth commandment to “Honor your father and mother.”
Many Christian schools and churches in Hong Kong, where I was born and raised, have long used Scripture to justify Confucian teaching—even when these teachings have led to heretical conclusions. Few examine the difference between Christian instruction to honor parents and traditional Chinese filial piety.
But does the Chinese understanding of filial piety really mean exactly the same as the biblical description of honoring parents? And can an emphasis on obeying the fifth commandment overlook or even rationalize parent-child relationships characterized by contention, pain, disrespect, and suffering?
What’s more, Hong Kong leaders increasingly invoke filial piety as an argument for offering them our unquestioning support. Figuring out where Chinese culture ends and the Bible’s directions begin when it comes to supporting those in authority not only will affect our parent-child relationships—it will also help us know how to live as godly citizens in an imperfect world.
In a traditional Chinese family, filial piety dictates that parents have complete authority over their children. Mothers and fathers raise their sons and daughters to respect them and devote themselves to them unquestioningly. This arrangement continues even after parents die, as children are still expected to honor their elders.
This teaching has guided and maintained the structure of Chinese families, workplaces, nations, and culture for hundreds of years. In Christianity, the Bible says that “love covers over a multitude of sins” (1 Pet. 4:8). For those living within a Confucian worldview, filial piety could almost cover all the bad deeds a person does.
In my experience, a killer could almost win the public’s sympathy if he was “filial” enough toward his parents. People might say that deep down, he isn’t a bad person but instead was lost and made some wrong life choices.
As recently as 2019, one journal article argued that “filial piety supports warmth, love, harmony, and close family ties, and thus has a beneficial effect on personal growth and interpersonal relationships.” This may be true for some, but I have observed filial piety bury many people’s dreams and cause much harm to children whose parents may cross boundaries in their marriages or parenting choices.
“Many adults, even middle-aged people, are reflexively obedient to their parents’ unreasonable demands. They are powerless to resist such demands,” wrote Hong Kong journalist Vivian Tam on Facebook after the tea ceremony incident. “They would never say no to the older generation, even if it affects the relationship between husband and wife. They would never say that kneeling to pour tea to parents is a step backward. Even if we don’t kneel to our parents physically, we are psychologically kneeling many times.”
To oblige the wishes of their parents, some children end up making extreme sacrifices. I have seen children end their own marriages because their parents disliked the spouses and they found it easier to placate their parents than to stop them from abusing their households.
Sadly, even though we Chinese thirst for family harmony, we often know only how to use parental authority to compel our children to obey us.
As Tam noted, parents rarely examine their own authority and have no concept of emotional boundaries between family members. Consequently, children cannot grow up independently, and the family as a whole cannot fulfill the role God gave it at creation.
Paul’s words for parents
While Confucius sees the parents as the head of the family, the Bible teaches us that this position of responsibility is the Lord’s. When Paul discusses the order of the family in Ephesians 6, he says to the children, “Obey your parents in the Lord” (v. 1), and to the parents, “Bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord” (v. 4). Scripture instructs both the children and the parents to obey the Lord. But nowhere does the Bible teach that parents’ requirements are equal to the Lord’s commands. Parents, after all, are humans who make mistakes.
Unlike filial piety’s child-subordinate-to-parent relationship, Paul envisions a mutual relationship here. Younger children may need to listen to their parents at home, but parents should know that their authority over their children is God-given. Their power does not reign supreme; they are ultimately accountable to God.
In Colossians 3:20–21, Paul writes, “Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord. Fathers, do not embitter your children, or they will become discouraged.” The first part of Paul’s commands may almost sound like traditional Chinese parental advice. But his subsequent words check the idea of parents being the absolute authority on what might be best for their children.
Parental authority may be for a child’s protection and best interest, but parents should be careful not to justify every act of authority without considering the boundaries and feelings of their children. If believers today emphasize only their children’s obedience without reflecting on parental authority and responsibility, they are actually reading Confucian concepts into the Bible.
So how again did a traditional activity spark such a public outcry?
Beginning with Confucius, filial piety has always extended beyond the family out to people’s relationship to the ruling officials. For hundreds of years, Chinese people have accorded respect to local magistrates in a manner reminiscent of children obeying their parents, even calling them “parent officials.” Until several years ago, Hong Kongers referred to the Beijing government as “grandpa.”
However, social and political incidents in Hong Kong in recent years have changed the public’s feelings toward the mainland regime. Authoritarian rule continues to grow in Hong Kong. Voices critical of the government have grown weaker in recent years. The middle school gen ed curriculum for independent (critical) thinking has been cut in half.
Is the primary school’s insistence on filial piety and obedience actually one small step toward encouraging the next generation to unquestioningly submit to those in power?
Some scholars of Chinese literature have pointed out that Confucius did not advocate unconditional obedience. Instead, he taught that when children saw their parents making mistakes, they should try their best to persuade them—and that courtiers should treat kings in the same way.
However, the social view of Confucianism has long been used by successive Chinese regimes as an instrument for the rulers. Our culture has long framed our unconditional obedience to authorities as a virtue, one that has deeply penetrated the marrow of the Chinese people. But as Chinese believers who recognize that our values come from God, not from the nation or cultural tradition, we ought to examine our tradition and its influence in the light of God’s Word.
Neither practicing blind obedience nor demanding the same from others in our lives is godly. Instead, as the Bible reveals to us, it is only by submitting to one another in the Lord, thinking and acting from one another’s perspectives, and being wise to the roles and boundaries in our relationships that we can build and deepen those relationships and—whether related by blood or not—become a real family to each other.
Karen Wong lives in Hong Kong and loves to write. She is a believer who struggles with parenthood, thinks theologically, and constantly hopes in the gospel.