Xiao, or filial piety, is an important component of Confucius' overall vision of societal harmony. Because his main concern was achieving harmony in life at the social and political levels,
he focused on proper social relations, as well as the moral cultivation
of leaders and governors to achieve this vision. Governors were to be
highly cultivated people of jen and li (click below to the Jen & Li page to learn more).
Xiao refers to the important dimension of social relations, and the proper ordering of all relationships in the social hierarchy. Confucius called for the reinstitution of what he called the Five Relations that are central to all society. These relations are:
- ruler and the people
- husband and wife
- father and son
- elder brother and younger brother
- older friend and younger friend
Each of these relations includes a hierarchy in which one submits to the other: people to the ruler, wife to the husband, son to the father and so on. However, also assumed in these relations is the proper moral character of the person to whom the other is submitting - the ruler, husband, father - such that everything they do or ask in relation to the one submitting to them is in the latter's best interest, or in the interest of society as a whole. In other words, rulers demand from the people only what is good for the people and for society as a whole. Parents demand from the children what is good for the children as well as for the family as a whole, which itself is good for society.
So, in a properly designed society according to Confucianism, people find themselves in these fundamental social relations and play their roles accordingly - submitting if they are a wife, younger brother or whatever, and leading if they are a father, ruler or husband. Moreover, people at the top of the hierarchy care for those "beneath" them as a good parent cares for a child.
Filial piety is the expression of this parental care for those lower in the hierarchy, as well as for the respect those on the lower side pay for those "above" them in the hierarchy. Filial piety was an ancient concept tied to the worship of deceased ancestors that Confucius revived and broadened to apply to fundamental relations in society. In essence, he brought a sense of religious reverence or piety to the relationships of everyday life.