This article was written by Christianity Today and published by Team Jesus Magazine
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.