I took my elderly parents to Japan for a holiday two weeks ago. Though we did many things I wouldn’t otherwise do on an overseas trip, such as shopping in bargain basements and buying over­priced souvenirs, and the pace was glacial – my parents are in their late 70s – I kept reminding myself it was not my holiday but theirs. Their enjoyment was my primary concern.

The Chinese set great store by filial piety, but the Chinese part of me doesn’t subscribe to it entirely. While many feel the English translation for xiao is too ecclesiastical, I believe “filial piety” is appropriate, as most Chinese regard the virtue like some kind of religion.

Filial piety and the Chinese: from Leung Chai-yan to a 6th century emperor

Chinese texts such as The Twenty-four Filial Exemplars, compiled during the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368), contain ridiculous stories of filial sacrifices that are meant to be emulated.

For me, however, love and respect for one’s parents are not unconditional. There are too many cruel and downright evil parents, past and present, Chinese and otherwise, who physically and psychologically harm their children for anyone to take the absoluteness of filial piety seriously.

That said, my parents have more than earned my respect. The sacrifices they made, and the care and love they have given, were greater than any child could have asked for.