Understanding Filial Piety

Grades 6-8, 9-12 Arts & Literature, Beliefs/Religion, History, Society Lesson or Unit Plan

This lesson will explore the Chinese value of xiao, or filial piety, through a discussion of selections from the Analects and Mencius and an activity based on The Twenty-four Paragons of Filial Devotion.

Title: Understanding Filial Piety(孝, xiao)
Author: Teach China staff
Subject Area: Social Studies/Language Arts
Grade Level: 6-12
Time Required: Two 40-minute class sessions
Standards: Social Studies Standard 2: World History
Students will use a variety of intellectual skills to demonstrate their understanding of major ideas, eras, themes, developments, and turning points in world history and examine the broad sweep of history from a variety of perspectives.
Keywords / Vocabulary: Filial piety – an important principle in the Confucian tradition that expresses righteous conduct on the part of a child towards his or her parent

Paragon – a model of perfection; someone who embodies a principle (such as filial piety)

Exemplar – one that serves as a model or an ideal example

Inculcate – to teach or impress by frequent repetitions or admonitions

Five Human Relations – a succinct expression of Confucian understanding of basic hierarchical human relations:

Ruler – Minister
Father – Son
Husband – Wife
Older Brother – Younger Brother
Friend – Friend

Essential Question(s): What do stories from a particular culture tell us about that culture’s value system?
Learning Objectives/Goals/Aims: 1. Promote an understanding of Confucian principles (specifically filial piety, xiao) that have deeply impacted Chinese society throughout history.
2. Promote an understanding of traditional Chinese familial relationships.
3. Understand how stories and art promote social norms.
Introduction: This lesson uses an important book entitled The Twenty-four Paragons of Filial Piety, which was written by the Yuan Dynasty scholar Guo Jujing, in order to promote a better understanding of the concept of xiao, or filial piety. Guo was not only a well-known poet, he was also a renowned filial son in his own right. After his father passed away, Guo personally experienced the truth of the maxim:The tree would prefer stillness, but the wind continues to blow.The child wishes to practice filial devotion, but his parents are already gone,and he felt deep grief over his loss. His depth of feeling prompted him to comb the histories in search of true stories of the finest examples of filial respect, as practiced by devoted children throughout the centuries. He selected twenty-four such paragons, and penned a verse to eulogize each authentic account of filial practice. Then he told a story of the events that lead to each son or daughter’s exemplary conduct. The book that resulted from his work was called The Twenty-four Paragons of Filial Devotion.The Twenty-four Paragons of Filial Devotion helps students understand the following about Confucianism:

  • Confucian values weren’t simply abstract intellectual notions but informed concrete social behavior.
  • The text helps students understand how the Confucian tradition changed over time; whereas early philosophers were most interested in virtues that informed the self (such as ren or li), later Confucian adherents promoted virtues that benefited the family or state (particularly xiao)
  • The tales reveal a popular form of Confucian religiosity that emphasized a caring Heaven that zealously observed people’s moral behavior.
  • The tales inspired different illustrated versions allowing students the opportunity to examine how Confucians presented their ideas through images.
  • Because the tales were accessible to the illiterate, these tools of propaganda furnish us with a sense of how the great majority of premodern Chinese understood and viewed the Confucian tradition.
Procedure/Pedagogical Technique/Instructional Strategy:  1. As a class, discuss quotes from Confucian classics (Appendix A) to get an understanding of the concept of filial piety and the five human relations promoted in the Confucian tradition. (25 min.)
2. Distribute one of the Twenty-Four Paragons of Filial Piety to each student (Appendix B), as well as a copy of the guide sheet (Appendix C) for them to work independently. (15 min.)
3. Have each student present the story based on the guide sheet they have filled out. (40 min)

Discussion Points/ GroupInteraction: 1. What situations arise that frequently occasion displays of filial piety in these tales?
2. After hearing all the tales presented, what characterizes filial piety?
3. As a principle, does the class think filial piety is important to them individually? Is filial piety important to society as a whole? Why or why not?
Assessment: Students should hand in their guide sheet and have the homework section graded in terms of comprehension of material, grammar, and persuasiveness of argument.
Closure:  Discuss the importance of the Twenty-Four Paragons of Filial Piety to the general Chinese public for many centuries, reinforced by various visual mediums (i.e. operas, puppet shows, sculpture, etc.). These tales were more widely known than the Confucian classics (i.e. The Analects, Book of Songs, Mencius, etc.), which were written in a classical Chinese only scholar-officials would likely be able to read. Explain that these filial paragon tales show the cultural significance of Confucian principles, however, to ordinary people even though they may not have been familiar with the philosophical texts that inform the notion of filial piety. Use images provided on Appendix D to discuss how visual culture contributed to ordinary people’s understanding of these stories or tales; identify the different visual mediums used and brainstorm how and why these images might be popular.
Instructional Resources/ Materials: APPENDIX A

1. Asia for Educators (http://afe.easia.columbia.edu/) has many convenient PDFs with primary sources (http://afe.easia.columbia.edu/main_pop/ps/ps_china.htm), including one on filial piety.
2. You can download full translations of the stories The Twenty-Four Paragons of Filial Piety at the following websites:

Resource Type: Lesson Plan
Caterogy: Grades 6-8, 9-12 Arts & Literature, Beliefs/Religion, History, Society Lesson or Unit Plan


Teach China Team

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