Globalization and Filial Piety

  • Julian CH LeeEmail author
Living reference work entry


Filial Piety Filial Obligation Filial Responsibility Heavy Financial Burden Filial Duty 
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Filial piety, or the respect for and care of parents, is regarded as a key social value in many societies. This is so especially in Asia where it is widely regarded as a central “Asian value.” The shared nature of this value in Asia is said to apply irrespective of ethnic and religious differences. Within Asia, filial piety is especially associated with East Asia, where the written character for filial piety is shared in Chinese, Korean, and Japanese writing. In Mandarin it is pronounced xiao and is constituted by a top character which is that for lao (old) and a lower character zi (young). “When combined to constitute xiao,” writes Charlotte Ikels, this “ideograph communicates multiple messages of which the officially preferred one is that the old are supported by the young(er generation)” (Ikels 2004, p. 3; parentheses original). Ultimately, Ikels notes, “in the classics and in popular thought, support, subordination (or obedience), and continuing the family line have all been touted as the essence of filial piety” (Ikels 2004, p. 3; parentheses original).

Historically, cycles of intergenerational reciprocity in care have enabled societies to be sustainable and for members of societies to be emplaced within social structures that assure some level of care. This assurance has often worked through social pressures such as the shame that would accrue if care responsibilities were not adequately undertaken. The negative impact that parental neglect would have to individuals’ social standing would mean the welfare of their parents was in their interest.

However, diverse processes associated with globalization are increasingly challenging some long-existing social values and practices that have ensured the welfare of older persons. Such changes have been described as “alarming policy makers” (Ikels 2004, p. 8). This entry will briefly discuss some of these processes and their impacts, some of the diversity of cultural attitudes toward filial piety, and government-led strategies for addressing filial neglect, and finally it will consider some prospective ways in which globalization might impact feelings about and the execution of filial obligations in the future.

The Impact of Global Processes on Filial Piety

One process associated with globalization that can be readily seen to disrupt people’s abilities to carry out their filial duties is the globalization of work and employment. People are increasingly able – and are often required to – acquire work in geographically distant places. The employment market place and competition for jobs has become globalized. On the campaign trail in 2008 to become president, Barack Obama illustrated this situation to supporters in Michigan when he said that “Michigan’s children will grow up facing competition not just from kids from California or South Carolina, but also from young people in Beijing and Bangalore” (Obama 2008).

An associated process of globalization is the increasing ease of migration for many (but by no means all) people. Leaving the place of one’s origin and family is frequently a relatively low-cost undertaking. The decreasing costs of transportation, including air travel, make migration accessible, whether for study or work. Such travel is often to major cities, which are themselves key nodes through which the global economy flows. Whether this travel is international or intranational, migration frequently disrupts family units and the cycles of intra-family and intergenerational reciprocity that have made many societies sustainable (e.g., Farrell 2016, p. 110). Cities, although dense with people, are also known to be places where social disconnection, anonymity, and anomie very readily occur (Klinenberg 2001).

In addition to the above, however, are less tangible impacts associated with globalization that are increasingly cultivating individualistic attitudes and identities, moving many away from more collectivistic attitudes and identities (e.g., Luxton 2010; Elliot and Lemert 2009). These values are often associated with the effects of the hegemonic sociopolitical and economic perspective that is frequently glossed as “neoliberalism.” Neoliberalism seeks to reward individual efforts and success and promotes consumption by emphasizing self-gratification through the acquisition of goods and services, the satisfactions of which are advertising through diverse forms of marketing. Increasing orientations toward individualism and self-gratification steer people’s decisions relating to the allocation their resources – both financial and other – away from their filial obligations.

Culture and Filial Piety

Although the trends toward individualism are part of globalization (Elliot and Lemert 2009), it is certainly the case that there remain differences between countries in terms of the predominance of collectivistic or individualistic values and identities (Triandis 1988). Individuals in societies that are more collectivistic tend more to see themselves as part of a web of wider social relations, whereas those in more individualistic societies tend to derive their identities with reference to their own opinions, actions, and achievements. However, although differences between countries might most immediately spring to mind when thinking about cultural differences such as those along the axis of collectivism and individualism, it is worth emphasizing that different ethnic and religious communities within countries exhibit different attitudes about filial responsibility. Indeed, Ikels notes that “the practice of filial piety, both its delivery and its receipt, is situationally dependent and shaped by local circumstances of history, economics, social organization, and demography and personal circumstances of wealth, gender, and family configuration” (2004, p. 2).

Within Indonesia, for example, cultural differences have considerable impacts on how responsibilities toward elders are conceived. Elisabeth Schröder-Butterfill and Tengku Syawila Fithry (2014) have described how Javanese Indonesians and those from Minangkabau communities – the latter of which are often described as matrilineal – view parental care responsibilities. Among their findings were that for both, adult children, but not their spouses, were important in aged-care provision and that daughters were preferred over sons in providing this care. However, the strength of this preference and the acceptance of people from other categories of relationship varied according to the ethnic community (Schröder-Butterfill and Fithry 2014, p. 370).

Ethno-religious differences relating to filial responsibility and respect were also found in Australia by Carr et al. (2015). Carr, Biggs, and Kimberly examined the religious traditions and practices of Australian Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and Confucianists and described differences in practices and attitudes between them. For example, they report that while there is within the Jewish community “a long and proud tradition of aged care [which] has resulted in aged support services catering for diverse needs,” followers of Islam tended to regard caring for elders to be a responsibility to be undertaken by family (Carr et al. 2015, p. 27–28). Overall, they found that the positive valuation of the contributions of older persons was strongest among those who held Jewish, Islamic, Hindu, and Buddhist beliefs.

Filial Piety Laws

Although there are communities in which filial piety remains strong, it is the case that even in those where filial piety might be imagined to be strongest, such Chinese communities with strong Confucian traditions, diverse processes of globalization are eroding the ability or will of people everywhere to discharge filial obligations. The impacts of this can be considerable, both at personal and emotional levels, but also for governments. With respect to the latter, developments in social values raise questions relating to the State’s obligations to look after elderly citizens who are not cared for or inadequately cared for by offspring. This is especially important in contexts where State welfare is limited or nonexistent, and also in the now ubiquitous situation where governments are seeking to cut spending in view of debts or a neoliberal philosophy that promotes “small government.” Furthermore, with many nations facing the prospect of the increasing demographic proportions of the elderly, “any faltering in the performance of filial piety is regarded [by governments] as a disaster” (Ikels 2004, p. 9).

In view of the neglect of many parents, some States are considering implementing “filial piety laws.” Muslim-majority Malaysia is one such country that has mooted this. Countries that have implemented such “filial piety laws” include France, China, and some States in the USA. With respect to the latter, Allison E. Ross has outlined some of the positive aspects – actual and potential – of “filial responsibility laws” (Ross 2008). Ross examined both the civil and criminal filial responsibility laws in operation within the United States and analyzed the benefits of having such laws effectively enforced. Ross noted the rising cost of US federal government funding for federal programs such as Medicaid and social security payments. With elderly Americans increasingly reliant on social security benefits, the funding of social welfare will be severely strained (Ross 2008, p. 184).

In this context, filial responsibility laws, according to Ross, have the potential to assist older Americans meeting basic needs and health care. Ross argues that effective enforcement of filial responsibility laws, especially within the States of the US that still have such laws, can have two further benefits. First, they can reduce government expenditure and/or provide the elderly with care that supplements what the government can provide (Ross 2008, p. 185). Second, by shifting some of the financial burden of care for the aged onto their offspring, government expenditure could focus on those older persons who are without family or who have family that is unable to support them (ibid.)

A less favorable discussion of State-sanctioned compulsion on citizens to care for the parents is provided by Rita Jing-Ann Chou (2010) with respect to “Family Support Agreements” or FSAs in China. FSAs preceded China’s 2013 implementation of a law titled the “Protection of the Rights and Interests of Elderly People,” which requires citizens to tend to the “spiritual needs” of their parents and to visit them “often.” Parents have successfully taken children to court in China under this law.

The notion of an FSA, however, was conceived in 1985 in Dafeng County and in the two decades that followed, FSAs were in use throughout rural China. Approximately 13 million such agreements were signed by 2005 (Chou 2010, p. 2). The FSA, according to Rita Jing-Ann Chou, represented an innovation to “meet the challenge” of elder support. However, several warnings have been sounded with respect to “filial piety laws” and the FSAs, which should be borne in mind by those who might consider deploying such policies or laws. Although the basis of the FSA rests on the shared moral value of filial piety, it’s overtly explicit and narrow focus, relating to the provision of material support and/or emotional support, combined with the threat of legal sanctions, may be thought of as corroding the sincerity, “spontaneity” and “flexibility” that would otherwise be seen as part of filial piety. It also puts into question the place of filial piety as a “virtue” (Chou 2010, p. 9). Chou argues that this, along with the potential erosion of affection and mutual trust in intergenerational relations, should all be carefully considered before creating a social policy compels filial piety. Furthermore, complying with such laws may place a heavy financial burden on low income families who might suddenly find themselves needing to support three generations – their aged parents, themselves, and their children (Chou 2010, p. 9).

The Future of Filial Piety

Although filial piety laws might be seen as indicating filial piety which remains an important social value that the society in question continues to uphold, we might alternatively view such laws as indicative that the opposite is increasingly the case. Such laws can be seen as demonstrating the extent to which those obligations are not being met (cf. Ikels 2004, p. 4). Furthermore, they might be seen as part and parcel of the effects of a globally hegemonic neoliberalism that is fostering individualism and a shrinking State.

Present and future job scarcity also threatens filial piety. Whereas in the present a globally mobile workforce can seek jobs that would previously been more likely to be filled by local candidates, job availability might in the future also be threatened by evermore-sophisticated technology, including robotics. Robotics has already impacted on employment in a number of fields, and authors (e.g., Dunlop 2016) have suggested that paid work may be so undermined that a “universal basic income” may be instituted in response to the political impacts of this unemployment. While this, and some of the following, is of course conjecture, a scenario of mass unemployment leading to a universal basic income might in fact have positive impacts on the ability of people to undertake their filial obligations by negating the need to migrate for work. Alternatively, of course, an unresponsive or under-resourced government may simply allow the recession of jobs to result in the financial immiseration of its citizens, irrespective of age.

The prospect of technological advancement might also mean that robots may be able to undertake the labor of looking after frail elders (Ross 2016). Advances in robotics, including the ability to mimic the expression of human emotion and to read emotion, may mean that some of the emotional and physical challenges of looking after highly dependent older persons may be much alleviated. This would pose a reduced burden on individuals who may wish to pursue other interests (and whose parents may also wish them to pursue those interests). The adequacy of aged-care facilities and worries about the professionalism of staff are common concerns for those who must decide how their parents will be accommodated. Although impersonal and unfeeling, robots that are free from exhaustion, cruelty, and other human vices might be welcomed by all parties. How “society” feels about the prospect of human-to-human interaction being replaced by human-to-robot interaction will of course have to be a matter for public discussion and debate, but the likely immediate conclusion that this is an undesirable outcome will not necessarily be subscribed to by all, and attitudes may well change over time as people become more comfortable with and used to living with robots and technology.

The opportunities and challenges presented by technology in general, however, are not entirely in the future. Already, technology is playing an immense role in the lives of many families, enabling them to connect face to face through computers, tablets, and mobile phones through applications such as Skype. A study conducted by the present author for the Toyota Foundation (Toyota Foundation grant D14-R-0201, commenced in 2015 and concluded in 2017) explored how three families spread across Indonesia, Malaysia, and Australia continued to uphold their filial obligations. Among them all, technology was central to the ongoing maintenance of personal family ties as well as the transfer of financial remittances. Although technology is certainly enabling the exercise of filial responsibilities, it is also the case that many older citizens find even the most basic of current technologies too challenging to engage with, leaving them stranded across a “digital divide” (Annear 2014). This divide is one that social policy and State funding might be able to address.

The aforementioned study also revealed the importance of understanding and not assuming the subjective experience of having one’s family internationally dispersed. One Chinese Malaysian father reported how his friends regarded him as “successful” because his children worked abroad. He, however, spoke through tears, saying that he doubted this because he enviously saw how his friends’ children remained by their sides. Evident here is that social valuations of offsprings’ migration for work can differ and could evolve, so society becomes either more or less accepting of it.

The study also made clear that, although technology was important in maintaining familial bonds, occasions that brought family members physically together were vital in strengthening bonds. Such occasions included rituals such as celebrating New Year or weddings. Although infrequent, the profundity of these events meant that deep connections and commitments were affirmed by them. For this to occur for families around the world, accessible travel is vital. Increasingly cheap airfares in many parts of the world have enabled less well-off people to visit kin in distant places. Although there might seem to be no threat to such airfares continuing into the future, air travel is a major consumer of fossil fuels, and thus low fares are dependent on the price of those fuels as well as potential global action that might seek to curtail carbon emissions, such as through taxation on fossil fuels.


Returning the care given to them by their parents is important for many people around the world. The obligations of filial piety lead millions of people around the world to make sometimes difficult and heartbreaking life-choices regarding how they live their own lives: whether they follow dreams and opportunities, whether they entrust the day-to-day care of their parents to paid strangers, and whether they – through choice or the exigencies of circumstance – decide they cannot or will not fulfill their filial obligations. Similarly, for governments, care for the elderly is and will increasingly become a major social and economic concern which will necessitate potentially unpopular decisions.

For individuals and governments alike, decisions and actions will take place in the face of diverse processes associated with globalization that have altered, are altering, and will alter in the future, the matrix of factors within which decisions will be made. Global trends in attitudes, developments in technology, demographic shifts, and the globalization of the economy and employment are some of the factors that will influence how we will and can think about and how we might fulfill our responsibilities to our nearest and dearest.



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© Springer International Publishing AG 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Global, Urban and Social StudiesRMIT UniversityMelbourneAustralia