The Most Touching Stories of Filial Piety

Hand painted image of a Chinese woman in ancient clothing serving her mother or mother-in-law a tray of food.

For Chinese people, filial piety — honoring, respecting, and fulfilling one's duties to one's parents — is considered to be the first of the hundred virtues. (Image: Ziqing via Kan Zhong Guo)

With the advanced technology in today’s society, the ways of showing our filial piety or reverence toward our parents has evolved into having video chats with them, having gifts delivered to their house, or taking them out for a meal. Of course, this may be the way modern people express filial piety, but we can still learn from the ancient stories of those who properly revered and cared for their elders by silently conducting themselves with virtue and benevolence within the family.

Yang Wei, who oversaw the royal affairs in the Ming Dynasty, would return home after the morning court session. He would change out of his robes and put on commoner’s clothes to carefully serve his mother. He carried water and used it to wash her face, cleaned out her spittoon, scratched her itches, and rubbed her back. In the spring, he would carry her on his back, and walk among the fragrant flowers and swaying tree branches. They would spend time together outside under the shade of the trees. Yang Wei’s mother lived until the age of 104.

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What is filial piety?

For Chinese people, filial piety — honoring, respecting, and fulfilling one’s duties to one’s parents — is considered to be the first of the hundred virtues. It is the foundation of all virtue and encompasses the principle of “cultivating oneself, establishing a harmonious family, governing the country, and bringing peace to the world.” Confucius said: “Filial piety begins with being respectful to one’s parents, extends to being respectful to the ruler, and culminates in establishing one’s own character.”

According to Confucius, filial piety began with being respectful to one's parents but ultimately allowed one to establish their own character.
According to Confucius, filial piety began with being respectful to one’s parents but ultimately allowed one to establish their own character. (Image: Shannon Fagan via Dreamstime)

In the Jin Dynasty, when Yang Xiang was 14 years old, he went to the fields with his father to harvest rice. Suddenly, a fierce tiger attacked his father and was about to carry him away. Yang Xiang ran up and grabbed the tiger by the throat with both hands, desperately trying to strangle it. The old tiger let go of his father and ran away.

“Tears That Brought Bamboo Shoots From the Frozen Earth” is another touching story of filial piety. During the Three Kingdoms period, Meng Zong’s mother came down with a serious illness one winter. She hoped to have some medicinal broth made from bamboo shoots, but Meng couldn’t find any bamboo shoots in such freezing conditions.

Though Meng searched through the white landscape, he only found frosted leaves and stalks coated with ice. Thinking of his sick mother waiting for the medicinal broth caused such heartache that he began to cry uncontrollably. This must have truly moved the gods because suddenly, the ground cracked open and some bamboo shoots emerged. Meng happily took them home and boiled them up. After his mother drank the soup, she recovered from her illness.

“Crouching on Ice for Carp” tells the story of Wang Xiang in the Jin Dynasty, who was lying on the ice and begging for fish for his stepmother when it was freezing. It was said that when Wang was lying on the ice, something miraculous happened: Suddenly, the ice split open and two carp jumped out of the water. Seeing this, Wang happily took the carp home to give to his stepmother.

When his stepmother had the desire to eat carp, Wang Xiang went out to get some for her even though the river was frozen over.
When his stepmother had the desire to eat carp, Wang Xiang went out to get some for her even though the river was frozen over. (Image: Lukas Blazek via Dreamstime)

The most touching part of this story was that his stepmother often spoke ill of Wang in front of her husband, causing Wang to lose his father’s love. However, whenever his father or stepmother were sick, he still cared for them tirelessly, and when he heard that his stepmother had the desire to eat carp, he immediately went to the ice to find her some.

Jiang Shi, a man living in Sichuan during the Eastern Han Dynasty, married his wife, surnamed Pang. The couple showed great filial piety to their parents. Her mother-in-law liked to drink water from the Yangtze River, so Pang walked ten miles to the riverside to fetch it. Her mother-in-law loved eating fish, so they often cooked fish for her. If sometimes her mother-in-law didn’t want to have a meal alone, they would invite the elderly women in the neighborhood to eat with her.

One day, Pang returned home late from a trip to fetch the Yangtze River water due to the strong wind that was blowing. Her husband thought she had deliberately insulted his mother and drove her out of the house. Pang temporarily lived in the neighbor’s house, spinning and weaving day and night. After selling the woven cloth, she asked the neighbor to send the money to her mother-in-law.

Later, her mother-in-law ordered Jiang to invite Pang back. When Pang returned home, spring water gushed from the yard, which tasted like the Yangtze River. Additionally, two carp leaped out from the spring every day. From that time on, because of Pang’s filial piety, she was able to use the spring water to serve her mother-in-law and didn’t need to go far away to fetch it from the river.

Translated by Joseph Wu

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