Culture 101 – Skimming Through Filial Piety

I’m starting our journey into learning about Korean culture here, because filial piety echoes both in spirit and in structure across many of the cultural aspects of Korea. If you understand this concept fully, then you’re going to find the rest of this additive journey much easier.


Filial piety is something that a lot of people who grew up in Asian cultures will recognise in some form or another.

It has formed the basis of Korean culture for millennia. As with all traditions, its importance has diminished somewhat in recent times. The core principles have, however, persevered and remain a key cornerstone of life in modern South Korea. While one may be free to argue its importance, denying its significance here is to deny being Korean.

There are many practical duties and responsibilities tied to the relationship between parent and child, especially the sons, as well as to one’s generations of deceased ancestors. In general, it’s an entirely unequal relationship where the parents are to expect strict obedience from their children. Scholars and philosophers would always tell the people that a son who was rebellious was a criminal, not of the law of the land but of the laws of the balance of the universe.

Although it’s not observed in many families any more, one spoke politely to one’s parents (this is almost a sublanguage on its own). You would also be expected to yield to whatever your parents wanted for your future (Asians all relate amirite?). You would also take three years out of your life, dress like a beggar and live as a hermit in a hut beside your parents’ graves when they pass away (WAIT WHAT?). Meanwhile, Korean traditional culture maintains that our ancestors watch over us, and guide us from danger and to success.

If it sounds like I’m dropping a lot of


Why do we observe it?

You might wonder why among Korean kids in the West, there aren’t more rebellious teenagers, who go against the wishes of their parents once they taste the sweet nectar of self-determination. Why do they respect, fear and love parents who expect them to exist and serve in such an oppressive culture?

It’s hard to say. Maybe it’s because what we knew from the first years of our lives, maybe it’s because somehow our parents are better at guilting us into doing things. I’m sure psychologists and anthropologists will have a lot to say about it but I think it would be easiest to point you towards something a little more recent than Confucius as an embodiment of what is at work.


Look back to the period of the 1953~1996. These are two important landmarks in Korean history, one was the signing of the armistice that ended the fighting (but not the war) between the Republic of Korea (South) and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North), and the other was the “IMF Crisis” (this is an amazing story all on its own that I’ll talk about in future).

It was a period of great political unrest, widespread abuse of human rights and rapid economic growth. I can’t even begin to describe how rapid, so some numbers might help. In the span of 35 years, Korea grew 6700% while America grew 790% in comparison.

When old people talk about “back in their day”, you might roll your eyes but when old people don’t want to talk about “back in their day”, I think it’s worth paying attention. Right up until my eldest uncle’s generation (not my father’s), there was an understanding that parents and older siblings would break their backs for the sake of the youngest children in the family. Whether that was working as glorified export slaves in coal mines in Germany where the Korean government took part of your wages, being paid to fight with outdated equipment in Vietnam during their war, losing limbs and lives in factories with horrific health-and-safety violations… I’ve heard that post-war generation being described as the “silent generation”.

The vast majority didn’t talk about their hardships or complain; they simply strove to build a better country for the future generations. I asked my uncle a few years back, what it was like working in a warzone. His answer didn’t answer my question but it did shine a light on something else. “One month out there paid for a semester of your father’s education.”

We were born learning that our parents, our elders, would make great sacrifices to enable things that were impossible. They toiled out there so that we could study and live a life better than theirs, so even from the point of view of an outsider, you can see why they may feel so invested in their children’s lives, and why they demand excellence.


Culturally it goes deeper.

Some of you may know that tattoos are frowned upon in Asia.
Many of those people know that tattoos are associated with organised crime, like to the Yakuza.
That assessment is also correct in Korea but it’s not the full picture.

My grandparents once explained to me that in the past, a person’s body was not their own; a person’s body was a gift from their parents (you’re probably beginning to see parallels of religion within this culture, that one’s body is a gift from and a temple to God). Intentionally harming or marking one’s body is to insult, to hurt one’s parents and so the act of tattooing was considered an act of filial disobedience. This isn’t just “rebelling against the system” but metaphorically spitting on the face of those who gave you life with unconditional love.

This tattoo is a mindset that’s been somewhat lost with modern times (honestly, Korea has changed so much since the early 2000s, it’s insane). However, remind yourself constantly that you’re looking at a culture that sets filial piety in such high regard, in such a manner.


Applications to wider culture.

This topic so big that it’s almost impossible to handle head-on. I’m probably going to be talking about immediate, practical and applicable aspects of it in Korean culture. If you want general information, I think wikipedia has a long article on Confucius and Neo-Confucians on the theory/philosophy of filial piety. I said earlier that if you understand Korean filial piety, you will find the rest of Korean culture easier to grasp and that still stands. There are echoes of this mindset in Korean culture, and the expectation to lead and follow commands are hammered home.

I talked earlier about the reciprocal responsibilities that each person has in the relationship of parent and child.  I also mentioned the “live as a hermit for three years when your parents die” thing, which is actually a thing, which I will also expand on later. Some of these things, you may know in different bits and pieces, but I am going to attempt to guide you through them on this site in the coming weeks and months.