Filial Piety in “The Joy Luck Club” by Amy Tan

Pages: 8
Words: 2205


Filial piety is a Confucian principle that refers to the act of respecting one’s parents, elders, ancestors, and seniors. The principle is a very important aspect of Chinese society, especially and was embraced after the emergence of Confucianism. Today, it is one of the most important responsibilities of any individual.

The principle was originated by Confucius, a Chinese philosopher who lived between 551 and 479 B.C.E. Confucianism is a philosophy, way of life, political system, and in some societies, a religion. It is widely embraced as a social, political, and moral system that instills certain core values that it teaches. Filial piety has been explored as an important theme in several literary works, including the novel The Joy Luck Club, written by Amy Tan. In the book, various concepts of filial piety are explored through the different relationships


In The Joy Luck Club, the author uses flashbacks to explore the theme of filial piety between mothers and their daughters as well as between wives and their husbands. The mothers make great sacrifices in efforts to fulfill their filial piety duties towards their ancestors, parents, and seniors. Respect for ancestors is an important tenet of Confucianism because Confucius believed that even though dead, ancestors play a key role in the lives of their descendants.

Throughout the novel, examples of characters showing respect to their ancestors are given. Several characters make selfless sacrifices for the sake of either their parents or children, thus strengthening the child-parent bond. In addition, mothers instill into their daughter’s certain values that Confucianism describes as belonging to the junzi (noble person).

As a result, the daughters adhere to their mother’s wishes, and even though they are unhappy with their decisions, they obey as a show of respect. Daughters also do certain things to show how much they care for their mothers. “Parents care for their children, and therefore, children should care for their parents in their old age” (Confucianism 9).

The relationship between parents and children is an important teaching of Confucianism. Confucianism emphasizes the role of relationships in determining the social duties of individuals in society. “In keeping with the Confucian ethic of filial piety, the primary relationship in East Asian society is that between parent and child” (Confucianism 57). Each relationship has specific roles and responsibilities, depending on the status of the individuals involved.

In East Asian society, the most important relationship that is guided by filial piety is that between parent and child (Confucianism 57). Tan explores several relationships between parents and children in order to show how important filial piety is in Chinese culture.

For instance, one of the mothers discards a valuable souvenir in order to appease the evil spirits that she believes are responsible for the disappearance of her child. Appeasing and venerating ancestors is one of the highest forms of filial piety. These examples signify the strong bonds that exist between the mothers and their daughters.

One of the relationships that express filial piety in the book is that between Lindo Jong and her mother-in-law who married her away at a very young age to a man she did not love, Lindo Jong’s mother instilled in her values that would ensure that she became a good wife and an obedient daughter-in-law. Lindo Jong obeyed her mother because she was afraid of being a disgrace to her family. After she moved in with her husband, she was obedient to him and served her mother-in-law faithfully and respectfully.

Her service and respect for her mother-in-law were similar to those of a slave toward their master. Nothing that she did was good enough, and she never said anything back in fear of being disrespectful. Had she expressed her feelings, thoughts, and frustrations to her mother-in-law, she would violate filial piety and disgrace her family and society.

In the book, Lindo Jong admits that she once sacrificed her life to keep a promise that she had made to her parents (Tan 49). This is an expression of filial piety and obedience to the teachings of Confucianism. The Confucian ethic of filial piety requires children to maintain loyalty and obedience to their parents. “Traditionally, children owed their parents absolute loyalty and obedience” (Confucianism, 14).

Suyuan wished to find her daughters whom she had deserted in China after World War II before migrating to America (Tan 246). However, her inability to accomplish her wish meant that it was her daughter’s responsibility to fulfill it. As a sign of respect and honor towards her mother, Jing-mei travels to China to find her step-sisters and understand her mother’s heritage. The three mothers’ send her to China. The last part of the novel ends with the fulfillment of Suyuan’s wish.

Jing-mei shows respect and obedience to her dead mother by traveling to China, where she finds her step-sisters and introduces herself to them (Tan 267). She makes peace with her late mother and honors her filial piety duties by finding her step-sisters and embracing the Chinese culture. During Jing-mei’s childhood, Suyuan had very high expectations of her and wanted her to become a professional pianist. She did everything she could to ensure that Jing-mei gained access to a piano.

In order to avoid disappointing her mother and as such, fulfill her filial piety duties, Jing-mei learns to play the piano (Tan 121). In the book, she tells other characters that she believed that her mother was highly disappointed in her failure to become a professional pianist despite doing everything to make the dream become a reality (Tan 195). Despite her mother’s disappointment, Jing-mei had respected her because she did exactly what she wanted her to do and played the piano only to please her.

Her mother always looked at her as a failure, and so Jing-mei feels remorse for failing to honor her mother’s expectations of her. It is evident that she played the piano to please her mum because even after receiving an old piano from her mother as a gift, Jing-mei did not resurrect her interest and wish to honor her mum. She was convinced that her playing skills had waned, and she could, therefore, not be able to play well again (Tan 134).

Lindo Jong is depicted as a true Confucian woman with regard to observing the value of filial piety. In the Chinese culture, women were married in order to raise obedient children, take care of old people in society, and clean the graves of the deceased women (Tan 45). She narrates the story of how her mother married her away to a rich man against her wishes. However, she had to accept her mother’s decisions because one of the tenets of filial piety is respect for one’s parent.

After their land flooded, Lindo Jong’s family moved to another place, but she decides to stay behind as a sign of respect and to avoid bringing disgrace to her family. She stayed partly due to the advice she received from her mother, who told her to obey her family and avoid bringing disgrace to them (Tan 48). She valued her family more than her own happiness. She was bound by the Confucian teachings of a wife’s duties to her husband and parents, as well as her duties to her in-laws.

These concepts blinded her, and she was unable to realize that she could get out of her unfavorable situation. Even though her husband’s family oppressed her, she withstood the suffering because she knew that it was her role to unite her family and take care of its members. In the section “Feathers from a Thousand Li Away,” she narrates how she left the arranged marriage using the concept of ancestor worship. Ancestor worship is an aspect of filial piety, and Lindo Jong uses it to save herself from an oppressive marriage that was her mother’s choice.

The relationship between Waverly Jong and her mother is an excellent demonstration of the parent-child bond that underlies the concept of filial piety. Waverly has a strained relationship with her mother because she loves to assert her independence and ability to make her own decisions. However, she is always trying to please her mother, especially with her relationships. Waverly ignores her mother’s advice because she thinks that she is old-fashioned and overbearing. She worries that her mother does not like her fiancé (Rich).

Therefore, she confronts her mother and realizes that she was aware of her relationship and her white fiancé. This scenario reveals there was evidence that Waverly’s mother loved and respected her and was unwilling to meddle in her relationship. Her desperation to have her mother like Rich is evident and overshadows her temperament of an independent woman.

Waverly respect for her ancestors is evident from the fact that she considers herself Chinese even though her name is so American. This is important because it makes her feel connected to her Chinese heritage even though she finds it difficult to understand her mother. In addition, her marriage to an American puts her at risk of losing the Chinese identity that she values highly.

In “Feathers from a Thousand Li Away,” An-mei Hsu narrates the story of how her mother abandoned her and went off to marry a rich merchant who had other wives. She was raised by her grandmother and did not experience the love and encouragement of her mother. However, her mother returns later after her grandmother Popo falls ill.

An-mei’s mother expresses her love and respect for her sick mother by performing a ritual that involves cutting a piece of her body tissue and using to prepare a concoction that she believes has therapeutic powers. Despite the selfless act, her mother dies. According to Oldstone-Moore (18), serving a parent is like serving a heave, and serving heave is like serving a parent.

“Service to a parent is the perfection of filial piety” (Confucianism 98). An-mei’s mother cuts her flesh as a selfless act of service to her parent that was the perfection of filial piety. “The greatest moral behavior is filial piety” (Confucianism, 56). Therefore, children are responsible for respecting and honoring their parents while they are alive and after they die.

According to Confucianism, “filial piety is an important aspect of Chinese social life, including social relations and marriage practices” (Confucianism 98). Tan explores the theme of marriage through the lives of several characters that are unhappy because their decisions to get married were made by their mothers. One of the roles of a wife is to respect and take care of her husband. This is evident from Lena’s fear of being inferior to her husband (Tan 146). Chinese culture considers women inferior to men.

In addition, they consider such inferiority as a sign of respect and honor. Her respect for her husband is so much that she fails to realize that her husband has taken advantage of her kindness and respect. Ying-Ying is aware of Lena’s situation and offers her advice on how to handle the situation.

She tells Lena to confront her husband and stand up to her because if she fails to do so, the situation will not change, and she would always feel oppressed (Tan 146). The strong bond between and her mother is evident because Ying-Ying is not happy about her daughter’s situation in her marriage.

Respect for elders is an important concept of filial piety. Popo (An-mei’s grandmother) explores this concept by giving An-mei a story about the tragedy that befell a girl who had refused to obey her elders. One day, as the girl was shaking her head in refusal of her aunt’s request, a white ball popped out through her ear, and her brains splashed out (Tan 43). Popo also tells her that her mother is a ghost, and she is not supposed to talk about her because talking about her would be disrespecting her dead father.

Respect for her dead father is evident from a big painting hanging on her grandmother’s wall (Tan 44). Popo told An-mei that her father was always watching her even though he was dead. An-mei tries as much as she can to behave well in order to avoid disrespecting her father.

An-mei’s aunt talks to her about how disrespectful her mother was to her parents and ancestors because she went away before visiting their father’s grave and taking the dowry given during her marriage to her father. These actions were seen as a form of betrayal and disrespect to their ancestors.


Filial piety refers to the act of respecting one’s, parents, elders, and ancestors. In China, it is expressed through a strong emphasis on the relationships between children and parents as well as relationships between family members. The concept was developed y Confucius, a Chinese philosopher who developed the political system, religion, and moral system referred to as Confucianism.

In the book, The Joy Luck Club, the author explores the theme of filial piety through the relationships between daughters and mothers as well as relationships between husbands and wives. Daughters adhere to their mothers’ wishes even though they attract unhappiness by doing so. On the other hand, wives honor and respect their husbands even though they are unhappy in their marriages. They do this in order to honor their families, husbands, and parents.