Hidden Biases: the Role of Filial Piety

CASE 7:  Homicide and the Law in 18th Century China

Like legal codes everywhere Chinese law embodied the values of those who wrote the laws. Hardly any legal system is perfectly egalitarian, and inequalities often find their way into a legal system through whatever passes for “common sense” in a particular community. For example, in Texas in 1933, Pearl Reed found her husband having sex with another woman and shot them both in a fit of rage. Texas had laws permitting men to get off lightly for such crimes on the grounds that any normal man would behave that way, but no such laws existed for women. Pearl was out of luck. Likewise white men have been acquitted for murdering Chinese, Japanese, and African Americans without cause, but the reverse has hardly ever been the case (see Cynthia Lee, MURDER AND THE REASONABLE MAN: Passion and Fear in the Criminal Courtroom, New York: New York University Press, 2003). In the Qing dynasty legal code, one might argue that the hidden weakness was a product of the state’s emphasis on filial piety.

Since early times in China, filial piety—respect toward parents—was a core moral value. Its role in Chinese society, in fact, was not unlike that of piety toward God in the European tradition. Your parents gave you life and cared for you when you were weak and helpless. Once you grew strong enough, you were expected to obey them and to repay their kindness. And just as the demands of Christian piety sometimes went to extremes (think Inquisition, religious wars, torture, etc.), so could the ideal of filial piety lead to judgments that appear excessive to modern eyes. The legal system was one arena where this sometimes occurred.

Filial piety was a factor used to determine fault as well as the severity of punishments. As in Western law, fault in Chinese law could be understood in terms of intention to kill, the cruelty of the act, or whether the act was due to careless or reckless actions. It could also be understood as a “failure to observe the behavior demanded by a particular status, that is, by the kin relationship in which the offender stood to the victim.” 1 If a junior relative caused the death of a senior relative through negligence or inattention, for example, the junior relative could be punished with the utmost severity, even if the killing was an obvious accident. For this reason age, kinship, and family role or obligation could be the most important consideration in criminal prosecution and punishment.

Read about a homicide case in which the importance of filial piety led to surprising results.

1 Geoffrey MacCormack, p.174, “Cause, Status and Fault in the Traditional Chinese Law of Homicide,” In: Critical Studies in Ancient Law, Comparative Law and Legal History. Ed. John W. Cairns, O. F. Robinson, and Alan Watson (Portland, Oregon: Hart Publishing, 2001), pp. 173-82.


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