Hyo (효), filial piety in Korea

Written by on May 8, 2012 in Lifestyle

Hyo is the most important virtue in Korean society. Calligraphy by Kim Eung Bae

May 8th is Parents’ Day. It’s the day where good sons and daughters reinforce their showing of devotion and respect to their parents; while bad sons and daughters try to make up for all their wrongdoings with an extra dose of love and respect on this day. Actually, Parents’ Day is not necessarily a day that is needed in Korea since parents come first and foremost in any situation whatsoever – every day is actually Parents’ Day.
It’s a common excuse which not a lot of non-Koreans understand: you decide to hang out with a couple of friends on the weekend, all the plans are set, you’re extremely excited about it, but at the last moment you’re summoned by the parents (or your in-laws). “Can’t make it; have to go see my parents.” Everyone understands. Apart from being sick or an accident, it’s the most legitimate last minute excuse one could have.
Putting the parents first, this virtue of hyo (효, 孝) i.e. filial piety, is the foundation of social values in Korean society. Filial piety is a core virtue of Confucianism which was introduced to Korea a couple centuries BC and flourished in the Three Kingdoms era, although it co-existed with Buddhism during most of the latter period. It was during the Joseon Dynastywhen Confucianism rooted itself as the ruling philosophy of Korean culture and its influence still remains today. Confucianism emphasizes humanism, which is believed to start with the self and one’s relationship to others, the duties one has to one another, and the harmony which is achieved through these efforts.

Paying respects to one elders with the deep bow, sebae

Everything starts with the roots of one’s existence, the parents, but filial piety not only pertains to one’s parents but to one’s ancestors as well. It is why Koreans pay respect to their ancestors on traditional holidays with rituals and offerings. In a broader sense, this devotion and respect is extended to one’s elders; not meaning the “elderly” but all the people who are considered as one’s seniors. Respecting one’s elders is an important virtue Koreans learn while growing up; it is also a virtue which the elderly lament the younger generation lacks, a criticism the current generation has always heard from the generation before.

The traditional Korean family had generations living together

Filial piety demands devotion. Traditionally in Korea, it is expected that you live with your parents until you get married. Although this has changed over the years, unless you live in a different city, it is still quite the norm to remain at your parents’ house (although, in Korea, you would say “our house”) until you create a family of your own. Even after marriage, if you are the eldest son, you and your wife were expected to live and take care of your parents; moshida (모시다), the expression used is the same as one would use in “serving the king”, you “serve” your parents.
As families no longer live in large hanok (한옥, traditional Korean houses) but in modern apartments and housing, several generations do not share the same living space any longer, but despite the Korean family standard now being the nuclear family, there are still many parents who expect their eldest sons to “serve” them, even if only a short time after their sons get married. This practice made eldest sons quite undesirable as future husbands, but luckily for women, there are also many parents who do not expect to live with their adult children.
In the case of a single parent, it is totally different. Unless in a case of extreme financial or circumstantial difficulty, it is absolutely natural for a son or daughter to take in and care for the single parent; to not to do so would be an utter sin. Bul hyo (불효), “not filial piety”, is one of the worst sins you can commit.
Hyo isn’t just taking care of your parents. It is mostly taking care of yourself: putting in your best efforts in everything you do, trying to become a better person, taking care of your physical and mental well-being. By doing this, you are showing respect to your parents by paying back their dedication in raising you. A hyoja (효자, son with devoted filial piety) or hyonyeo (효녀, daughter with devoted filial piety) is someone who tries to understand their parents well meaning and tries to fulfill their parents expectations.

Painting of a special “Hyoseongmun” gate by Kim Gwang Hyeon

Hyo is revered very highly; in the Joseon Dynasty, people would be awarded with special gates and doors or gravestones for being hyoja and hyonyeo, the folk tale of Simcheong is basically the story of a devoted daughter’s filial piety towards her blind father. Having a hyoja or hyonyeo is a parent’s greatest pride.
It demands a fine balancing act to be one’s own person while not upsetting one’s parents. The sense of hyo is innate in every Korean, so conflicts between one’s desires and hyo is also the root of many personal dilemmas, but learning how to balance this predicament prepares you to understand society, and life, with a broader perspective.
Furthermore, it is not only from a sense of duty that Koreans adhere so strongly to hyo; after all, filial piety is not only based on respect, but also love. Modern day Koreans are more vocal about expressing their love (all you have to do is check out K-dramas and it is quite blatant) and these days you can easily see kids saying “I love you” to their parents, which wasn’t that common some time ago.

Carnations mean “thank you”

As I’ve mentioned before, May 8th is Parents’ Day. Although hyo is for 365 days a year, it is also nice to have a special day as an extra reminder of how important parents are in your life; it is also nice for parents to have a day of receiving special recognition. Even though it’s not a public holiday, hyo festivals take place in certain regions with special events and festivities, and there are many hyo concerts featuring singers popular with the older generation. It has become a custom to present parents with gifts of carnations, which are supposed to mean “thank you”.
Sometimes we forget to thank the closest and most important people in our lives. Be sure to make some time to spend with your parents, or give your parents a call to tell them how special they are, if you’re not on good terms try to make amends; after all, they are your parents. Have some Korean hyo in your life.

About the Author

Suzy Chung

Multilingual editor, writer, and translator. Coffee addict, bookworm, art junkie, foodie, oenophile, and a billion other things. I tend to talk a lot. @suzyinseoul