Filial piety and elderly-children relationships: Common narratives in regional folklore and popular culture

Several folktales from across the Indian sub-continent also speak about respect and honour of one’s elderly parents. The concept is also seen in Theravada Buddhism, often referred as 'the doctrine of the elders' (of the senior Buddhist monks). Thus, reverberations of the concept of filial piety are seen in spiritualism and folklore of South, Southeast and East Asia.

Picture of the stone sculpture- A stone sculpture of a filial son; Fenggang county, Guizhou province, China - Institutionalising Filial Piety - The China Story

A set of films, popular over several OTT platforms across the last several years, especially during the pandemic lockdown period, brought to my attention an oft-explored term in age-old folklore of the world - filial piety. Often mentioned as a frequently used term in the study of beliefs and attitudes of adult children and their sense of responsibility for aging parents, the words can reflect filial beliefs, obligations, and norms. Watching a French film on an OTT platform, ‘10 Jours En Or’ (2012), a particular scene shows an old man feigning a suicide attempt to get admitted to the hospital during the Christmas holidays, especially after he met an adorable six-year-old boy. One of the doctors on duty mentioned this to be a common phenomenon during the holiday season, as often old people do not want to stay home alone and feel lonely. 

A Bengali film, released just before the pandemic period, ‘Shonar Pahar’ (2018), had a story of a couple in their thirties looking for their widowed and missing mother. Their search took them to a police station in the middle of Kolkata where the police introduced them to a large group of elderly men and women who were temporarily offered shelter inside the premises of the police station. These senior citizens were abandoned at different parts of the city and rescued by Kolkata Police and brought over for reasons of safety. Unfortunately, the couple did not find their old mother, who had found a young eight-year-old orphan friend and had gone off on a trip with him to have the best time of their lives. 

A more recent Tamil film ‘K.D.’ (2019), released just before the pandemic period explores a beautiful relationship between an old man, who discovers the best relation and friend of his life in an orphan ten-year-old. The old man leaves his home in disgust as his sons, daughters and daughters-in-law squabbled continuously over the proprietorship and inheritance of the assets of his home. The story is about how he travelled well and was happy with the child bonding in a manner that he never did with any of his family members.

Inter-generational relationships, changes in attitudes, behaviour, customs and traditions, frictions arising out of change in opinions through generations, etc are premises that have seen the gradual development of several narratives, especially over the last hundred years as popular culture and folklore increasingly converse and converge at various junctions. Interestingly, narratives through popular culture speak a thousand words, just like local lore and age-old folktales. With close geographical proximities, some narratives repeat across a region, reflecting commonality and consistency amongst behavioral patterns across all regions, irrespective of geographical proximities, boundaries, or limitations.

Elderly-children relationships

Various folklore from across the globe has often explored relationships between elderly men and women and very young children who are often not even related to them. Narratives about relationships and the elderly also often took a centre stage across many media all over the world during the recent pandemic lockdown periods. On one side there were heartrending stories about the apathy of isolation, seclusion, and abandonment of the elderly; there were also stories of young hands coming forward to render a helping hand, especially in these stressful times.

A report from the Indian digital platform The Print, dated September 17, 2020, spoke of government-run old-age homes in New Delhi over-running their capacity by a great extent as a growing number of elderly are admitted every day. Not only during stressful times like the pandemic period, times like these prove to be challenging for the caregivers and the staff of the old-age homes. The same report also highlighted how several elderly patients had developed mental health and anxiety-related problems due to the pandemic and the specific shelter having started regular mental health camps and counselling sessions due to this. 

There have also been stories during the pandemic period which spoke about the help from the youth to find an answer amidst the pandemic. One such story, dated May 29, 2020 spoke of youngsters helping the elderly in the region of Chandigarh in India during the Covid-19 lockdowns under an organization titled Gray Shades. The organisation was reported to have roped in 500 volunteers to work for door-to-door delivery of dietary supplements, medicine and grocery as well as operating helplines for the physical and mental well-being of the senior citizens.

The above are a few examples that highlight a belief that has traditionally often gotten reflected across folklore in several regions, especially across South and Southeast Asia, that of filial piety or a reflection of the virtue of respect for one's parents, elders, and ancestors.

Filial piety

Filial values are present in all cultures, and some of the best forms of echoes are to be found amidst the folklore of the region. Often collectivist groups are reported in studies to be more committed to families than individualist groups, however, it is also often argued that it is complex to label cultures as individualist or collectivist as both concepts are multidimensional and also there are often examples of intergenerational assistance in nationally-representative samples of studies from various parts of Africa, Asia, Europe, of South America.

For many of the regional lore, filial piety is also often associated with a spiritual belief. Different folklore from Thailand speaks of the concept of ‘katanyu katawedi’ (indebtedness of children to parents). This can also be associated with the concept of 'chữ hiếu' or filial piety in Vietnamese or ‘xiao’ or being good to parents in Chinese, which can be traced to Confucianism. In Japanese Tenrikyo, ‘oyakoko’ speaks of the relationship shared between a parent and a child, which borderlines spiritualism.

Several folktales from across the Indian sub-continent also speak about respect and honor for one’s elderly parents. The concept is also seen in Theravada Buddhism, often referred to as 'the doctrine of the elders' (of the senior Buddhist monks). This school of Buddhism also idealises itself to have remained closest to the original teachings of the Buddha. Thus, reverberations of the concept of filial piety are seen in spiritualism and folklore of South, Southeast and East Asia.

Filial piety preaches a pattern across many cultures. It is also often pointed out that the very reason for the existence and the systematic reverberation of the term across folklore stands for a reason as if to counter a pattern of thought which seems to suggest exactly otherwise. Several folklore also speaks of abandonment of the elderly, beautiful relationships of grandchildren with their grandparents, and grandchildren saving grandparents from negligence or attempted murder, amidst others are some of the storylines explored through several folklore of the world. Often, these storylines speak of societies and religious beliefs, recommending the elderly to live away from their family as an option or seemingly a choice. There are thus numerous narratives which mention many elderlies, especially those who could afford it, would live away, while many others would retire to temples or monasteries or head for the wilderness to live in a hut separately.

A discussion about the apathy and isolation of the elderlies during the pandemic lockdowns brought up the Japanese terms ‘Ubasute’ and ‘Obasute’ or ‘Oyasute’- with a seemingly mythical echo. While ‘Ubasute’ denotes abandoning an elderly woman, ‘Obasute’ or ‘Oyasute’ speaks about abandoning a parent. It is the rare, old and often critiqued mythical practice of “senicide” in Japan, wherein, an infirm or elderly relation is carried to a mountain or some other remote and desolate place and left to die of exposure.

The Kodansha Illustrated Encyclopaedia from Japan explains ‘Ubasute’ as the ‘subject of legend, but…does not seem ever to have been a common custom.’ ‘Ubasute’ mirrors itself in the word ‘Granny Dumping’ (around the 1980s). It is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as “the abandonment of an elderly person in a public place such as a hospital or nursing home, especially by a relative”.

As unfortunate as it sounds, much of the mythical connotation is also often reflected in reality as often newspapers across the globe speak of similar situations, especially around the holiday seasons or during festivals at the fairgrounds, railways and other public spaces. A 2013 report from National Geographic highlighted the apathy of the elderly who were left behind at the Maha Kumbh Mela in Allahabad. Many reports speak of the isolation of elderlies, reaching its peak before Christmas when families head off on holidays. Hospitals and care facilities in the US, Australia and New Zealand find it a very heavy burden to shoulder with limited facilities.

Interestingly enough, the term ‘Ubasuteyama’ found its place in a short story by Tatsumi Yoshiro in 1970, titled- ‘Tokyo No Ubasuteyama’ (Abandon the Old in Tokyo, 1970). This speaks of leaving old women in the mountains to die of exposure. The practice of ‘Ubasute’ is explored at length in the Japanese novel The Ballad of Narayama (1956) by Shichiro Fukazawa. This novel was also the basis for three films. The story of the Ballad of Narayama speaks of an old woman, who sacrifices herself for the good of the village, but her son later returns and rescues her. By contrast, Tatsumi’s story is a critique of society. A young man moves his mother into a separate apartment, so he can be alone with his fiancée. Later he regrets his action and returns to his mother, but only to find that his mother had committed suicide.

A story from the Philippines speaks about a poor family of three living near a forest. The grandfather used to be a soldier in the King’s army and often narrated stories from his youth. As the son wanted to do away with the grandfather, he left him in the forest tied to a tree. While returning home, he saw his young son preparing a rope to tie him. The father realised his mistake and brought the grandfather back from the forest.

Evolving narratives

Folklore across India has dealt with the abandonment of the elderly as well. A very popular story from The Jatakas is the one on ‘How an ungrateful son planned to murder his old father’. The story takes place during the reign of King Brahmadatta of Kasi. A family of four had a young son named Vasitthaka. He lived with his wife, a seven-year-old son and an old father. One day, the wife and Vasitthaka planned to leave the grandfather in the forest. The child overheard this and followed Vasitthaka and the grandfather the next morning to the forest. Upon reaching the forest, as Vasitthaka started to dig a pit for the grandfather, the son also started to dig another pit alongside. When Vasitthaka enquired, he replied that he too will bury him when he is old following the family custom. Shocked by this Vasitthaka realised his mistake and replied:
“Thou art no heartless ingrate, son, I see,
But kindly hearted, O my son to me.
‘Twas in obedience to thy mother’s word
I thought to do this horrid deed abhorred.”
And all three returned home. The mother was soon taught a lesson and she too realized her mistake. The grandfather lived his remaining days without a worry in Vasitthaka’s house.

There are also numerous stories amidst popular culture across novels and novellas, which have also spoken, both for and against the platforms of filial piety. Interestingly enough, as many storylines highlight the need for respectable and virtuous behaviour towards the elderly, there are many others that also speak of extreme examples, often leading to the following generations plummeting into troublesome situations and circumstances, affecting them for life. An example can be found in ‘The Tale of Kieu’, an early 19th-century Vietnamese masterpiece, which is a long narrative poem and speaks of the plight of the beautiful Kieu, a young girl, who had to face various unfortunate circumstances and also sell herself to save her father from a corrupt Mandarin. The storyline portrays a conflict between the Confucian concept of filial piety and female chastity, personal obligations and morality.

With numerous other examples, exploring various perspectives related to the ideas and ideologies associated with filial piety, it is interesting to see the present range of topics exploring inter-generational relationships, especially between the elderly and the youngest of the generations. Keeping in mind significant venues of discussions of the present, including globalisation, acculturation, migration, resettlements and others, perhaps these narratives will keep evolving, finding echo through more interpretations with time, within our socio-cultural fabric.

(The author is an Indian academic, author and columnist. Views are personal. She can be reached at

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