According to recent statistics, the global organ shortage is particularly serious in China. Some scholars argue that filial piety, a key principle of Confucianism, is the main deterrent to organ donation in China. The same is true of whole-body donation for medical research and education. Most hospitals and medical schools in China refuse to accept bodies even when the donors have provided written consent in their wills, due to pressure from the donors’ children.
In this essay, the author uses a recent case in Zhejiang Province to illustrate the difficulties faced by children in carrying out their parents’ planned body donation, even when donation is understood as a moral act. The author shows that children are dissuaded primarily by adherence to the Confucian virtue of filial piety, as keeping the body of one’s parent intact after death is viewed as a form of filial reverence. Many Confucian scholars today argue that the opportunity to save lives by donating one’s organs or body is more valuable than preserving the integrity of the dead body. However, it is not unusual for the relatives of the willing donor, particularly their children, to refuse to carry out the donor’s wishes for fear of accusations of violating the precept of filial piety.
The author shows that filial piety is widely considered to epitomize the Confucian value system. According to the Confucian text The Book of Filial Piety, for example, filial piety is “a perfect virtue and all-embracing rule of conduct.” However, the question here is whether children’s fulfillment of their parents’ desire to donate their bodies is a more filial gesture than keeping their parents’ dead bodies intact. The author argues that honoring one’s parents’ wish for body donation is consistent with the Confucian emphasis on family reverence and the provision of ancestral rites for deceased parents. Body donation is an act of ren (benevolence) and yi (rightness), as it benefits medical research and thus society at large. Fulfilling this desire to help others is an appropriate way of remembering and honoring one’s parents.