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UPDATED: June 17, 2011 NO. 25 JUNE 23, 2011
Filial Piety and Confucius


"I've noticed that Chinese children are very respectful to their parents," I said to my friend Mr. Yang. "That's because we have a strong cultural tradition supporting filial piety. One of the most important children's books is an ancient one—which came out of our Confucian tradition," said Mr. Yang.

"It's called The Twenty-Four Examples of Filial Piety. This book was written between 200 B.C. and A.D. 350. It is a supplement to the orthodox Confucian text, The Classic of Filial Piety, a literary classic consisting of a series of conversations between Confucius and one of his disciples, Zeng Zi. It offers us systematic instruction in filial piety, and, although it was written in archaic Chinese, you can find modern translations today. Chinese children learn it and the 24 stories."

"So The Classic of Filial Piety is a textbook?" I asked.

"Until the 20th century, it had been Chinese children's first textbook. Children learned ethics and how to read with this book. Now you can see colorful children's book versions, or even cartoons about the stories."

"Why are these texts important?" I asked.

"To understand Confucian filial piety in China," said Mr. Yang. "First, it encompasses all aspects of Chinese social life. Filial piety is implied by all the virtues associated with human behavior; correct behavior is linked to politics, ethics and religion. The Classic of Filial Piety explains one's duties of filial piety in relation to social institutions and for all people, rich and poor."

"Duty categories exist for government workers, family members, and friends?'

"Yes," replied Yang. "But everything ultimately links to our parents. Confucius said our bodies—from our hair to our heart, come from our parents. So we mustn't presume to harm our parents; we must seek to bring them honor. Furthermore, we must not damage our own bodies, as they are gifts from our parents."

"Tell me about the 24 stories," I said.

"Certainly," replied Yang. "You should read them, because they display the pinnacle of virtue in Chinese culture. To comprehend Chinese culture you must grasp Chinese ethics. Although these 24 tales were compiled 1,000 years ago, they remain popular. Basically, each story emphasizes support and care for our parents is our biggest obligation in life."

"So, you can never do enough to redeem your debt to your parents," I said.

"Correct," my friend said. "The stories have touching, dutiful children as examples. One boy—Jiang Ge—refused to run away and abandon his mother during war time. He saved food for her and went hungry himself. He tried to keep his mother warm while he froze. Another girl—Yang Xiang—was brave. She saw a tiger attacking her father, so she jumped on the beast and fought fiercely, rescuing her father. "

"So the kids are superhuman?"

"Not at all," said Yang. "They are presented as real people. And every story gives an exact geographical location, as well as a specific time in history. By making stories appear realistic in time and space, children perceive the characters as models and their deeds become convincing."

"Please give some more examples," I said.

"Yao Zhonghua was a boy who always dutifully served his father and stepmother, in spite of being maltreated. He never complained. When his stepmother tried to kill him, a dragon rescued him. Later, the emperor gave him his two daughters and, eventually, the throne."

"My students told me a similar story," I said. "About a boy named Meng Zhong, who lived during the Three Kingdoms Period (220-280). He always saved food for his mother, but life was difficult. He prayed to help his mother and, miraculously, out of the ground sprouted five bamboo shoots."

"Yes, that's one of the 24," acknowledged Yang.

"Just as in the Bible, heavenly powers assist filial sons and daughters," I said.

"Correct," said Yang. "But analyzing religious values, supernatural events, or ancestor worship are topics for another day. Let's have lunch, shall we?"

The author is an American living in Beijing

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