Confucius with children

Confucius was not interested in individual salvation or individual rights. What he cared about most was the collective well being of society. He promoted virtues such as courtesy, selflessness, obedience, respect, diligence, communal obligation, working for a common good, social harmony, and empathy. The code of behavior he described was based on a system of harmonious, subordinate relationships based on the notions of filial piety, a well-ordered family, a well-ordered-state and a well-ordered world.

Confucians stress that a person's worth is determined by public actions. The concept of li defines a set of social relationships and clearly described how people are supposed to behave towards one another. Fealty in Confucian terms takes five forms: 1) subject to ruler, 2) son to father, 3) younger brother to older brother, 4) wife to husband (woman to man), and 5) younger person to older person. Under the concept the li, the dominate person receives respect and obedience from the subordinate person but is by no means a dictator. He is supposed to reciprocate with love, goodwill, support and affection towards the subordinate person.

The Confucian code of subordinate relationships also extended to professions, with scholars at the top; peasant farmers in the middle; and artisans and merchants at the bottom. Confucian scholars grew their fingernails long to show they didn't do physical labor. Under Confucian leadership, crimes were often dealt with by ostracism and humiliation rather than physical punishment.

Good Websites and Sources on Confucianism: Robert Eno, Indiana University; Confucianism ; Religion Facts Confucianism Religion Facts ; Confucius ; Confucian Texts Chinese Text Project ; Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy; Cult of Confucius / ; ; Virtual Temple tour; Wikipedia article on Chinese religion Wikipedia Academic Info on Chinese religion ; Internet Guide to Chinese Studies; Qufu Wikipedia Wikipedia Travel China Guide Travel China Guide ; UNESCO World Heritage Site: UNESCO

Books: There is a classic account of Confucius’s biography by Herrlee Creel: "Confucius, The Man and the Myth" (New York: 1949, also published as "Confucius and the Chinese Way", and a recent book by Annping Chin, "The Authentic Confucius: A Life in Thought and Politics" (New York: 2007). According to Dr. Robert Eno: “Among the many translations of the “Analects” , well crafted versions by Arthur Waley (New York: 1938), D.C. Lau (Penguin Books, 1987, 1998), and Edward Slingerland (Indianapolis: 2003) are among the most accessible published. The “Analects” is a terse work with an exceptionally long and varied commentarial tradition; its richness and multiple levels of meaning make it a living document that reads differently to each generation (as true in China as elsewhere). Responsible interpreters vary in specific choices and overall understanding, and no single translation can be viewed as “definitive."

Confucianism, Structure and Hierarchy

Prof. John Howkins wrote in the Australian,"The Chinese are always conscious of rank and position. One hesitates to say class, but it's the right word. Everything has its place, and knowing one's place produces the much-loved harmony. But creativity thrives by being different, and art weaves its magic by being shocking and disruptive." [Source: The Australian July 28, 2008]

Confucianism is credited with making Chinese society fiercely patriarchal and defining its social stratification with: 1) scholar-bureaucrats at the top, because they had the knowledge and wisdom to maintain social order; followed by 2) farmers, because they produced the necessary goods; and 3) the artisans, because they possessed necessary skills. At the bottom were 4) merchants. All they did was buy and sell things.

Society began to change when the merchant class made money and used it to increase their power, prestige and education level. Some argue that traditional stratification has broken down and been replaced by a new hierarchy with merchant-bureaucrats at the top, farmers are at the bottom, and artisans being replaced by factory workers and migrant labor and scholars being repressed by the government.

Structure and hierarchy have traditionally been very important in all levels of Chinese society. People are expected to observe mores on rank and position and show humility and deference to their superiors. By showing deference one tends to raise their own position in the view of others rather than lower it. See Confucianism.

In the 19th century, Thomas Taylor Meadows said: “No people whether of ancient or modem times, has possessed a sacred literature so completely exempt as the Chinese, from licentious descriptions, and from every offensive expression. There is, not a single sentence in the whole of the Sacred Books and their annotations that may not be read aloud in any family circle in England. Again, in every other, non-Christian, country, idolatry has been associated with human sacrifices and with the deification of vice, accompanied by licentious rites and orgies. Not a sign of all this exists in China."

Today there is some confusion as to what the most important structures and hierarchies are. Tim Doctoroff author of "Billions: Selling to the New Chinese Consumer", told the Times of London, “All Chinese people are struggling between a very ambitious goal-oriented rigid social structure and the importance to conform to clearly defined social structures. There’s a need to advance without shattering the crystal plate.”

Classic of Filial Piety

Traditional Social Structure in China

Throughout the centuries some 80 to 90 percent of the Chinese population have been farmers. The farmers supported a small number of specialized craftsmen and traders and also an even smaller number of land- and office-holding elite families who ran the society. Although the peasant farmers and their families resembled counterparts in other societies, the traditional Chinese elite, often referred to in English as the gentry, had no peers in other societies. [Source: Library of Congress *]

The national elite, who comprised perhaps 1 percent of China's population, had a number of distinctive features. They were dispersed across the country and often lived in rural areas, where they were the dominant figures on the local scene. Although they held land, which they rented to tenant farmers, they neither possessed large estates like European nobles nor held hereditary titles. They achieved their highest and most prestigious titles by their performance on the central government's triennial civil service examinations. These titles had to be earned by each generation, and since the examinations had strict numerical quotas, competition was fierce. Government officials were selected from those who passed the examinations, which tested for mastery of the Confucian Classics. Elite families, like everyone else in China, practiced partible inheritance, dividing the estate equally among all sons. The combination of partible inheritance and the competition for success in the examinations meant that rates of mobility into and out of the elite were relatively high for a traditional agrarian society. *

The imperial state was staffed by a small civil bureaucracy. Civil officials were directly appointed and paid by the emperor and had to have passed the civil service examinations. Officials, who were supposed to owe their primary loyalty to the emperor, did not serve in their home provinces and were generally assigned to different places for each tour of duty. Although the salary of central officials was low, the positions offered great opportunities for personal enrichment, which was one reason that families competed so fiercely to pass the examinations and then obtain an appointment. For most officials, officeholding was not a lifetime career. They served one or a few tours and then returned to their home districts and families, where their wealth, prestige, and network of official contacts made them dominant figures on the local scene. *

Traditional Social Stratification in China

Traditional thought accepted social stratification as natural and considered most social groups to be organized on hierarchical principles. In the ideal Confucian scheme of social stratification, scholars were at the highest level of society, followed by farmers, then by artisans, with merchants and soldiers in last place. [Source: Library of Congress *]

In society at large, the highest and most prestigious positions were those of political generalists, such as members of the emperor's council or provincial governors. Experts, such as tax specialists or physicians, ranked below the ruling political generalists. Although commerce has been a major element of Chinese life since the early imperial period, and wealthy merchants have been major figures in Chinese cities, Confucianists disparaged merchants. Commercial success never won respect, and wealth based on commerce was subject to official taxes, fees, and even confiscation. Upward mobility by merchants was achieved by cultivating good relations with powerful officials and educating their sons in the hope they might become officials. Although dynasties were founded by military conquest, Confucian ideology derogated military skill. Common soldiers occupied a low position in society and were recruited from its lowest ranks. Chinese civilization, however, includes a significant military tradition, and generals and strategists usually were held in high esteem. *

Most of China's population was composed of peasant farmers, whose basic role in supporting the rulers and the rest of society was recognized as a positive one in Confucian ideology. In practical terms, farming was considered a hard and insecure life and one that was best left if an opportunity was available. In Chinese communities the factors generating prestige were education, abstention from manual labor, wealth expended on the arts and education, a large family with many sons, and community service and acts of charity. Another asset was an extensive personal network that permitted one to grant favors and make introductions and recommendations. There was no sharp line dividing the elite from the masses, and social mobility was possible and common. *

Confucianism and Families

Under Confucianism, the oldest male and the father are regarded as the unchallengeable authorities. They set rules, and the "duty and virtue" of everyone else is to follow them. The oldest male and father, in turn, are supposed to reciprocate this reverence by supporting and looking out for the best interest of the people subordinate to them. Love and respect are principals that are practiced in the context of the family. Confucians do not ascribe to the idea of loving all people equally.

Confucius promoted the concept that it was important to worship one's parents while they are still living and old people should be venerated because even though they are weak physically they at the peak of their knowledge and wisdom. This sentiment is best expressed during the "elders first" rite, the central ritual of the Chinese New Year, in which family members kneel and bow on the ground to everyone older than them: first grandparents, then parents, siblings and relatives, even elderly neighbors. In the old days a son was expected to honor his deceased father by occupying a hut by his grave and abstaining from meat, wine and sex for 25 months.

Filial piety is regarded as the most important Confucian duty. Confucian filial piety encourages the younger generation to follow the teachings of elders and for elders to teach the young their duties and manners. Both children and adults are taught to honor their parents no matter what age they are and obey their commands and not do anything that would bring suffering or pain to them.

Sons have traditionally been taught to give whatever money they make to their parents. To do otherwise would incur a loss of face. This unquestioning acquiescence was expected to be maintained regardless of how their parents respond. "In early times," one Chinese man told National Geographic, "even if your parents were not nice to you, you were still responsible to them in their old age."

Sometimes family comes before conventional morality. In The Analects, after being told about a man who bore witness against his father for stealing sheep, Confucius said: “The honest men of my country are different from this. The father covers up for his son, the son covers up for his father...and there is honesty in that too."

Analects on Social Obligations

Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: “Confucius modeled the qualities that the "junzi" [noble gentlmen] would demonstrate in social action on an ideal picture of the ultimate “family man.” Society in Confucius’s time continued to be strongly oriented around lineage groups (the small extended family for the common people, huge clan descent groups for the upper patrician class). Confucius tended to view the state as a large scale version of the family, with the ruler representing “the father and mother of the people.” The junzi who could exemplify perfect political virtue then was one who was fully socialized into the domain of the family.For this reason, Confucius and his followers greatly stressed the importance of the traditional virtue of “filiality” ("xiao"), which means obedience and service to one’s parents, particularly to one’s father.” /+/

“The disciple Master You said, “The man who is filial and obedient to his elders will rarely be insubordinate to his superiors, and never has a man who was not insubordinate brought chaos to his state. The “junzi” applies himself to the roots of things, for once the roots are firm, the Way can grow. Filiality and obedience to elders are the roots of “ren”, are they not?” (1.2) This creates something of a paradox in the political ideal of the “junzi”. The “junzi” is to be a moral exemplar, leading all people towards a more virtuous society, yet he is also a follower, obeying his parents absolutely, as well as playing the junior role to all who are older than he.” /+/

Eno wrote: “For the Confucians, this was, in fact, no paradox. The absolute imperative of filial obedience was the fundamental means of broadening the self. Children are born with only self-regarding desires, born selfish. To acquire the fundamental skills that will allow one to view and treat others with as much regard as one does oneself, a long period of discipline must train the person to see the interests of others as his own. This is the function of filiality in Confucian thought. No man who was so selfish as to regard his own desires as more important than his parents’ could conceivably become a “junzi”, a man who must weigh the needs of his neighbors and even of his distant fellow countrymen as heavily as he does his own.” /+/

Analects on Social Roles, and the Five Relationships

Dr. Eno wrote: “The concept of ritual “li” which was so central to early Confucianism did not imply that everyone who aspired to become a “junzi” must embark on memorization of endless action codes. Rather, “li” were thought of in terms of the responsibilities and forms that accompanied different social roles: the “li” of a filial child, the “li” of a clan elder, the “li” of a minister, and so forth. As a person moved through life, he or she would broaden control over “li” by mastering sets of responsibilities and forms that marked the assumption of emerging social roles. The individual was, in a sense, pictured almost exclusively in terms of the social roles that he or she had mastered and the characteristic style with which he or she had mastered (or failed to master) the basic structures of those roles. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University, Chinatxt chinatxt /+/]

“Confucian texts did not speak of roles in the abstract. Instead, individuals were simply described and evaluated most regularly in terms of their roles and the state was described and evaluated in terms of the fit between role norms and actual social behavior. For example, in a famous passage of the “Analects” , Confucius pictures the ideal state as the perfect fulfillment of all role assignments: “Duke Jing of Qi asked Confucius about government. Confucius replied, “Let rulers be rulers, ministers ministers, fathers fathers, sons sons.” (12.11), The notion of social roles also provided Confucians with certain ways of adjudicating between competing commitments. For example, as the following passage makes clear, in the ideal state individuals privilege the role of the filial child over the role of the loyal subject: The Lord of She spoke to Confucius saying, “In my precincts there is an upright man. When his father stole a sheep, this man gave evidence against him.” “In my precinct the upright are different,” Confucius replied. “Fathers cover up for their sons and sons for their fathers. Uprightness lies therein.” (13.18) Furthermore, Confucians came to link the fulfillment of social role obligations with one’s legitimate claim to a role and its title. For example, rulers who did not act in accord with the normative (value.positive) features of the ruler’s role description were not actually entitled to the designation “ruler” at all.

“In extreme cases, this could license the deposing of a ruler, very much in harmony with the ethical implications of the Mandate of Heaven doctrine. This feature of Confucian role ethics came to be known as the doctrine of the “Rectification of Names” (a term that took on other meanings later). It is only suggested in the “Analects” , but seems to lie behind passages such as this one: “Duke Ding of Lu asked how a ruler should employ ministers and ministers should serve rulers. Confucius replied, “If the ruler employs his ministers according to “li”, the ministers will serve the ruler with loyalty.” (3.19) The notion of making the obligations of one role contingent on the proper performance of another did not apply to “natural” roles, such as the child’s. Filial duties were absolute.” “ /+/

“Eventually, Confucians brought together many of these ideas in a doctrine known as the “Five Relationships.” In it, all social roles were conceived as existing in essential polarity with some other complementary role, in the manner that the role of child is intrinsically defined as a complement to the role of parent. Confucians held that the myriad actual roles through which we live our social lives could ultimately be seen as variants on five paradigmatic polar relations, which may be listed as follows (the traditional version is on the left, a more universalized modern version on the right): Father / Son “Parent / Child “Elder Brother / Younger Brother “Senior / Junior “Ruler / Minister “Superior / Inferior “Husband / Wife “Spouse / Spouse “Friend / Friend “Friend / Friend”. The first three of these were viewed as intrinsically hierarchical and they are the relationships that attracted the most interest in the Confucian scheme. The last two were seen as egalitarian in theory (although the marriage relationship was clearly not so in practice). The Five Relationships can be understood as a way to bring coherence to the ideal of a completely ritualized society, and to give individuals an important conceptual tool in allowing them to pursue self-ritualization in the context of everyday social life.” /+/

On Women and Servants the Analects says: “Women and servants are most difficult to nurture. If one is close to them, they lose their reserve, while if one is distant, they feel resentful.” (17:25)

Filial Piety (Xiao)

Filial piety (“filiality”, “xiao”),is regarded as the most important Confucian duty. It means obedience and service to one’s parents, particularly to one’s father. Confucian filial piety encourages the younger generation to follow the teachings of elders and for elders to teach the young their duties and manners. Both children and adults are taught to honor their parents no matter what age they are and obey their commands and not do anything that would bring suffering or pain to them. Sons have traditionally been taught to give whatever money they make to their parents. To do otherwise would incur a loss of face. This unquestioning acquiescence was expected to be maintained regardless of how their parents respond. "In early times," one Chinese man told National Geographic, "even if your parents were not nice to you, you were still responsible to them in their old age." Sometimes family comes before conventional morality. In The Analects, after being told about a man who bore witness against his father for stealing sheep, Confucius said: “The honest men of my country are different from this. The father covers up for his son, the son covers up for his father...and there is honesty in that too."

Hsiang-ming kung wrote in the “International Encyclopedia of Marriage and Family”: “Filial piety is the basis of order in Chinese family. The father-son relationship is the elementary and the most important one in the family and all other relationships in the family system are regarded as extensions of or supplementary to it. Filial piety refers to the kind of superior-inferior relationship inherent in the father-son relationship. As it often appears, filial piety means children, especially sons, must please, support, and subordinate to their parents (Hsu 1971). [Source: Hsiang-ming kung, “International Encyclopedia of Marriage and Family”, Gale Group Inc., 2003]

“The obligations of children toward their parents are far more emphasized than those of parents toward children. As it is stated in the Xiao Jing (Classic of Filial Piety written some three thousand years ago), "the first principle of filial piety is that you dare not injure your body, limbs, hair or skin, which you receive from your parents." This principle establishes how a filial child practices filial piety in its rigorous form. In addition to duty and obedience children owed to their parents, parents' names are taboo since using it is considered a serious offence toward one's parents. To avoid using the name of one's father, a filial child would deliberately mispronounce or miswrite the word, or even refuse an official title that is similar to the name of his father or grandfather in ancient time.

“Since the relationship between father and son is indisputably most important, the major duty of a man is, thus, to his parents and only second to the state. With the emphasis on filial piety, a son could even be absolved from responsibility for reporting the infractions of his father in the Imperial China, except in the case of treason. In the mean time, sexual love can also be pressed into the service of filial piety, which is incumbent upon any man to continue his male line. Mencius (a great Chinese philosopher second only to Confucius) said that of the three unfilial acts, failure to produce an heir is the worst. It is so because the whole continuum of ancestors and unborn descendants die with him. Children who die young are considered to have committed an unfilial act by the mere fact of dying before their parents do. They are not qualified as potential ancestors. It is believed in Chinese society that an individual exists by virtue of his ancestors. His descendants, then, exist only through him. To worship an individual's ancestors, thus, manifests the importance of the continuum of descent.

Analects on Filial Piety

Confucius and his followers greatly stressed the importance of filial piety. According to “Analects”: “ Master You [You Ruo] said, “Among those who are filial toward their parents and fraternal toward their brothers, those who are inclined to offend against their superiors are few indeed. Among those who are disinclined to offend against their superiors, there have never been any who are yet inclined to create disorder. The noble person concerns himself with the root; when the root is established, the Way is born. Being filial and fraternal — is this not the root of humaneness?” (1:2) The Master said, “Those who are clever in their words and pretentious in their appearance, yet are humane, are few indeed.” (1:3) Ziyou asked about filial devotion. The Master said, “Nowadays filial devotion means being able to provide nourishment. But dogs and horses too can provide nourishment. “Unless one is reverent, where is the difference?” (2:7). [Source: “Sources of Chinese Tradition,” compiled by Wm. Theodore de Bary and Irene Bloom, 2nd ed., vol. 1 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), 45-50, 52, 54-55; Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, ]

Other selections from the “Analects on filial piety: 1) The Master said, “When a person’s father is alive, observe his intentions. After his father is no more, observe his actions. If for three years he does not change his father’s ways he is worthy to be called filial.”, 2) The disciple Master You said, “The man who is filial and obedient to his elders will rarely be insubordinate to his superiors, and never has a man who was not insubordinate brought chaos to his state. The "junzi" applies himself to the roots of things, for once the roots are firm, the Way can grow. Filiality and obedience to elders are the roots of "ren", are they not?”

3) The Lord of She spoke to Confucius saying, “In my precincts there is an upright man. When his father stole a sheep, this man gave evidence against him.” “In my precinct the upright are different,” Confucius replied. “Fathers cover up for their sons and sons for their fathers. Uprightness lies therein.” 4) The disciple Ziyou asked about filiality. The Master said, “Those who speak of filiality nowadays mean by it merely supplying food and shelter to aged parents. Even dogs and horses receive as much. Without attentive respect, where is the difference?” 5) The disciple Zixia asked about filiality. The Master said, “It is the outward demeanor that it difficult to maintain! That the youngest shall bear the burden at work or that the elders shall be served first of food and drink, is this all that filiality means?”

“The patrician Meng Yizi asked about filiality. The Master said, “Never disobey!” Later, the disciple Fan Chi was driving the Master in his chariot and the Master said to him, “Meng Yizi asked me about filiality and I answered, ‘Never disobey!’” “What did you mean by that,” asked Fan Chi. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“The Master replied, “In life, serve parents according to "li". In death, inter them according to "li" and sacrifice to them according to "li".” (2.5) The patrician Meng Wubo asked about filiality. The Master said, “One’s parents should need to worry only about one’s health.” (2.6) The disciple Ziyou asked about filiality. The Master said, “Those who speak of filiality nowadays mean by it merely supplying food and shelter to aged parents. Even dogs and horses receive as much. Without attentive respect, where is the difference?” (2.7) The disciple Zixia asked about filiality. The Master said, “It is the outward demeanor that it difficult to maintain! That the youngest shall bear the burden at work or that the elders shall be served first of food and drink, is this all that filiality means?” (2.8)

Book: “Filial Obsessions: Chinese Patriliny and its Discontents” by Steven Sangren (Springer International Publishing/Palgrave Macmillan, 2017).“Contents: Popular religion, a Chinese Superboy, and "The Investiture of the Gods"; "Filial Piety" and Cultural Difference; Spirit Possession, Family Issues, and the Revelation of Gods' Biographies; Filial Piety: Fathers, Real and Ideal; the Social Production of Desire; Ancestor Worship, the Confucian Father, and Filial Piety; Women as Outsiders: Princesses, Defilement, and Buddhist Salvation; Woman as Symptom: Beyond Gender?; a Concluding Manifesto: Culture and Desire.

Classic of Filiality (Xiaojing)

Patricia Buckley Ebrey of the University of Washington wrote: “The Classic of Filial Piety, a text composed between 350 and 200 B.C., teaches a simple but all-embracing lesson: beginning humbly at home, filial piety not only ensures success in a man’s life but also brings peace and harmony to the world at large. During the Song dynasty, the text became one of the thirteen classics of the Neo-Confucian canon and remained a cornerstone of traditional Chinese moral teaching until modern times.” [Source: Patricia Buckley Ebrey, University of Washington,]

Classic of Filiality by Niu Shuyu

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “The Classic of Filiality” (Xiaojing, also translated as “Classic of Filial Piety”) “was written during the Former or Western Han dynasty (206 B.C.-.8 CE). Although it is not a classic in the sense of being a document dating from the Zhou period, “The Classic of Filiality” has been a popular and highly respected text throughout East Asia up through the twentieth century. The text is cast in the form of a conversation between Confucius and Zengzi, one of his students. In the text, “Confucius” explains the concept of filiality, or filial piety, and its central importance in family, community, and spiritual and political life. [Source:Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, ]

“The Classic of Filiality” (Xiaojing) reads: “Confucius was at leisure, with Zengzi in attendance. He asked Zengzi, “Do you know by what surpassing virtue and essential way the early kings kept the world in order, the people in harmony both with their relatives and at large, and all, both high and low, uncomplaining?” Zengzi, rising from his seat, said, “Unenlightened as I am, how could I know that?” Confucius said, “Filiality is the root of virtue and the wellspring of instruction. Take your seat and I shall explain. [Source: “Sources of Chinese Tradition,” compiled by Wm. Theodore de Bary and Irene Bloom, 2nd ed., vol. 1 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), 326-329; Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, ]

“Our body, skin, and hair are all received from our parents; we dare not injure them. This is the first priority in filial duty. To establish oneself in the world and practice the Way; to uphold one’s good name for posterity and give glory to one’s father and mother.. this is the completion of filial duty. Thus filiality begins with service to parents, continues in service to the ruler, and ends with establishing oneself in the world [and becoming an exemplary person].

“As it is said in the Daya [of the Classic of Odes]: ‘Forget not your forebears; cultivate the virtue received from them.’ “ 2. The Son of Heaven The Master said, “Loving one’s parents, one dare not hate others. Revering one’s parents, one dare not be contemptuous of others. When his love and reverence are perfected in service to parents, [the ruler’s] moral influence is shed on all the people and his good example shines in all directions. …” 5. Scholar-officials (Shi) As one serves one’s father, one serves one’s mother, drawing on the same love. As one serves one’s father, one serves one’s prince, drawing on the same reverence. The mother draws upon one’s love, the prince on one’s reverence. Therefore, if one serves one’s prince with the filiality one shows to one’s father, it becomes the virtue of fidelity (loyalty). If one serves one’s superiors with brotherly submission it becomes the virtue of obedience. Never failing in fidelity and obedience, this is how one serves superiors. Thus one may preserve one’s rank and office and continue one’s family sacrifices. This is the filiality of the scholar-official. 6. Commoners In keeping with Heaven’s seasons and Earth’s resources, by one’s industry and frugality one supports one’s father and mother. This is the filiality of the common people. From the Son of Heaven down to the common people, if filiality is not followed from beginning to end, disaster is sure to follow.

Art Work on Filial Piety

On “Illustrated Poetry of Twenty-Four Examples of Filial Piety, with text written by Hsiao P'ei-yuan (Qing dynasty) and illustrated by Li His-t'ung (1869), I-cheng-t'ang edition, the National Palace Museum, Taipei says: ““Twenty-Four Examples of Filial Piety is a famous collection of popular Chinese parables, instructing younger family members on how to properly demonstrate filial piety toward their elders. The stories narrate a plethora of tales starting with the ancient example of Ta-shun Tilling the Fields and finishing with the later one of T'ing-chien Washing Toilets referring to the famous Song scholar Huang T'ing-chien. Their plots convey a bit of the supernatural, yet they maintain their ancient instructional themes geared toward children. The first volume contains traditional stories of filial piety, instructing children on how to properly act towards their elders. The second volume is based on twenty-four examples of friendship and love between siblings selected from sections of historical volumes. The book is a truly fine publication with each set of written text accompanied by an illustration. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei,]

“Four Paragons of Filial Piety” by an anonymous Yuan dynasty (1279-1368) artist is an ink and colors on silk handscroll, measuring 38.9 x 502.7 centimeters. This work illustrates four touching paragons of filial piety with alternating text and image. The first story depicts the wife of Wang Wuzi cutting flesh from her thigh for a medicinal broth to cure her mother-in-law’s illness. The second illustrates Lu Ji of the Three Kingdoms period taking oranges at a banquet held by Yuan Shu and presenting them to his mother, who was fond of them. The third shows Wang Xiang of the Jin dynasty lying on ice to melt it and catch carp to feed his ill mother. The fourth story is about Cao E of the Later Han throwing herself into a river where her father drowned because his corpse had not been found. After three days, both corpses emerged, Cao holding onto her father. At the end of the handscroll is a postscript by Li Jujing on the essence of filial piety, the figures depicted with lines fine and strong.

Shortcomings of Filial Piety in the 19th Century

Arthur Henderson Smith wrote in “Chinese Characteristics”: “ The theory of Chinese filial conduct presents some very attractive features. The respect for age which it involves is most beneficial, and might profitably be cultivated by Anglo-Saxons generally. In Western countries, when a son becomes of age, he goes where he likes, and does what he chooses. He has no necessary connection with his parents nor they with him. To the Chinese such customs must appear like the behaviour of a well grown calf or colt to the cow and the mare, suitable enough for animals, but by no means conformable to as applied to human beings.” [Source:“Chinese Characteristics” by Arthur Henderson Smith, 1894. Smith (1845 -1932) was an American missionary who spent 54 years in China. In the 1920s, “Chinese Characteristics” was still the most widely read book on China among foreign residents there. He spent much of his time in Pangzhuang, a village in Shandong.]

“The texts on filial piety “has volumes on the duty of children toward parents, but no word on the duty of parents to children.... The Chinese doctrine has nothing to say on behalf of its daughters, but everything on behalf of its sons. If the Chinese eye had not for ages been colour-blind on this subject, this gross outrage on human nature could not have failed of detection. By the accident of sex, the infant is a family divinity. By the accident of sex she is a dreaded burden, liable to be destroyed, and certain to be despised, The Chinese doctrine of filial piety puts the wife on an inferior plane. Confucius has nothing to say of the duties of wives to husbands or of husbands to wives.

“Christianity requires a man to leave his father and mother, and cleave to his wife. Confucianism requires a man to cleave to his father and mother, and to compel his wife to do the same. If the relation between the husband and his parents conflicts with that between the husband and his wife, the latter as the lesser and inferior is the relation which must yield. The whole structure of Chinese society, which is modelled .upon the patriarchal plan, has grave evils. It encourages the suppression of some of the natural instincts of the heart that other instincts may be cultivated to an extreme degree. It results in the almost entire subordination of the younger during the whole life of those who are older. It cramps the minds of those who are subjected to its iron pressure, preventing development and healthful change'.

“That tenet of the Chinese doctrine which makes filial conduct consist in leaving posterity is responsible for a long train of ills. It compels the adoption of children, whether there is or is not any adequate provision for their support. It leads to early marriages, and brings into existence millions of human beings, who by reason “of the excessive pinch of poverty can barely keep soul and body together. It is the efficient cause of polygamy and concubinage, always and inevitably a curse. It is expressed and epitomized in the worship of ancestors, which is the real religion of the Chinese.

“This system of ancestral worship, when rightly understood in its true significance, is one of the heaviest yokes which ever a people was compelled to bear. Hundreds of millions of living Chinese are under the most galling subjection to the countless thousands of millions of the dead. "The generation of to-day is chained to the generations of the past." Ancestral worship is the best type and guarantee of leaden conservatism.

Every son has performed his filial duties to his father, and demands the same from his own son. That is what children are for. Upon this point the popular mind inexplicit. "Trees are raised for shade, children are reared for old age." Neither parents nor children are under any illusions upon this subject. " If you have no children to foul the bed, you will have no one to burn paper at the grave." Each generation pays the debt which is exacted of it by the generation which preceded it, and in turn requires from the generation which comes after full payment to the uttermost farthing. Thus is filial piety perpetuated from generation to generation, and from age to age.”

Extreme Filial Piety — Infanticide and Three Years of Intense Mourning — in the 19th Century

Arthur Henderson Smith wrote in “Chinese Characteristics” in 1894: “According to the Chinese teaching, one of the instances of unfilial conduct, is found in "selfish attachment to wife and children." In the chapter of the Sacred Edict, this behaviour is mentioned in the same connection with gambling, and the exhortations against each are of the same kind. The typical instance of true filial devotion, among the twenty-four just mentioned, is a man who lived in the Han dynasty, and who being very poor, found that he had not sufficient food to nourish both his mother and his child three years of age. " We are so poor," he said to his wife, " that we cannot even support mother. Moreover, the little one shares mother's food. Why not bury the child? We may have another, but if mother should die, we cannot obtain her again." His wife dared not oppose him, and accordingly a hole was dug more than two feet deep, when a vase of gold was found, with a suitable inscription, stating that Heaven bestowed this reward on a filial son. If the golden vase had not emerged, the child would have been buried alive, and according to the doctrine of filial piety, as commonly understood, rightly so. " Selfish attachment to wife and children" must not hinder the murder of a child, to prolong the life of its grandparent. [Source:“Chinese Characteristics” by Arthur Henderson Smith, 1894]

“The Chinese believe that there are cases of obstinate illness of parents, which can only be cured by the offering of a portion of the flesh of a son or a daughter, which must be cooked and eaten by the unconscious parent. While the favorable results are not certain, they are very probable. The Peking Gazette frequently contains references to cases of this sort. The writer is personally acquainted with a young man who cut off a slice of his leg to cure his mother, and who exhibited the scar with the pardonable pride of an old soldier. While such cases are doubtless not very common, they are probably not excessively rare.

“The most important aspect of Chinese filial piety is indicated in a saying of Mencius, that " there are three things which are unfilial, and to have no posterity is the greatest of them." The necessity for posterity arises from the necessity for continuing the sacrifices for ancestors, which is thus made the most important duty, in life. It is for this reason that every son must be married at as early an age as possible. It is by no means uncommon to find a Chinese a grandfather, by the time he is thirty-six. The failure to have male children is mentioned first among the seven causes for the divorce of a wife. The necessity for male children has led to the system of concubinage, with all its attendant miseries. It furnishes a ground, eminently rational to the Chinese mind, for the greatest delight at the birth of sons, and a corresponding depression on occasion of the birth of daughters. It is this aspect of the Chinese doctrine which is responsible for a large proportion of the enormous infanticide which is known to exist in China. This crime is much more common in the south of China than in the north, where it often seems to be wholly unknown.

But it must be remembered that it is the most difficult of all subjects upon which to secure exact information, just in proportion to the public sentiment against it. The number of illegitimate children can never be small, and there is everywhere the strongest motive to destroy all such, whatever the sex. Even if direct testimony to the destruction of the life of female infants in any region were much less than it is, it would be a moral certainty that a people among whom the burial alive of a child of three in order to facilitate the support of its grandmother is held to be an act of filial devotion, could not possibly be free from the guilt of destroying the lives of unwelcome female infants.

“Chinese mourning for parents is supposed to consume three full years. In the seventeenth book of the Confucian Analects, we read of one of the disciples of the master, who argued stoutly against three years as a period for mourning, maintaining that one year was enough. To this the master conclusively replied that the superior man could not be happy during ' the whole three years of mourning, but that if this particular disciple thought he could be happy by shortening it a year, he might do so, but the master plainly regarded him as "no gentleman." The observance of this mourning takes precedence of all other duties whatsoever, and amounts to an excision of so much of the life-time of the sons, if they happen to be in government employ. There are instances in which extreme filial devotion is exhibited by the son's building a hut near the grave of the mother or father, and going there to live during the whole time" of the mourning. The most common way in which this is done is to spend the night only at the grave-, while during the day the ordinary occupations are followed as usual. But there are some sons who will be content with nothing less than the whole ceremonial, and accordingly exile themselves for the full period, engaging in no occupation whatever, but being absorbed by grief. The writer is acquainted with a man of this class, whose extreme devotion to his parents' grave for so long a time unsettled his mind, and made him a useless his family. To the Chinese, such an act is highly commendable, irrespective of its consequences, which are not considered at all.

The ceremonial duty is held to be absolute and not relative. It is not uncommon to meet with cases of persons who have sold their land to the last fraction of an acre, and even pulled down the house and disposed of the timbers, in order to provide money for a. suitable funeral for one or both of the parents. That such conduct is' a social wrong few Chinese can be brought to understand, and no Chinese can be brought to realize. It is accordant with Chinese instinct. It is accordant with li, or propriety, and therefore it was unquestionably the thing to be done.

Chinese Girl Attempts to Save Her Father by Committing Suicide

In early 2009, China became absorbed in the fate of a 14-year-old Nanjing girl who tried to kill herself so she could donate her liver to her dying father. The story of Chen Jin, who lay in critical condition for almost two weeks after attempting to sacrifice herself for her parent, has touched hearts across the country. Donations have flooded in to pay the family's huge medical bills and well-wishers have even offered to give the father their own livers. [Source: Tania Branigan, The Guardian, February 6, 2009]

"She loves her dad more than herself,” said the teenager's mother, who said her husband had been diagnosed with liver cancer in December and told that he had only three months to live. The couple decided to keep the news from their daughter for as long as possible. But after Jin came across a medical letter last month explaining the extent of her father's condition she waited until her mother was at the hospital and then attempted to kill herself.

It was only around 10 hours later, when her mother returned home and found the house locked and bolted, that she realized something was wrong. She then forced her way in through a window. “I saw my daughter lying quite still, as if she were dead, with two empty bottles of pills beside her bed and a suicide note,” Cui Lan, 43, told Nanjing's Modern Express newspaper. The note read: “Mum, I am sorry that I could not be with you any more. Please give my liver to my father after I die.”

Jin was rushed to hospital where doctors pumped her stomach twice and gave her a blood transfusion. For days her distraught mother tried to hide the truth from her husband, telling him that their daughter could not visit him because she was slightly unwell, or busy visiting relatives. In fact, she was lying meters away in the intensive care unit of the same hospital.

Five days after admission, Jin finally emerged from her coma and was even able to write a brief note to her parents, telling her father she would come to visit him. But only two days later she stopped breathing — and did so again a day later. Doctors became increasingly anxious as she remained in a critical condition. It was only today, 11 days after her suicide attempt, that they declared her out of danger.

The family have had to pay hundreds of thousands of yuan to treat father and daughter, on an income of only around 1,000 yuan (£100) a month. But Cui said today that well-wishers had given so much that all their bills had been covered and she would donate any excess to other needy families. Modern Express said many people had also rung the paper to offer to donate their organs....But Wang Weidong, the doctor treating the father, said a liver transplant could not save him because the cancer had already spread.

Filial Piety Under Threat in Modern China

Andrew Jacobs and Adam Century wrote in the New York Times: “Despite the demands of an increasingly fast-paced society, the Confucian idea of filial devotion is deeply embedded in Chinese society. Tradition dictates that children live with their parents and care for them in their old age, a convention that historically provided a safety net. But the custom is rapidly fraying as children struggle with the logistical and financial burdens of caring for their aged parents. [Source: Andrew Jacobs and Adam Century, New York Times, September 15, 2012]

This has proved particularly challenging in recent years to the huge numbers of only children born after the introduction of strict family-planning rules in the late 1970s. One result, demographers say, is a skyrocketing number of so-called empty nests filled by older people who live alone while their children build their own roosts in distant cities. According to the Ministry of Civil Affairs, empty nests now account for more than 50 percent of all Chinese households; in some urban areas the figure has reached 70 percent. A 2011 report by the official Xinhua news agency said that nearly half of the 185 million people age 60 and older live apart from their children — a phenomenon unheard of a generation ago.

Like many young Chinese, Chen Xuena, who works for a public relations company in Beijing, said she was torn between chasing a career and tending to her parents in far-off Zhejiang Province. “Every time I visit home I see signs that my parents are getting older, and it really brings me down,” said Ms. Chen, sitting at one of the capital’s coffee bars. “But once you get used to the opportunities and culture of Beijing, it’s hard to leave.”

Such angst will only continue to grow, and not just because China still lacks a meaningful social safety net for the elderly. Demographers estimate that the population of those over 60 will triple before 2050; around the same time, projections show the median age of Chinese will be higher than that of Americans, but with perhaps one-third of the average income, adjusted for the cost of living.

Such figures help explain the sense of urgency that is beginning to grip the governing Communist Party. Last year, in an attempt to ease the impact from so much atomized living, the National People’s Congress, China’s legislature, proposed a law that obliges sons and daughters to “return home to visit their parents frequently.” The legislation would enable neglected parents to sue their children for infractions, though the vagueness of the law — it does not spell out the frequency of visits — has raised some doubts about its enforceability.

Beijing Updates Morality Tales to Spur Filial Devotion

Andrew Jacobs and Adam Century wrote in the New York Times: “Reading it now, six centuries after Guo Jujing wrote this paean to parental devotion, “The 24 Paragons of Filial Piety” comes off as a collection of scary bedtime stories. There is the woman who cut out her own liver to feed her sick mother, the boy who sat awake shirtless all night to draw mosquitoes away from his slumbering parents and the man who sold himself into servitude to pay for a father’s funeral. [Source: Andrew Jacobs and Adam Century, New York Times, September 15, 2012]

While the parables are even more familiar to most Chinese than Grimms — Fairy Tales are to Americans — the text remains a mainstay of educational curriculum here — they have understandably lost much of their motivational punch. In an effort to address the book’s glaring obsolescence, the government issued an updated version last month in the hope that the book would encourage more Chinese to turn away from their increasingly self-centered ways and perhaps phone home once in a while.

Compared with its predecessor, the new book brims with down-to-earth suggestions for keeping parents happy in their golden years. Readers are urged to teach them how to surf the Internet, take Mom to a classic film and buy health insurance for retired parents. “Family is the nucleus of society,” intoned Cui Shuhui, the director of the All-China Women’s Federation, which, along with the China National Committee on Aging, published the new guidelines after two years of interviews with older Chinese. “We need family in order to advance Chinese society and improve our economic situation.”

Ridicule of the Updated Morality Tales

Andrew Jacobs and Adam Century wrote in the New York Times: ‘so far, those good intentions appear to have prompted mostly ridicule. But they have also unintentionally kicked up a debate on whether the government, not overextended children, should be looking after China’s ballooning population of retirees. In a fast-aging nation where hundreds of millions of people have left their former homes in the countryside in search of jobs, “The New 24 Paragons of Filial Piety” strikes many as nearly as out of touch with the problems of modern China as the old parables. [Source: Andrew Jacobs and Adam Century, New York Times, September 15, 2012]

Take, for example, the responsibility to “take one’s parents traveling frequently.” While feasible for successful professionals, the obligation is all but impossible for working people, especially the nation’s roughly 252 million migrant workers, few of whom have ever experienced the joys of leisure travel. According to the National Bureau of Statistics, their numbers are rising 4.4 percent annually, meaning that nearly 11 million rural migrants arrived in Chinese cities last year alone — and most likely left their aging parents behind.

Zhang Yang, a fruit vendor in Beijing, scoffed at the suggestion that he should take his parents on vacation, noting that he rarely stops working or has time to visit them in their hometown in Henan Province, roughly 400 miles south of the capital. “One time I didn’t get to go home for four years,” he said sheepishly. “Business here is good, but I feel guilty for not being with my parents.”

Li Ji, a popular columnist at the state-run Legal Daily newspaper, lashed out at the new guidelines, arguing that they would not be necessary if the government provided better care for its citizens. “If the national health insurance was up to par, children wouldn’t have to worry so much about their parents’ health, and if companies were required to provide a certain number of vacation days, children would be able to go home more often,” he wrote.

“The New 24 Paragons of Filial Piety,” despite its ham-handedness, tries to address the root causes of loneliness. It urges children to throw their parents a birthday party each year and listen attentively to their stories from the past. It even asks that children help widowed parents remarry, a task that some parents found objectionable. “I would be really embarrassed if my son tried to help me remarry,” said Xu Zhihao, a retiree who was sunning himself with friends in a Beijing park on Wednesday. “That’s not part of Chinese tradition.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Robert Eno, Indiana University, Chinatxt chinatxt /+/; Asia for Educators, Columbia University ; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, /=\; National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/; Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua;; China Daily; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia; Smithsonian magazine; The Guardian; Yomiuri Shimbun; AFP; Wikipedia; BBC. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.

Last updated September 2021

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