Classics of Filial Piety

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Classics of Filial Piety

Since the establishment of a Confucian society in the Han dynasty, some two thousand years ago, filial piety could be considered the central pillar around which Chinese society has been built. The behavior of each person towards his father (and, to a lesser extent but also towards his mother), based on respect, obedience, total submission, and the obligation to achieve fame to luster his name and maintain them in case of need, was a paradigm, at the microcosmic and family level, of similar behavior at the macrocosmic level, on the part of all subjects, towards the emperor.

This relationship, based, like many other patterns of Chinese society, on the teachings of Confucius, allows us to understand important aspects of Chinese culture that would otherwise be absurd, such as the absolute power of parents over their children or the disproportionate punishments to which anyone who violates the slightest norm of filial piety is deserving of.

While at the popular level filial piety was taught to children from an early age, especially with the exemplary stories, of which the Twenty-Four Stories of Filial Piety, generally illustrated, were the most famous, at the intellectual and philosophical level it was based on the so-called Classic of Filial Piety.

These fundamental texts to understand Chinese culture, have recently been edited and translated into English, within what we could call the process of Confucian revitalization of Chinese society.

We introduce here the brief introduction to the Classic of Filial Piety, where its basic ideas are advanced:

«Confucius was idle in his house, beside him sat Zeng Zi attending him.

Confucius said to him: «The kings of ancient times applied the highest virtue and the most important principle to make the common people submit to them. The people lived in harmony and there were no protests or grievances between the rulers and the ruled. Do you know how such a situation could be achieved?» 

Zeng Zi rose from his seat and answered him. «I am not so wise, how am I to understand this?»

Confucius then explained to him, «This is filial piety, which is the very foundation of all virtues, and from which all understanding arises for the common people. Sit down and I will tell you why it happens this way.»

«Our physical body, hair and skin, everything is given to us by our parents, so we must not dare to harm or hurt it, and that is the starting point of filial piety. If you establish yourself successfully in society, your name will be passed on to later generations and your parents will be honored. This is the ultimate point of filial piety.»

«So filial piety begins by loving your parents, continues by showing your loyalty to your superiors, and ends by establishing yourself in society.»

«As the Great Ode of the Book of Poetry says: «Forget not your ancestors and cultivate yourself with their virtue.»

Of the Twenty-Four Stories of Filial Piety, possibly compiled in the Yuan dynasty, just to say that they are short stories in which the filial behavior of a son is brought out. It is noteworthy that of the 24 stories, in 14 of them the filial action is directed to the mother, in six of them to the parents as a couple, and only in four of them to the father.

We reproduce here the ninth story: «Guo Ju thinks of burying his son to save his mother».

Guo Ju, of the Han dynasty, led a very poor life. He had a three-year-old son. Guo Ju’s mother often left some of her food for her grandson.

One day Guo Ju said to his wife, «Since our family is too poor to give our mother enough food, and besides, she shares some with our son. Why don’t we bury our son? We may have children again, but we can never have a mother again.»  

The wife did not dare to disagree with him. So Guo Ju went into the bush with his son and dug a pit one meter deep. Just at that moment, a golden cauldron was found with some words inscribed on it: «Gold of the god for the diligent son Guo Ju. Officials cannot steal it, and others cannot take it away.»

More information: The Book of Filial Piety – Twenty-four stories of filial piety – Dizi gui: Dos and Don’ts for Children. Translated into English by Gu Danke. China Publishing Group. 2010. 

To cite this post: Ceinos-Arcones, Pedro, "Classics of Filial Piety," in Ethnic China, 27 mayo 2021,
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