(1894 version) Chinese Characteristics CHAPTER XIX. FILIAL PIETY


TO discuss the characteristics of the Chinese without mentioning filial piety, is out of the question. But the filial piety of the Chinese is not an easy subject to treat. These words, like many others which we are obliged to employ, have among the Chinese a sense very different from that which we are accustomed to attach to them, and a sense of which no English expression is an exact translation. This is also true of a great variety of terms used in Chinese, and of no one more than of the word ordinarily rendered "ceremony" (li), with which filial piety is intimately connected. To illustrate this, and at the same time to furnish a background for what we have to say of the characteristic under discussion, we cannot do better than to cite a passage from M. Callery (quoted in the "Middle Kingdom"): "Ceremony epitomises the entire Chinese mind; and in my opinion, the Book of Rites is per se the most exact and complete monograph that China has been able to give of herself to other nations. Its affections, if it has any, are satisfied by ceremony; its duties are fulfilled by ceremony; its virtues and vices are referred to ceremony; the natural relations of created beings essentially link themselves in ceremonial — in a word, to that people ceremonial is man as a moral, political, and religious being, in his multiplied relations with family, society, and religion." Every one must agree in Dr. Williams's comment upon this passage, that it shows how "meagre a rendering is 'ceremony' for the Chinese idea of It, for it includes not only the external conduct, but involves the right principles from which all true etiquette and politeness spring."

One of the most satisfactory methods to ascertain the Chinese view of filial piety would be to trace the instruction which is contained on this subject in the Four Books, and in the other Classics, especially in the "Filial Piety Classic." Our present object is merely to direct attention to the doctrine as put into practice by the Chinese, of whom filial piety, in the sense in which they understand it, is not merely a characteristic but a peculiarity. It must be remembered that Chinese filial piety is many-sided, and the same things are not to be seen in all situations or by all observers.

At the Missionary Conference held in Shanghai in the year 1877, a paper was read by Dr. Yates on "Ancestral Worship," in which he embodied the results of his thirty years' experience in China. In one of the opening sentences of this elaborate essay, the author, after speaking of ancestral worship considered merely as a manifestation of filial piety, continues: "The term 'filial' is misleading, and we should guard against being deceived by it. Of all the people of whom we have any knowledge, the sons of the Chinese are most unfilial, disobedient to parents, and pertinacious in having their own way from the time they are able to make known their wants." Dr. Legge, the distinguished translator of the Chinese Classics, who retired from China after thirty-three years' experience, has quoted this passage from Dr. Yates, for the purpose of most emphatically dissenting from it, declaring that his experience of the Chinese has been totally different. This merely illustrates the familiar truth that there is room for honest difference of opinion among men, as among thermometers, and that a correct view can only be reached by combining results that appear to be absolutely inharmonious into a whole that shall be even more comprehensive than either of its parts.

That Chinese children have no proper discipline, that they are not taught to obey their parents, and that as a rule they have no idea of prompt obedience as we understand it, is a most indubitable fact attested by wide experience. But that the later years of these ungoverned or half-governed children generally do not exhibit such results as we should have expected, appears to be not less a truth. The Chinese think and say that "the crooked tree, when it is large, will straighten itself," by which metaphor is figured the belief that children when grown will do the things which they ought to do. However it may be in regard to other duties, there really appears to be some foundation for this theory in the matter of filial behaviour. The occasion of this phenomenon seems to lie in the nature of the Chinese doctrine of filial piety, the manner in which it is taught, and the prominence which is everywhere given to it. It is said in the "Filial Piety Classic" that: "There are three thousand crimes to which one or the other of the five kinds of punishment is attached as a penalty, and of these no one is greater than disobedience to parents." One of the many sayings in common circulation runs as follows: "Of the hundred virtues filial conduct is the chief, but it must be judged by the intentions, not by acts; for, judged by acts, there would not be a filial son in the world." The Chinese are expressly taught that a defect of any virtue, when traced to its root, is a lack of filial piety. He who violates propriety is deficient in filial conduct. He who serves his prince but is not loyal lacks filial piety. He who is a magistrate without due respect for its duties is lacking in filial piety. He who does not show proper sincerity towards his friends lacks filial piety. He who fails to exhibit courage in battle lacks filial piety. Thus the doctrine of filial conduct is seen to embrace much more than mere acts, and descends into the motives, taking cognisance of the whole moral being.

In the popular apprehension, the real basis of the virtue of filial conduct is felt to be gratitude. This is emphasised in the "Filial Piety Classic," and in the chapter of the Sacred Edicts on the subject. The justification of the period of three years' mourning is found, according to Confucius, in the undoubted social fact that "for the first three years of its existence the child is not allowed to leave the arms of its parents," as if the one term were in some way an offset for the other. The young lamb is proverbially a type of filial behaviour, for it has the grace to kneel when sucking its dam. Filial piety demands that we should preserve the bodies which our parents gave us, otherwise we seem to slight their kindness. Filial piety requires that we should serve our parents while they live, and worship them when dead. Filial piety requires that a son should follow in the steps of his father. "If for the three years he does not alter from the way of his father," says Confucius, "he may be called filial." But if the parents are manifestly in the wrong, filial piety does not forbid an attempt at their reformation, as witness the following, quoted by Dr. Williams from the Book of Rites: "When his parents are in error, the son, with a humble spirit, pleasing countenance, and gentle tones, must point it out to them. If they do not receive his reproof, he must strive more and more to be dutiful and respectful to them till they are pleased, and then he must again point out their error. But if he does not succeed in pleasing them, it is better that he should continue to reiterate reproof than permit them to do injury to the whole department, district, village, or neighbourhood. And if the parents, irritated and displeased, chastise their son till the blood flows from him, even then he must not dare to harbour the least resentment; but on the contrary, should treat them with increased respect and dutifulness." It is to be feared that in most Western lands the admonition of parents upon these terms would be allowed to fall into desuetude, and it is not to be wondered that we do not hear much of it even in China!

In the second book of the "Confucian Analects" we find record of several different answers which Confucius gave as to the nature of filial piety, his replies being varied according to the circumstances of the questioners. The first answer which is mentioned is that to an officer of the State of Lu, and is comprised in the compendious expression "wu-wei," which he apparently left in the mind of the querist as a kind of seed to be developed by time and reflection. The words "wu-wei" simply mean "not disobedient," and it is natural that Mang I, the officer who had inquired, so understood them. But Confucius, like the rest of his countrymen since, had a "talent for indirection," and instead of explaining himself to Mang I, he waited until some time later when one of Confucius' disciples was driving him out, when the Master repeated the question of Mang I to this disciple, and also the reply. The disciple, whose name was Fan Ch'ih, on hearing the words "wu-wei," very naturally asked, "What did you mean?" which gave the Master the requisite opportunity to tell what he really meant, in the following words: "That parents when alive should be served according to propriety, that when dead they should be buried according to propriety, and that they should be sacrificed to according to propriety." The conversation between Confucius and Fan Ch'ih was intended by the former to lead the latter to report it to Mang I, who would thus discover what was meant to be inferred from the words "wu-wei"! In other answers of the Master to the question, what is denoted by filial piety? Confucius laid stress upon the requirement that parents should be treated with reverence, adding that when they are not so treated, mere physical care for them is on a plane with the care bestowed upon dogs and horses.

These passages have been quoted in this connection, to show that the notion that filial piety consists largely in compliance with the wishes of parents, and in furnishing them what they need and what they want, is a very ancient idea in China. Confucius expressly says: "The filial piety of the present time means (only) the support of one's parents," implying that in ancient times, of which he was so fond, and which he wished to revive, it was otherwise. Many ages have elapsed since these conversations of the Master took place, and his doctrine has had time to penetrate the marrow of the Chinese people, as indeed it has done. But if Confucius were alive to-day, there is good reason to think that he would affirm more emphatically than ever, "The filial piety of the present time means only the support of one's parents." That the popular conscience responds to the statement of the claims of filial piety, as to no other duty, has been already observed, but in the same connection it ought to be clearly understood what this filial piety is supposed to connote. If ten uneducated persons, taken at random, were to be asked what they mean by being "filial," it is altogether probable that nine of them would reply, "Not letting one's parents get angry," that is, because they are not properly served. Or, in a more condensed form, filial piety is "wu-wei," '"not disobedient," which is what the Master said it is, albeit he used the words in "a Pickwickian sense.''

If any of our readers wish to see this theory in a practical form, let them consider the four-and-twenty ensamples of filial piety, immortalised in the familiar little book called by that name. In one of these cases, a boy who lived in the "After Han Dynasty," at the age of six paid a visit to a friend, by whom he was entertained with oranges. The precocious youth on this occasion executed the common Chinese feat of stealing two oranges, and thrusting them up his sleeve. But as he was making his parting bows the fruit rolled out, and left the lad in an embarrassing situation, to which, however, he was equal. Kneeling down before his host, he made the memorable observation which has rendered his name illustrious for nearly two millenniums: "My mother loves oranges very much, and I wanted them for her." As this lad's father was an officer of high rank, it would seem to an Occidental critic that the boy might have enjoyed other opportunities for gratifying her desire for oranges, but to the Chinese the lad is a classic instance of filial devotion, because at this early age he was thoughtful for his mother, or perhaps so quick at inventing an excuse. Another lad, of the Chin Dynasty, whose parents had no mosquito nets, at the age of eight hit upon the happy expedient of going to bed very early, lying perfectly quiet all night, not even brandishing a fan, in order that the family mosquitoes might gorge themselves upon him alone, and allow his parents to sleep in peace! Another lad of the same dynasty lived with a stepmother who disliked him, but as she was very fond of carp, which were not to be obtained during the winter, he adopted the injudicious plan of taking off his clothes and lying on the ice, which so impressed a brace of carp who had observed the proceeding from the under side that they made a hole in the ice and leaped forth in order to be cooked for the benefit of the irascible stepmother!

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 already quoted, 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.

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 favourable 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. An acquaintance of the writer's accused himself upon his death-bed of having been unfilial in two particulars: firsts that he had not survived long enough to bury his old mother; and second, that he had neglected to arrange for the marriage of his son, a child of about ten years of age. This view of filial piety would doubtless commend itself to the average Chinese.

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.

Reference has already been made to the theory of Chinese mourning for parents, which is supposed to consume three full years, but which in practice is mercifully shortened to twenty-seven months. 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 lifetime 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 burden to 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 realise. It is accordant with Chinese instinct. It is accordant with li, or propriety, and therefore it was unquestionably the thing to be done.

The Abbé Huc gives from his own experience an excellent example of that ceremonial, filial conduct, which to the Chinese is so dear. While the Abbé was living in the south of China, during the first year of his residence in this Empire, he had occasion to send a messenger to Peking, and he bethought him that perhaps a Chinese schoolmaster in his employ, whose home was in Peking, would like to embrace the rare opportunity to send a message to his old mother, from whom he had not heard for four years, and who did not know of her son's whereabouts. Hearing that the courier was to leave soon, the teacher called to one of his pupils, who was singing off his lesson in the next room, "Here, take this paper, and write me a letter to my mother. Lose no time, for the courier is going at once." This proceeding struck M. Huc as singular, and he inquired if the lad was acquainted with the teacher's mother, and was informed that the boy did not even know that there was such a person. "How then was he to know what to say, not having been told?" To this the schoolmaster made the conclusive reply: "Don't he know quite well what to say? For more than a year he has been studying literary composition, and he is acquainted with a number of elegant formulas. Do you think he does not know perfectly well how a son ought to write to a mother? "The pupil soon returned with the letter not only all written, but sealed up, the teacher merely adding the superscription with his own hand. The letter would have answered equally well for any other mother in the Empire, and any other would have been equally pleased to receive it.

The amount of filial conduct on the part of Chinese children to their parents will vary in any two places. Doubtless both extremes are to be found everywhere. Parricides are not common, and such persons are usually insane, though that makes no difference in the cruel punishment which they suffer. But among the common people, groaning in deepest poverty, some harsh treatment of parents is inevitable. On the other hand, voluntary substitutions of a son for the father, in cases of capital punishment, are known to occur, and such instances speak forcibly for the sincerity and power of the instinct of filial devotion to a parent, though this parent may be a deeply dyed criminal.

To the Occidental, fresh from the somewhat too loose bonds of family life which not infrequently prevail in lands nominally Christian, 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 li as applied to human beings. An attentive consideration of the matter from the Chinese standpoint will show that there is abundant room in our own social practice for improvement, and that most of us really live in glass houses, and would do well not to throw stones recklessly. Yet, on the other hand, it is idle to discuss the filial piety of the Chinese without making most emphatic its fatal defects in several particulars.

This doctrine seems to have five radical faults, two of them negative and three of them positive. It has volumes on the duty of children towards parents, but no word on the duty of parents to children. China is not a country in which advice of this kind is superfluous. Such advice is everywhere most needed, and always has been so. It was an inspired wisdom which led the Apostle Paul to combine in a few brief sentences addressed to his Colossian church the four pillars of the ideal home: "Husbands, love your wives, and be not bitter against them." "Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as it is fit in the Lord." "Children, obey your parents in all things, for this is well pleasing unto the Lord." "Fathers, provoke not your children to anger, lest they be discouraged." What is there in all Confucian morality which for practical wisdom can for a moment be put into competition with these far-reaching principles? 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 epitomised in the worship of ancestors, which is the real religion of the Chinese race. 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. As pointed out by Dr. Yates in the essay to which reference has been already made, the 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 that leaden conservatism to which attention has already been directed. Until that conservatism shall have received some mortal wound, how is it possible for China to adjust herself to the wholly new conditions under which she finds herself in this last quarter of the century? And while the generations of those who have passed from the stage continue to be regarded as the true divinities by the Chinese people, how is it possible that China should take a single real step forward?

The true root of the Chinese practice of filial piety we believe to be a mixture of fear and self-love, two of the most powerful motives which can act on the human soul. The spirits must be worshipped on account of the power which they have for evil. From the Confucian point of view, it was a sagacious maxim of the Master, that "to respect spiritual beings, but to keep aloof from them, may be called wisdom." If the sacrifices are neglected the spirits will be angry. If the spirits are angry they will take revenge. It is better to worship the spirits by way of insurance. This appears to be a condensed statement of the Chinese theory of all forms of worship of the dead. As between the living, the process of reasoning is equally simple. 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 is explicit. "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 bum 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.

It is a melancholy comment upon the exaggerated Chinese doctrine of piety that it not only embodies no reference to a Supreme Being, but that it does not in any way lead up to a recognition of His existence. Ancestral worship, which is the most complete and the ultimate expression of this filial piety, is perfectly consistent with polytheism, with agnosticism, and with atheism. It makes dead men into gods, and its only gods are dead men. Its love, its gratitude, and its fears are for earthly parents only. It has no conception of a Heavenly Father, and feels no interest in such a being when He is made known. Either Christianity will never be introduced into China, or ancestral worship will be given up, for they are contradictories. In the death struggle between them the fittest only will survive. 

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