Monday, October 16, 2006

The Many Aspects of XIAO

What does it mean to be 孝? 孝 for me has always been being obedient to parents or the elders. However, after reading the Analects, I realized the above definition has limitations. Confucius extends my definition by believing that 孝, one of the most four virtues leading to a life of perfect goodness, is about love and reverence. It represents a good relationship. It’s a strong attachment a child has to his/ her parents, making one truly care about one’s parents. It came from a relationship in which the child learns from the parents in many different ways.

孝 is often translated into English as filial piety. For Confucius, filial respect and, by extension, respects for elders were "the root of authoritative conduct."1 Therefore, it is important to discern what 孝 really means. The character 孝 is composed of two parts: 爻, to influence, and 子, child. So the word originally means putting a child under influence. We could learn more about it by comparing 孝 with two other Chinese characters with the same stem: 教, to make learn, and 效, mimic, copy or effect, efficacy. It shows the importance of parents’ influence on a child. Suppose a child is raised up in an environment where parents don’t respect each other, or are hostile to their own parents, it is indeed difficult for the child to grow up to be filial to his/ her parents. So in my understanding, filial piety represents a relationship in which the children can learn proper conduct from their parents by observing and imitating.

What kind of relationship it is? To begin with, I think 孝 is based on one’s love for his/ her parents. “Tseng Tzu said, 'I have heard the Master say that on no occasion does a man realize himself to the full, though, when pressed, he said that mourning for one's parents may be an exception.'”2 Now think of the occasions in which one could not hold oneself, or in which one’s emotion surpass one’s reasoning. According to Confucius, only the mourning of one’s parents, with grief so deep, could bring about the revealing of one’s true feelings. It is a very touching passage, and it is true that the parents-children relationship should be a bound of deep affection and love.

Apart from mourning, the Analects also says something about how a person of filial piety should conduct after the death of his/ her father. “The Master said: ‘While a person’s father is still alive, observe what he intends; when his father dies, observe what he does. A person who for three years refrains from reforming the ways of his late father can be called a filial son.’”3 This is nowadays a somewhat controversial passage, for in today’s society, innovation is the wheels of development. People argue that if everyone do as this passage commend, refraining from reforming his late father’s ways, there would not be progress in the society. Thus, this action does more harm than good. On the surface, it may seem a plausible argument, however, carefully examine Confucius’ real intention of saying this, we could find that the “ways” he talks about is not the material way but rather a way of conduct. It does not mean if a farmer’s son is not filial if he grows up to be a doctor. Quite the contrary, he would be unfilial if he does become a farmer, but a lazy and decadent one. The reason why Confucius says this is because when the father is alive, the son would always seem obedient, for he dares not do things against the father, so we can only observe his character through his intentions; when the father dies, the restraint is broken, the son could do whatever he wants; but if he’s a person of 孝 (filial piety), his love for his father would prevent him to do anything against his father’s ways. It is no longer for the physical reasons (for instance, a child does not dare to contradict his father for fear of physical punishment), but rather for emotional reasons. A child would love his father so much that he doesn’t wish to change the ways.

孝 also means the reverence and obedience (恭顺) toward the parents. Notice the word reverence is placed before obedience. It’s because only with reverence can one truly be obedient. People could seem obedient when they are under tyrannical laws and rules, but this is not real obedience; one’s the restrictions are lifted, the people would become ever more unruly and contemptible. That’s what Confucius means by saying: “Lead the people with administrative injunctions and keep them orderly with penal law, and they will avoid punishments but will be without a sense of shame.”4 But there is more to 孝 than mere obedience. 敬, for one, is another quality of 孝. “Those filial persons are not fond of offending against their superiors, for they are, in heart, reverent and obedient. ”5

In being 孝, obedience is subordinate to reverence. For instance, what should one do when his/ her parents make mistakes? If one only follows the rule of being obedient, then he/ she would still do the things parents ask of them even it is wrong, and thus continues on the wrong track leading to an undesirable consequence. What, then, should a person of 孝 do when the parents are wrong? The Master said, "In serving his parents, a son may remonstrate with them, but gently; when he sees that they do not incline to follow his advice, he shows an increased degree of reverence, but does not abandon his purpose; and should they punish him, he does not allow himself to murmur." 6This is how a son may remonstrate with his parents on their faults. And here we can see that reverence is placed with more importance than obedience.

Moreover, reverence is considered the central element of 孝. When Ziyou asked about filial conduct, Confucius said the difference between human beings and animals is that people respect their parents, not merely support their parents financially. Confucius said, “even dogs and horses are given that much care. If you do not respect your parents, what’s the difference? ”7 That is to say, disrespecting parents makes one no different to animals. So we can see that great emphasis is put on respect.

孝, as I said, rises from a relationship, strengthens a relationship, and is a reflection of a good parent-children relationship. As all kinds of relationships, it is developed in trivial things. Do you visit your parents often? Do you make tea for them? Do you trim nails for them? All these things are relevant with whether a person is filial or not. And to Confucius, there are more to it than conducting these simple deeds. It is not what you do that is important, but rather how you do it. Cheerfully and willingly, or reluctantly, out of obligation? Confucius said, “It (filial conduct) all lies in showing the proper countenance. As for the young contributing their energies when there is work to be done, and deferring to their elders when there is wine and food to be had – how can merely doing this be considered filial. ”8 How, then, does one show the proper countenance? It goes back to a child’s love for his/ her elders. According to Zhu Xi, only a filial person who loves his elders will have peace in mind, and only then can he appear pleasant, and only then can he show the proper countenance. Serving the elders is not difficult, but serving the elders and enjoying doing it is a high requirement, and could be considered an evaluation of a person’s filial piety.

The last passage I want to quote here is an interesting and touching one. It’s important in terms of understanding Confucius’ view on filial conduct. “The Master said, ‘Children must know the age of their father and mother. On one hand, it is a source of joy; on the other, of trepidation.’” It may be hard to understand this passage at first, but we know that the age of father and mother does not only mean the number, their age, but the fact that they are old and are getting older. To say it is a source of joy is because the age shows parents’ longevity. To say it is a source of trepidation is because children fear that with aging, their parents are becoming more and more frail. This is a sincere feeling of love. 孝 doesn’t need propaganda, nor does it need a magnificent feat; it’s embedded in the most trivial things, for example, knowing the age of parents.

From what has been discussed above, we may arrive at the conclusion that 孝 came from a good relationship; it means to love and respect the elders and to care for them attentively. With that, a person would see filial conduct not as an obligation, but a habit, and an enjoyment.


1 Ames, Roger and Henry Rosemont. The Analects Of Confucius. New York: Ballantine Books/Ballantine Pub. Group, 1999. I.2

2 Legge, James. The Analects Of Confucius, The Great Learning, Doctrine Of The Mean. New York: Dover Publications, 1971. XIX.17.

3 Ames, Roger and Henry Rosemont. The Analects Of Confucius. New York: Ballantine Books/Ballantine Pub. Group, 1999. I.11.

4 Ames, Roger and Henry Rosemont. The Analects Of Confucius. New York: Ballantine Books/Ballantine Pub. Group, 1999. II.3.

5 Zhu Xi's Reading of the Analects: Canon, Commentary and the Classical Tradition. Daniel Gardner. A Century Of Arts And Letters. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003.

6 Legge, James. The Analects Of Confucius, The Great Learning, Doctrine Of The Mean. New York: Dover Publications, 1971. IV.18.

77 Ames, Roger and Henry Rosemont. The Analects Of Confucius. New York: Ballantine Books/Ballantine Pub. Group, 1999. II.7

8 Ames, Roger and Henry Rosemont. The Analects Of Confucius. New York: Ballantine Books/Ballantine Pub. Group, 1999. II.8

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