According to Chinese tradition, filial piety (hsiao) was the primary duty of all Chinese. Being a filial son meant complete obedience to one’s parents during their lifetime and–as they grew older–taking the best possible care of them. After their death the eldest son was required to perform ritual sacrifices at their grave site or in the ancestral temple. A son could also express his devotion to his parents by passing the Civil Service examinations, winning prestige for the whole family. Most important of all, a son had to make sure that the family line would be continued. Dying without a son therefore was one of the worst offenses against the concept of filial piety. If a marriage remained barren, it was a son’s duty to take a second wife or adopt a child in order to continue the family. Since Chinese women became part of their husband’s family through marriage, filial conduct for a woman meant faithfully serving her in-laws, in particular her mother-in-law, and giving birth to a son. By fulfilling these duties, she also gained prestige for her own family. If the mother and daughter-in-law did not get along, filial piety demanded that a man should get rid of his wife in order to please his mother. He could always get another wife, but he would only have one mother. While continuing the family line was probably the most important issue for the vast majority of the Chinese, Buddhist monks and nuns were required to remain celibate. Their refusal to fulfill the obligations of filial piety made them suspect in the eyes of other Chinese. Along with the eunuchs at the emperor’s court and Taoist priests they were often believed to conduct themselves in an immoral or criminal manner.

Stories about exemplary filial conduct abound in Chinese history. The Twenty-Four Examples of Filial Piety (Er-shih-ssu hsiao) were chosen and compiled by Kuo Chü-ching during the Yuan Dynasty (1280-1368 CE) while he was mourning the death of his father. Other collections followed. Even today, these stories form an important part of Chinese folklore. You may be surprised at how brief these stories are and how little background is given. Two reasons may explain this: On the one hand, everyone was so familiar with the heroes of these examples that it was unnecessary to give any details about their lives. On the other hand, brevity is considered to be good style in the classic Chinese tradition.

Choose a western fairy tale which involves children’s relationship to their parents and compare the attitudes in that tale with the attitudes expressed here. What strikes you as familiar? Where do you see differences?

Freezing in a Thin Coat in Obedience to His Stepmother

Min Tzu-chien had lost his mother at a young age. His father remarried and had two more sons with his second wife. She always dressed her own sons in thickly padded robes. But to her stepson she gave only a thin coat padded with cattails [instead of cotton]. One winter day, when Min Tzu-chien was told to hold the reins of his father’s cart, he was shivering so badly that he dropped the reins. This way his father found out that his wife dressed his oldest son very poorly. In his rage he decided to dismiss his second wife. But Min Tzu-chien said: “If she stays, one son will be freezing. But if she leaves, all three sons will suffer from the cold.” When his stepmother heard this, she changed her attitude towards Min Tzu-chien.

Allowing Mosquitoes to Feast on His Blood

During the Chin Dynasty (4th-5th Century CE), a boy named Wu Meng (1) was already serving his parents in exemplary filial piety although he was just eight years old. The family was so poor that they could not even afford a gauze net against the mosquitoes. Therefore every night in the summer swarms of mosquitoes would come and bite them. Wu Meng let them all feast on his naked stomach. Even though there were so many, he did not drive them away. He feared that the mosquitoes, having left him, would instead bite his parents. His heart was truly filled with love for his parents.

Sacrificing His Son for the Sake of His Mother

Kuo Chi, who lived during the Han Dynasty (200 BCE-200 CE) and his family were very poor. He had a three-year-old son. Even though there was little food, Kou Chi’s mother would always give part of her share to her grandson so that he did not suffer hunger.

One day Kuo Chi said to his wife, “We are so poor and needy that we cannot give mother enough to eat, and on top of this our son is eating part of mother’s share. It were better if we buried our son.” (2) He started digging a grave. When he had dug a hole of about three chih (3), he discovered a pot filled with gold and the inscription: “Officials may not take it, people may not steal it.”

Wearing Children’s Clothes to Amuse His Parents

During the time of the Chou Dynasty (11th-3rd Century BCE), there was a man named Lao Lai-tzu (4) who was by nature extremely filial. He took care of both his parents and provided for them with the choicest delicacies. After he himself turned seventy, he never spoke about his age. (5) He often wore clothes striped in five colors and acted like an infant in front of his parents. He would carry a bowl of water to them, and then stumble on purpose. Lying on the floor he would cry like a little child in order to make his parents laugh.

Crying in the Bamboo-Grove and Making the Bamboo Sprout

During the era of the Three Kingdoms (3rd Century CE) there lived a man named Meng Sung, also known as [Meng] Chien-wu (6). He had lost his father during his childhood. When his mother was old and sick she craved fresh bamboo-shoots even though it was winter. Sung had no idea how he could get them. In desperation, he went into a bamboo grove, clasped a bamboo stem and broke into tears. His filial devotion moved heaven and earth and they forced the earth to crack open. Numerous shoots of bamboo came out. Meng Sung carried them home and made them into a soup for his mother. As soon as she had eaten she felt much better.

Cleaning his Mother’s Chamberpot

Huang T’ing-chien (7) of the Sung Dynasty, also known as [Huang] Shan-gu, became a member of the Hanlin academy (8) during the Yuan-Yu reign (1086-1094 CE) (9).

He was by nature extremely filial. Even though he was such an esteemed and famous person, he served his mother with utmost devotion. Every evening he would personally clean his mother’s chamber pot. Not a moment passed without his fulfilling his filial duties.

(1) According to Chinese tradition, Wu Meng later in life studied black magic and could cross a river without a boat, waving a fan of white feathers over the water. His body did not decompose after death and finally disappeared.

(2) Chinese texts sometimes continue this conversation: “We can always get another son, but it is impossible to get another mother.”

(3) One chih is approximately 11 inches long.

(4) Lao Lai-tzu lived during the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 CE) of the Chou Dynasty and was a native of Ch’u in South-West China. According to Chinese tradition, the king of Ch’u eventually heard of his ability to make people laugh and gave him a post in his court.

(5) In China it is quite unusual even today for both men and women above seventy not to mention their age with pride. In some colloquial versions of this story it is said that he does not mention his age so that his parents would not be sad and realize that both their son and they themselves might be near death.

(6) Meng Sung eventually became keeper of the imperial fish ponds under the first emperor of the succeeding Chin dynasty.

(7) Huang T’ing-chien (1050-1110 CE) was a well-known poet and calligrapher.

(8) The Hanlin academy was the central institution of learning in Imperial China. This appointment was very prestigious for any scholar.

(9) Upon his ascension to the throne and whenever he considered it beneficial, a Chinese emperor proclaimed a new maxim for his reign. “Yuan yu” means “great protection.”

Translated by Lydia Gerber

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This is an excerpt from Reading About the World, Volume 1, edited by Paul Brians, Mary Gallwey, Douglas Hughes, Azfar Hussain, Richard Law, Michael Myers, Michael Neville, Roger Schlesinger, Alice Spitzer, and Susan Swan and published by Harcourt Brace Custom Books.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.


The reader was created for use in the World Civilization course at Washington State University, but material on this page may be used for educational purposes by permission of the editor-in-chief:

Paul Brians
Department of English
Washington State University
Pullman 99164-5020

This is just a sample of Reading About the World, Volume 1. Reading About the World is now out of print. You can search for used copies using the following information:Paul Brians, et al. Reading About the World, Vol. 1, 3rd edition, Harcourt Brace College Publishing: ISBN 0-15-567425-0 or Paul Brians, et al. Reading About the World, Vol. 2, 3rd edition, Harcourt Brace College Publishing: ISBN 0-15-512826-4.

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