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Mutual Love instead of Filial Piety  

2012-11-14 06:36:07|  分类: English |  标签: |举报 |字号 订阅

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A few months have passed since the August 14, 2012 release of the 24 Action Guide for Filial Piety developed by several national organizations, including the All-China Women’s Federation and the China National Committee on Aging.  Several reports in recent news mentioned the results as disappointing.  Discussion in the blogosphere has largely died down.   It is time to reflect what has worked and what has not.

Filial piety (“xiao shun”), usually taken to mean unconditional love, respect and obedience from children to parents, is often considered a traditional virtue.    The guidelines released by the government agencies were intended to be a modern equivalent of the 24 Exemplary Stories of Filial Piety, collected by Guo Jujing during the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), which presents extreme examples of filial piety as role models to be aspired to.  For instance,  Wu Meng attracted mosquitos to bite him as his parents could not afford mosquito net.  In another story, Guo Ju attempted to bury his own son so that he could afford to support his mother.   

It may be unfair to dismiss the entire collection due to these few grotesque stories.  Some other stories are actually interesting and harmless folklore. One of the stories features Emperor Shun, an legendary early Chinese ruler, who was mistreated by his harsh dad, stepmother and stepbrother in earlier years.  Instead of harboring resentment, he quietly endured and worked hard on the farm while the rest of the family idled around.   His acts moved Heavens, which sent  elephants to plow the field, and crows and magpies to pull weeds for him.   Shun saved himself through his virtue.  This may be a strange comparison, but I find him to be more praiseworthy than Cinderella who had to escape from similar bad fortune through marriage to a prince. 

In another story,  Zeng Seng, a disciple of Confucius, felt a pain in his heart when his mother bit her finger in worry when a stranger  came to visit during Zeng’s absence. The story simply wants to teach one to show compassion for the pains and struggles of parents.  It is a story about empathy instead of telepathy.   Some stories may be grotesque by design.  They were intended to help future generations to remember and reflect.   And it worked.  At least they were passed down in history and we are able to read them even today.

Some stories irritate modern people due to their incongruity with contemporary culture.  Then again, there are times when contemporary culture is problematic.    The story of Guo Ju burying his son indeed sounds horrific, but no more so than Abraham offering Issac for sacrifice. In either case, the son was spared through divine intervention thanks to piety and faith of their fathers.  In other words, virtues have a way of preserving humanity in the long run.   Modern Chinese readers will not have any of it because a greater number of adults give all their love, attention and support to their own children while ignoring aging parents, falling only short of burying their parents to support their children.   Such stories make people feel guilty.   People blame all things that churn up their guilt.  

Every time I visit my hometown, one thing that shocks me is the number of lonely old people in the village totally ignored by children.   If nothing is done, we risk becoming no country for old men, and women.   Therefore, I praise those who develop the new 24 action guide. The guide teaches children to address basic needs of parents such as buying insurance for them, and taking them to physical exams and exercises.  Some ask children to be thoughtful of parents’ emotional needs by doing little deeds like taking them to movies, or more drastically, by supporting single parents  to get re-married.   In good conscience, one cannot argue about these suggestions.  Why then, did the problematic classic 24 paragons go down in history century after century, while the action guide tailored-made for the modern time seem already forgotten?

The new guide is flawed in its methods.   Instead of showing stories to inspire varied applications,  it tells children specific things to do, for instance, “teach parents to go on the Internet”.   In less developed areas,  even computers are hard to come by, not to mention the Internet.   Even if they are available, it may not always help parents to surf the Internet.   In another statement, the guide asks children to express their love of parents verbally.  This can be difficult for adult children who are not used to verbal expressions of love.   I heard that a Chinese student in my university concluded a phone call by saying, like her American classmates: “I love you, mom.”  A few minutes later, her mom called back:  “What’s the matter?  Is everything all right?”

Applications of filial respect have to vary from family to family.   In one family it makes sense to give parents pocket money as the guide suggests.  In another, it may be wiser to buy parents things or services they need.   Many old people in China went through difficult times, and value saving money over what they perceive as extravagant spending.  They may save the pocket money children give for “rainy days” when their lives could have been greatly improved through things or services from their children.   

The new guide also fails in considering changes in demographics.   An increasing number of adult children are single children in the family who are under great financial pressure, and with that comes emotional stress.    It is unrealistic to expect single children to be always making unilateral sacrifices for two parents and sometimes four grandparents.  Older generations should also learn to support and respect their children when they can, or at least refrain from judging them when children are in difficulty themselves.

I hope the word “piety” can be replaced with mutual respect, understanding and love. Parents and children have duties toward each other. It ought to be a two-way street.   Unfortunately we still have parents who perceive children as subordinate members in the family or merely investments for future return.   Some parents abuse “filial piety” to their advantage and make children’s lives a misery.  Most adult children nowadays are in the habit of thinking of themselves as equals with parents in terms of human dignity.   Given such changes in values, any guide to reinforce parental superiority is not going to be popular.    Nor is it going to work.

If we are serious about inheriting virtues from the past, remember that the ancients focus on reciprocity in parent-children relationships, expecting parents to practice compassion to children, and children to perform filial duties to parents (上慈下孝).  In this sense,  we also ought to develop guides of good parenting to go with the guide of filial piety. More importantly, if people learn to respect and love one another, why would anyone need  action guides anyway?

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