Once a matter of life and death

Updated: 2011-11-16 08:03

By Zhu Yuan (China Daily)

  Print Mail Large Medium  Small 分享按钮 0

Once a matter of life and death

The Shenzhen civil servant who beat his parents committed what was considered a serious crime in ancient times. Had someone filed a lawsuit against him in the old days, he would have been flayed to death for the crime of wuni. Although that cruel punishment has long been abolished, such deeds are still considered intolerable. That explains why pressure from public opinion both online and in the media forced the civil servant to go down on his knees before his parents begging forgiveness.

Even though we don't have as clear a definition of filial piety as our forefathers did, this event has made me consider the difference between the filial piety of ancient times and the filial piety practiced today.

In agriculture-dominated ancient China, social security and pensions were unheard of, people relied on their offspring to support them in their old age. If there was no one to look after them, elderly people in poor health would die, as their offspring were usually their only source of food and income. So filial piety was a matter of life and death for aged people in ancient times.

As a result, a code of conduct was established to cultivate a sense of obedience and duty in children toward their parents. For example, children were not supposed to walk in front of their parents, or sit and eat before their parents, nor were they permitted to talk to their parents in a harsh voice and so on.

In his Analects, Confucius said that those who in private life behaved well toward their parents would seldom show a disposition to resist the authority of their superiors and no instance had ever occurred of such men starting a revolution.

Obviously, filial piety had something to do with the governance of ancient imperial rulers, as children with enough sense of duty to provide for their parents in their old age would make obedient subjects and officials. No wonder that filial piety was emphasized in Confucianism as the top priority for the education of children.

But times have changed. So have the connotations of filial piety. It is not realistic for people today to observe many of the old rules of filial piety.

However, the philosophy on which the filial piety of Confucianism has been based is unshakable: People should be grateful to their parents for their efforts to bring them up. But what is problematic about the traditional doctrine is the natural link it established between gratitude and absolute obedience. What is even more absurd is the absolute obedience required of officials to emperors on the basis of this doctrine.

A lack of democracy is the result of such a doctrine both in families and officialdom. Confucianism was severely criticized early last century because of its lack of democracy and the lack of freedom for the development of individuality.

Whatever changes have occurred in our morals and ethics, the due respect we owe our parents and the duties we are supposed to perform for them in their old age are eternal. But the absolute obedience to parents dictated by Confucianism is not necessarily a must on all occasions.

For most urban parents who have pensions of their own, instead of asking their children for financial aid they will usually provide financial assistance to their children. What most parents actually need is their children's care and concern.

As a parent of a single child, my experience of being a child and being a father explicitly tells me that children today are brought up in a quite different way and different environment than I was. They are mostly spoiled. We cannot expect as much of them as our parents did of us. And it is not necessary for us to do so, as we should be aware that there is a limit to what they can do for us.

What we need from them is mostly psychological. I don't agree that absolute obedience is necessary, but parents deserve respect and concern from their children for what they have contributed to their growth and development.

What that civil servant did to his parents is intolerable. But the solace I took from this incident is the outpouring of public censure shows that most people know that he crossed the line, and that they know how they should behave toward their parents.

The author is a senior writer with China Daily.

(China Daily 11/16/2011 page8)