The 24 Paragons of Filial Piety


People in the UK often ask me if it is true that the Chinese treat their elderly better than we do in the west.  Well, from my limited experience they do, particularly if the older person is a member of their family or  a friend or aquaintance.
I think this may stem from a long held tradition which Confucius promoted. 
He  said: “In serving his parents, a filial son reveres them in daily life; he makes them happy while he nourishes them; he takes anxious care of them in sickness; he shows great sorrow over their death; and he sacrifices to them with solemnity.”

When Buddhism was introduced to China, it had to be redefined to support filial piety, because Buddhism in India involved many men leaving or abandoning their families, parents, wives, and children to become monks (Buddha himself was said to have done so). The true Buddhist had to reject all family ties.
Other societies and religions have similar tenents –  in Judaism and Christianity, one of the Ten Commandments is ‘honour your father and mother’ but these days this is more practiced in the breach rather than the observance.
About 600 years ago, during the Yuan Dynasty (AD 1271-1368 ), a Chinese scholar called Guo Jujing combed through folk histories in search of true stories of the finest examples of filial respect, as practiced by devoted children throughout the centuries. He selected twenty-four tales, and penned a verse to eulogize each authentic account of filial practice and accompanied each verse with the uplifting story of the events that lead to each son or daughter’s examplary conduct.
The book that resulted from his work was called The Twenty-four Paragons of Filial Devotion;as its title suggests, it provides 24 examples of adult children demonstrating their love and respect for their parents in an exemplary manner.

The tales are extraordinary – charming, frightning, dark, sad and horrid by turns – think  Charles Perrault   meets the Brothers Grimm.
Here is the full list  of fables that Guo Jujing compiled:
1. Filial Conduct That Impressed The Gods: Shun The Great
2. Personally Checking His Mother’s Prescriptions: The Learned Emperor Of Han
3. His Heart Was Pained When His Mother Bit Her Finger: Zeng Shen
4. Clad In A Threadbare Jacket, He Tolerated His Cruel Stepmother: Min Ziqian
5. Carrying Loads Of Rice On His Back To Feed His Parents: Zi Lu

6. Entering Servitude To Pay For His Father’s Funeral: Dong Yong
7. Bringing Deers’ Milk To His Ailing Parents: Young Master Tan
8. Taking On Menial Labor To Support His Mother: Jiang Ge
9. Stealing Oranges To Take Home For His Mother: Lu Ji
10. Never Tiring Of Feeding Milk To Her Mother-In-Law: Lady Tang
11. Attracting Mosquitos To Drink His Blood: Wu Meng

12. Lying Down On The Ice To Get Carp For His Stepmother: Wang Xiang
13. Burying His Son To Save His Mother: Guo Ju
14. Wrestling With A Tiger To Save His Father: Yang Xiang
15. Resigning Office To Search For His Mother: Zhu Shouchang
16. Deeply Concerned, He Tasted His Father’s Stool: Yu Qianlou

17. Costumes And Pranks To Amuse His Parents: Lao Laizi
18. Picking Mulberries For His Mother: Cai Shun
19. He Fanned The Pillow And Warmed the Sheets: Huang Xiang
20. A Bubbling Spring And Leaping Carp: Jiang Shi
21. Crying By The Grave When Thunder Rolled: Wang Weiyuan
22. Serving Wooden Statues Of His Parents: Ding Lan
23. Tears That Brought Bamboo Shoots From The Frozen Earth: Meng Zong
24. Personally Scrubbing His Mother’s Chamber Pot: Huang Tingjian
To give you an example, here is the story of number 12:
Wang Xiang lived in the Western Jin Dynasty (AD 265-316). His mother died when he was young. His stepmother didn’t treat him well and often spoke ill of him in front of his father. Because of this, he also lost the love of his father. But when his parents were ill, he took care of them carefully. One cold winter day, his stepmother wanted to eat fresh fish. He took off his clothes and lay on the frozen river to melt the ice with his body. The ice melted and two carp leaped out. He took them home and his stepmother was moved.
The verse written to honour Wang goes:
Stepmothers abound on this earth
But rare are sons like Lucky Wang
Even now when the river freezes over
We recall his icy sacrifice for Mother
These stories were denounced as feudalist ideas during the Cultural Revolution (AD 1966-76); but have since been re-instated as a vital part of Chinese culture.  And quite right too.

About herschelian

Recently moved to Beijing from London - its all new to me! Trying to learn Chinese, and what makes this city tick.
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5 Responses to The 24 Paragons of Filial Piety

  1. Pandaren says:

    Wow-very interesting! I would like to read some of these!

    • Hi Pandaren, I have a book about the temple and it contains the 24 stories and the etched plates. I can see how good they turn out if I scan them in. If they are readable (written on colored pages) I can send you the PDF if interested.

  2. MDF says:

    Fascinating look back on filial piety in history in China – but what about today? Was this Confucian thinking not all destroyed in the Cultural Revolution?

  3. Very interesting. I have read most of the 24 stories. It so happens that we lived next to a temple here in Singapore who had this stories etched in stone or metal plates on the walls. I was always wondering about those. Now I have some more background on this stories. Thanks for sharing.

  4. You ought to be a part of a contest for one of the finest blogs on the web.
    I am going to highly recommend this website!

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