30 March 2015

Filial piety: you’re doing it wrong

This story is incredibly saddening, and actually rather infuriating and insulting.

If you have to moralise to people and hold up perfect, superhuman role-models to guilt them into being filial, chances are something is very deeply wrong already in the society, that is being ignored. As Mencius himself noted, in the parable of Zengzi and his father:
That those who do not fail to keep themselves are able to serve their parents is what I have heard. But I have never heard of any, who, having failed to keep themselves, were able notwithstanding to serve their parents.

Keep in mind also that Mencius isn’t emptily preaching here. He is talking about ability and will. When he uses the word ‘able’ (能) elsewhere (as in the first book of the Mencius), it is most readily in the famous incidence in the first chapter:
In such a thing as taking the Tai mountain under your arm, and leaping over the north sea with it, if you say to people--“I am not able to do it,” that is a real case of not being able. In such a matter as breaking off a branch from a tree at the order of a superior, if you say to people--“I am not able to do it,” that is a case of not doing it, it is not a case of not being able to do it.

We ought to take Mencius at his word with what he implies in saying that he hasn’t heard of someone who was able to be filial without taking care of himself; shaming someone for what they are not able to do is like faulting Liang Hui Wang for not picking up Tai Mountain and leaping over the North Sea with it.

Filial piety, care for parents and family members, is something that ought to develop naturally, even in untutored people. This is not something peculiar to Confucianism, either. Our Lord taught the same thing, albeit in a slightly different way: ‘For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same? And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? do not even the publicans so? Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.’ Obviously Our Lord Christ was not countermanding the commandment to love one’s parents but rather to perfect it in love for others. Clearly, both in Christianity and in Confucianism, there is a definite thread which runs from self-preservation to filial piety. But if it is made prohibitively difficult for people to ‘keep themselves’ in the sense that Mencius meant, we ought not to be surprised that filial piety is something of which we see less, as a social outcome. For example, if you have to go to Guangzhou to work in a sweatshop for 11 hours a day, 6 days a week assembling iGadgets to make sure you and your kids don’t starve? Chances are your 70-year-old grandparent back home is not dining on meat every day or wearing silk.

That’s part of what makes this Sichuan Modern Filial Piety Culture Museum somewhat insulting, as I think the museum’s founder seems rather well-aware, particularly when he diplomatically brings up the fact that social security in China is somewhat lacking, and gives voice to the worry that the museum’s mission may be seen as hypocritical. (This was my wife’s first reaction to this story, by the way.) Of course filial piety should be respected and valued and encouraged wherever it is found. But it isn’t enough to preach filial piety or to make people feel guilty who have no material basis on which to build such practices; the rites and music - not to mention the social conditions and the institutions - must be attended to as well! Inequality must be addressed: particularly rural-urban inequality. Unfair and exploitative labour practices must obviously be addressed; this is one of China’s greatest social shames. Lack of concern for the unborn must be addressed: how can a generation which has been raised as little emperors, at the expense of hundreds of millions of their brothers’ and sisters’ lives, be expected to show humaneness to their parents when their time comes? And remember that Mencius went to the king of the state to see that they were addressed, both by individual example (something on which China’s political and wealthy magnate classes have not historically proven too keen, but we shall see). I can understand why many Chinese people nowadays are cynical about state-led action in these areas, but these aren’t problems which will be solved through philanthropy or individual volunteer initiatives alone. A deliberate, and deliberately anti-capitalist and alter-globalist, Confucian counter-culture is needed - along with a sympathetic state.

Good families are important to any society, and the remarkable closeness of family ties have always been China’s greatest strength and pride as a nation. But it strikes me that if the Chinese family is to be preserved, they may have to rediscover that humane reforming zeal in Confucius and Mencius, to which the likes of Kang Xiaoguang and Jiang Qing are pointing now, and for which a strong shared platform with Chinese neoleftist intellectuals like Wang Hui and Gan Yang may yet prove direly necessary. Let’s see it happen!

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