Filial examplars are still cited today in newspaper articles and school texts. Twenty-four were selected by Guo Jujing (Kuo Chu-chin) of the Yuen dynasty (13th century A.D.) for a children's story book, the modern version of which is read by almost every Chinese child in Taiwan...
Because filial piety toward parents and elders was so strongly emphasized in China throughout time, records of model filial persons regularly appeared in personal biographies, local gazettes, and official historical books in every part of China. From time to time court historians would be asked to compile an encyclopedic document in which a section or a chapter would usually be reserved for the illustration of filial deeds of extraordinary nature. Two chapters of one such book, Tai-Ping Yu-Lan (Imperial Review of the Grand Peace), compiled during the Sung dynasty (960— 1279 A.D.), illustrate model filial behavior as esteemed in traditional Chinese society. The chapter entitled “Xiao Gan" ("Hsiao-Kan") (Filial Move) comprises sixty short accounts of remarkable filial deeds performed by commoners, officials, and even emperors, which moved heaven, animals, and people. All except one of these deeds of“filial move,” the highest filial deed, were performed by males. A later chapter, “Xiao Nu" (“Hsiao Nu") (Filial Daughters), recounts twenty-nine stories of filial deeds performed by a girl or an adult woman.
A review of these cases reveals that filial piety was expressed not only toward parents but also toward patrilineal elders of the third, or even the fourth, ascending generation. Table VIII-I shows more instances in which filial deeds are directed by the son to his mother and by the daughter to her father than to same—sex parents. We should not speculate about an Oedipal relationship, however, without first analyzing the cultural context. Another point worthy of mention concerns filial behavior toward a stepmother. In these stories stepmothers were invariably described as mistreating their stepchildren. Ironically, the stepchild’s submissive and tolerant behavior won him or her a place in the documentation of model filial behavior. We shall return to this point about stepmothers.
The ages of the filial children ranged from three years to adolescence, and some of the subjects were elderly. According to the manner in which filial behavior was displayed, the stories may be classified into nine categories, described as follows.
CATEGORY I. Sacrifice of one's own life or one's child's life for the parents' sake
Several stories portray a father who committed a crime and was sentenced to death. When a son or a daughter offered to die in the father’s place, the emperor was so moved that he pardoned the father. In one case a poor man decided to bury his infant son alive in order to provide properly for his elderly mother. While digging the grave intended for his son, the man struck gold, a reward from heaven.
CATEGORY 2. Mourning in excess of the normal ritess
When a parent died, these filial sons and daughters cried day and night until their eyes bled, or until they fainted repeatedly. Some of them prolonged the mourning period; one Son mourned his father continuously for thirty years without taking off his mourning costume and remained a vegetarian bachelor all his life. Filial sons and daughters sometimes committed suicide in their mourning.
CATEGORY 3. To accomplish an impossible task or to suffer self-inflicted bodily pain in fulfillment of a parent's (especially a mother's) wishes or demands
In these stories we see obvious manifestations of child abuse. In two of them a stepmother mistreated a stepson, who accepted her unreasonable demands obediently. In the first story a nine-year-old boy, Wang Yen, was asked by his stepmother to find live fish in a severe winter when the river was frozen. When Wang Yen was unable to provide the fish, he was beaten until he bled. He went to his own mother's tomb and cried. A live fish, which was said to be five feet long, suddenly appeared on his mother’s tomb. He therefore was able to please his stepmother and thereafter was spared her harsh treatment. It is noteworthy that in a different version of the story of Wang Yen’s filial behavior his biological mother rather than his stepmother mistreated him. As an apparent indication of his mother’s deliberate maltreatment, it was pointed out that he did not have decent clothing to cover himself in the severe winter.
The second story worthy of special mention tells about a buy named Wang Xiang (Hsiang) who, in order to catch live fish for his stepmother in winter, lay on the ice to melt the frozen river. On another occasion his stepmother ordered him to watch a fruit tree at night. When the wind blew, the boy clung to the tree trunk in order to stop the fruit from falling off the tree. His stepmother was still not satisfied with him, however, and intended to kill him with a dagger. The boy miraculously escaped his stepmother's attack during his sleep. When he realized his stepmother’s intention, he kneeled before her and offered his head. It was said that his stepmother's heart was suddenly moved and that she thereafter treated him as if he were her own son.
Mention should be made here of another model filial child whose deeds are acclaimed (Tai-Ping Yu-Lan, chap. 413):
Wu Meng, who lived during the fourth and fifth century, showed already at the age of eight years, great love for his parents. . . . Every summer night when the mosquitoes annoyed his parents, Meng took off most of his clothes and lay down near their bed to attract the mosquitoes away from them to himself. Stoically he suffered, and gladly endured the bites for those whom he loved and reverenced. [Koehn 1944:20]
CATEGORY 4. To attend sick parents or to seek medicine or a cure through extraordinary behavior or miracles
To take special care of a sick parent is another popular expression of filial piety. In the stories under review, even a wealthy official who possessed hundreds of servants or slaves would personally attend to a parent's sickbed, sacrificing his own proper diet and sleep to show his concern. To cook the herb medicine oneself and to test the medicine before it is served to the sick parent is considered an essential part of filial behavior under such circumstances (cf. Hsu 1970:78). It seems that filial piety through concern and sharing of the suffering (by not eating or sleeping) adds to the efficacy of the medicine. Another example of extraordinary behavior in attending to a sick parent concerned a son who sucked his parent's boil or tumor to relieve the swelling. The story explicitly pointed out that “the son's face displayed not the slightest expression of hesitation or unwillingness [while sucking his parent's boil]."
The belief that a child’s suffering and pain could assist a parent’s recovery from illness has developed through time to such an extent that as a last resort—believed to be a sure cure—a filial son or daughter would cut a piece of ﬂesh from his or her arm or thigh to be used as one of the ingredients for the parent’s medicine. News of such filial behavior was reported until not too long ago in Taiwan (see Hsu 1970:79 for occurrences in China).
CATEGORY 5 . To provide parents with a proper, decent burial
One of the prevalent themes in filial piety concerns an impoverished child trying to find a way to provide the deceased parent (especially the father) with a decent tomb. Some children worked hard to accumulate the needed burial fee; others sold themselves into slavery in order to raise funds for construction of a tomb.In two cases, a son who grieved over the impossibility of finding his father's bones among thousands of remains on the battlefield was advised to use his own blood as a detector. It was believed that if a son's blood touched his father’s bones it would penetrate into the bones. The son cut his arms and legs to bleed upon hundreds of skeletons and finally, before killing himself through loss of blood, he was able to locate his father’s bones for a proper burial.
CATEGORY 6. Extreme bravery in protecting a parent or a parent’s corpse from harm or damage
The stories ranged from a young boy or girl who shielded a father or a mother from an attacking tiger or a threatening bandit to an adult son who refused to leave his parent’s coffin when a fire in a neighbor’s house threatened to spread. The tiger was so touched that he retreated; the bandit was moved to spare the parent; the parent's corpse was saved when the fire stopped short of the coffin and the weeping son. In one case, however, the filial son threw himself onto the ﬂames and died when the house in which his father’s coffin lay caught fire and was beyond saving.
CATEGORY 7. Attachment to parents (especially a son to his mother) through extrasensory or supernatural communication
One story portrays a mother-son attachment so strong that, when visitors unexpectedly arrived while the son was collecting firewood on the mountains, the mother needed only to bite her fingers. The son suddenly felt a heartthrob and rushed home to see if anything had happened to his mother.
CATEGORY 8. To avenge a father's death
CATEGORY 9. To support parents despite difficult circumstances or through self-sacrifice
These cases describe filial sons or daughters who faithfully provide for parents despite their own hardships. In most of the cases concerning women, a daughter or a daughter-in-law would remain single or refuse to remarry in order to stay with parents or parents-in-law and support them.
Although for the sake of clarity I have classified the filial behaviors reviewed into the above nine categories, many of the stories could easily fit into more than one category. The typology of the stories is summarized in table VIII-2. Although these stories may be regarded today as cultural myths, as only a few of them would be acted out in real life, they still have implications for parent-child relationships and inﬂuence child training in modern Taiwanese society.
The following moral and cultural tenets can be inferred from the above analysis of historical eases of model filial children:
1. From a very young age children are expected to show great devotion to their parents, especially the mother.
2. The parent's welfare comes before the child's welfare or that of a son's wife and children. One should not be happy when one’s parents are not happy.
3. At the loss of a parent one is expected to express one’s grief openly and dramatically. Those whose mourning behavior exceeds that prescribed by the rites are considered filial. The most filial would rather die than continue to live without the parent's company. This last point is again an extension of the emphasis of attachment even after a parent's death.
4. No matter how unreasonable a parent's demands, or how harsh the treatment inﬂicted by a parent, a son or a daughter should obey and endure and make sure that the parent's wishes are fulfilled. Children should be considerate and pleasing in order to make their parents as comfortable as possible, even though they may thereby suffer bodily pain or damage. (children’s submissiveness to a stepmother's maltreatment is praised.
In short, the parents' pleasure is the children's suffering. Psychiatrists T'seng and Hsu (1972) make two useful remarks in their study, “The Chinese Attitude towards Parental Authority as Expressed in Chinese Children’s Stories," which is based in part on modern versions of the historical accounts of filial piety. They say, first, that the “extremely close and prolonged relationships between son and mother may appear pathological to a Western psychiatrist. In most eases, this close relationship is considered virtuous in Chinese culture and is not highly sexualized." Their second noteworthy comment is: “From a Western point of view, these sons serve their fathers in a masochistic way” (referring to the son who warmed his Father's bed in winter and to the son who allowed the mosquitoes to bite him) (T'seng and Hsu 1972:29). Indeed, many daring Chinese scholars have questioned the “unnatural” behavior required of children, but they were overruled by public and political pressure.
One could argue that the emphasis on and the teaching of traditional values of filial models enhance parental control but ignore children's rights. Furthermore, l believe that the stories concerned with stepmothers help to legitimize, at least in the minds of the stepmothers, institutionalized abusive treatment of stepchildren and, further, of adopted daughters in Taiwan (to be discussed later)."
(To be continued)
--- Child Abuse in Taiwan / David Y. H. Wu in Child Abuse and Neglect: Cross-Cultural Perspectives (1983)