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The Book of Filial Duty, by Ivan Chen, [1908], at

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I. The Origin of the Book

The Hsiao Ching, or Book of Filial Duty, is generally held to be the work of an unknown pupil of Tsêng Ts‘an, the disciple of Confucius, to whom is attributed the famous Confucian classic known as The Greater Learning. Certainly it can be traced back as far as 400 B.C., within a century from the death of Confucius. The preservation of the text in its present form is due to the Emperor Ming Huang (A.D. 685-762), one of the most fascinating characters in Chinese history, who had it engraved, together with eleven other of the Confucian writings, on tablets of stone and set up in his capital of Chang-an. He afterwards added a commentary of his own, which is still extant, and has proved invaluable to all commentators of a later period. The Book of Filial Duty is often found in China bound up with another treatise called the Hsiao Hsüeh, or Teaching for the Young, of which the

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following is a specimen: "The way to become a student is with meekness and humility, receiving with confidence every word spoken by the master. The pupil, when he sees men of virtue, should try to follow in their steps; when he hears wise sayings, he should try to conform to them. He must not harbour evil designs, but always act honourably. Whether at home or abroad, he must have a fixed abode, and resort with those who are well disposed, regulating his demeanour with care, and curbing the passions."

Few books have enjoyed greater popularity amongst all classes in China than The Book of Filial Duty. It may be called The Book of Emperors, from the fact that so many Emperors, both before and after Ming Huang, have commentated upon it. Equally it is The Book of Youth, being the first treatise of importance placed in the hands of children, after the horn books of elementary instruction. The reason for its survival after so many centuries is not hard to seek. Family life has always been, from time immemorial, the foundation-stone of the Chinese Empire, and filial piety is the foundation-stone of family life. Nor does this duty of son to father merely extend to the living. The living head of the family pays due reverence to the countless ancestors who have preceded him. A witty Chinese writer once remarked that in the West family life only began after death—

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in the family vault. Here, at any rate, after years of separation and divided interests, the members met to enjoy a common oblivion. I cannot but think that there is some exaggeration in this; yet not even the greatest apologist of Western methods will venture to deny that the Chinese and indeed most Oriental ideals of family life are superior to his own. Whilst living, only the calls of Empire, or the demands of their profession, may keep relations apart; but the interests of the family are always greater than the interests of the individual, and no exile is without hope of return to the home of his fathers. The dead will not be forgotten, for it will be the duty of their sons to offer sacrifice to their shades. The death-days of two generations of parents are kept sacred with solemn festival, and the nameless and unnumbered dead have their special days of ceremony and remembrance in the spring and autumn. Every house has its family shrine, every village its hall of ancestors. Thus the filial piety of the survivors honours those who have gone.

As regards the living, respect is the great essential of daily intercourse. The subject respects his emperor, the son his father, the wife her husband, and the younger brother his elder brother. But respect is not only for those older than ourselves, or of superior station. The wisdom of Confucius is nowhere more clearly

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shown than in his utterance concerning the respect to be paid to youth: "A youth is to be regarded with respect. How do we know that his future will not be equal to our present? If he reach the age of forty or fifty, and has not made himself heard of, then he will indeed not be worthy of respect."

Maxima debetur pueris reverentia!

The Chinese national spirit is a spirit of continuity; the spirit of the Confucian philosophy is a spirit of harmony with the environment of daily life. "Confucius," says Tzŭ-ssŭ, "possessed, as if by hereditary transmission, the virtues of Yao and Shun (Emperors of the Golden Age), and modelled himself on Wên and Wu (first King of the Chou dynasty, 1133 B.C.) as his exemplars. Above all, he kept in unison with the seasons of the sky; below, he conformed to the water and the land.

"We may liken him unto the sky and earth in respect of the universality with which they uphold and sustain things, the universality with which they overspread and enfold things. We may liken him unto the four seasons in respect of their varied march; unto the sun and moon in respect of their alternate shining.

"All things are kept in train together without their injuring one another; their ways go on together without interfering one with another: the smaller forces in river streams, the greater

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forces in ample transformations. It is this that makes the sky and earth so great." 1

The first environment of the human soul is that of the family. Before we can become good subjects, before we can aspire to study nature and mould ourselves upon the laws of heaven and earth, we must first of all learn to become good sons, to complete the unity of family life. All things will be added in their due course. To the Chinese mind the successful policy in life is a policy of adjustment. This policy runs from highest to lowest, and back again from lowest to highest. The Emperor adjusts himself to the requirements of his great Ministers, they in their turn to the provincial governors, they in their turn to the local magistrates, and so on down the scale of social order. So this policy of adjustment works equally upwards from the youngest son of the meanest family to the Emperor himself, who adjusts his methods to those employed by his August Father. As The Book of Odes says:

That great and noble Prince displayed
The sense of right in all he wrought;
Adjusting justly, grade by grade,
The spirit of his wisdom swayed
Peasant and peer; the crowd, the court.

It is for this reason that The Book of Filial

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[paragraph continues] Duty commences with a chapter on "Filial Piety in the Son of Heaven." The Emperor is, the Emperor always has been, the father of the greatest family on earth—the Chinese nation.

II. The Twenty-four Examples of Filial Duty

Instead of the Hsiao Hsüeh, or Teaching for the Young, which is usually grouped with The Book of Filial Duty, I have chosen The Twenty-four Examples of Filial Duty by way of illustration to the Hsiao Ching. They are naïve and terse, and yet not without their simple charm. Even where they lend: themselves to exaggeration, as in the story of the old gentleman who dressed himself in gay garments and frisked in front of his very venerable parents, they are not meaningless nor devoid of humanity. The lesson to be drawn is that our duty towards our parents is the first obligation in life, and that we should go, if necessary, to all lengths to fulfil it. Nothing is known of the authorship of these stories, or the time in which they are written. Each story is accompanied by its commentary, and probably the stories themselves originated during the Ming dynasty (A.D. 1368-1644), the commentaries belonging mostly to the latter years of that dynasty. The period dealt with in these tales is a very wide one, and ranges from the time of the great Emperor Shun (circa 2300 B.C.) down to the Sung

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dynasty (A.D. 900-1200). There have been many editions of The Twenty-four Examples in Chinese, mostly embellished with quaint and original woodcuts, of which the figure on the cover of the present volume, kindly supplied by Mrs. Lionel Giles, is an example.

III. Filial Duty and Parental Love

In conclusion, I hope none of my readers will imagine, from these examples and the treatise that precedes them, that Chinese family life is cold and repellent, and devoid of mutual love. The moment a tiny life enters the circle it is guarded by the triple walls of kinship. In the children our parents return to us; in the children we survive. All through Chinese history the exile longs for return to wife and children. All through Chinese literature you will find allusion to the love of little ones which has been the heritage of the Chinese from time unknown. The Book of Odes, quoted in Mr. Ku Hung-ming's eloquent translation of the Chung Yung, or Conduct of Life, for this Series, says:

When wives and children and their sires are one,
’Tis like the harp and lute in unison.
When brothers live in concord and in peace,
The strains of harmony shall never cease.
The lamp of happy union lights the home,
And bright days follow when the children come.

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With the Chinese the natural joys of life have always been the most sought after. Home, family, friendship, landscape, and flowers—these are the pleasures which they delight in. The religion of Confucius is the religion of daily life. On the side of the parent there is responsibility; on the side of the child, obedience, but not a blind one. Of the responsibility of parents there is no question. Confucius himself laid down the law when he sentenced a father, who had brought an accusation against his son, to be imprisoned with him. On being remonstrated with, he made this memorable reply: "Am I to punish for a breach of filial piety one who has never been taught to be filially minded? Is not he who neglects to teach his son his duties equally guilty with the son who fails in them? Crime is not inherent in human nature, and therefore the father in the family and the government in the State are responsible for the crimes committed against filial piety and the public laws."

On the other hand, the obedient son must be able to discriminate and not follow blindly, when the father is at fault. In the Li Chi, or Book of Rites, it is written: "When his parents are in error, the son must remonstrate with them with respect and gently. If they do not receive his reproof, he must strive more and more to be dutiful and respectful towards them till they are pleased, and then he must again point out their fault."

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The Chinese give respect to the living, and also reverence the dead. It is from the past that they have tried to learn, and the past is a pathway which the feet of spirits have trodden and made luminous. And, moreover, no man can escape from his ancestors, even if he go to the uttermost parts of the earth and dwell among strangers. Over the heads of the family the politician, ancient and modern, looks to the State. But China, from the shelter and security of her myriad bulwarks, has watched the sun of many empires rise and set.


In preparing this little book for the press, I am indebted to Mr. Lionel Giles and Mr. L. Cranmer-Byng for their kind assistance. Mr. Giles has revised the English spelling of Chinese names according to the system almost universally adopted by sinologues to-day; while Mr. Cranmer-Byng has made himself responsible for the Introduction. As regards The Twenty-four Examples of Filial Duty, due acknowledgment must be made to Vol. VI. of The Chinese Repository, which contains the only complete translation of these stories, and has been extensively drawn upon for the present work.


11:1 Translated by John Carey Hall in Chinese Civilisation, by Pierre Laffitte.

Next: The Doctrine of Filial Duty: Chapter I: The Meaning of Filial Duty