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Chapter XXV. Filial Piety and Filial Suport

(a) The Literati: He who supports his parents best does not do so necessarily with fat viands, and he who clothes his parents best does not do so necessarily with rich embroideries. The consummation of filial piety lies in dedicating everything one has to the service of his parents: thus the commonest man with his sheer labor and industry may still have ample means to fulfill the rites, and the poorest man whose food is pulse and water his only drink can still adequately express his reverence. The filial piety of the present day, said Confucius, merely means to feed one's parents . . . . . . but without reverence wherein lies the difference?1 The highest filial piety consists, therefore, in nourishing one's parents' ambition, next comes nourishing their passing whims, and then only nourishing their bodies. 2 The value of filial piety lies in the form, not in being bent upon mere providing. If everything is in accordance with form and hearts are in harmony, one can be counted as filial even though provisions are not complete. The eastern neighbor slaughtering a cow, says the Book of Changes, is not the equal of the western neighbor performing the sacrifice.3 Thus though rich and prominent one may be, if he is without propriety he is not the equal of one who is filial and brotherly, though poor and humble. Within the inner apartments, fulfill filial piety to the end; without them, fulfill brotherly love; in journeying with friends, fulfill trust. These three things are the consummation of Hsiao 孝. The founding of a home or a patrimony does not mean mere accumulation of wealth; discharging one's filial duties in serving one's parents does not mean merely supplying them with fresh foods. All depends, on the other hand, on following their smile or frown, conforming to their wishes and fulfilling all the rules of propriety and justice.

(b) The Cancellarius: At the age of eighty a man is called a t'ieh, at the age of seventy he is a mao. Aseptuagenarian4does not feel full without meat nor warm without silk. Sweet and rare food for their palates, a pious son would say therefore, clothes warm and light jor their bodies!5 Tsêng Tzŭ must have had wine and meat to support Tsêng Hsi. 6 Without his cap properly adjusted Kung-hsi Ch'ih himself would be unable to discharge properly his duty of sustaining his parents, but without rich and savory fare, be he Tsêng Tzŭ or Min Tzŭ, one cannot fulfill to the end this duty. Form is not an empty cloak: there must be substance before it is made into the father-son relationship. Rather be superfluous in provision and deficient in etiquette than abundant in etiquette and deficient in provision. I cannot see any value, however perfect be the execution of rites, in meticulously washing the cup in order to fill it with mere water, and ascend and descend steps ceremoniously only to present coarse and unhulled rice.

(c) The Literati: Not without wines and meat was the Chou Emperor Hsiang's mother; her food and clothes were certainly incomparable to those of a Tsêng Hsi. Yet that Emperor earned the notorious reputation of being unfilial, for he was unable to serve his mother properly. The Superior Man puts value on the form of performing filial duty, but the mean man is only bent on provisions. Now if you beckon to one with a `Hi, come hither' and throw him the food, be he a mere beggar, he would not take it. 7 Though the food be delicious, the Superior Man 8 would not partake of it if the rules of propriety are disregarded: thus no guest would take part in the sacrifice, if the host neglects to prepare the offering personally. This proves that Form is the thing that counts, the food offering is of slight consequence.

(d) The Cancellarius: Among filial sons there are no greater than those who put to the disposal of their parents the entire Empire or a whole state; next come those who sustain their parents with their salary; then those who nourish them by the fruit of their labor. Thus, king, duke and ruler of men stand highest in the list; next to them, ministers and officials. Now let us examine how it is done in one or another family. There are worthy sons among those on the road to power over this world who supply their elders with high halls and spacious chambers, comfortable carriages and big horses, light and warm clothing, and sweet and tasty food. There are others who clothe them in coarse stuff and leather caps, leave them to dwell in beggar's alleys, provide them for the day, but not for the morrow, with the coarsest grains and vegetables for food, with a chance to see meat but on the fall and winter sacrifices. 9 They upset their aged parents' stomachs, stuffing them with salads, as if they were truck gardens. Now, when a son feeds his parents with the coarse foods that a beggar would not take, though he wished to do it with all ceremony, there would be no virtue whatever therein.

(e) The Literati: He who steals his position possessing no ability to occupy it and he who accepts salary having no achievement to his credit, though he possess wealth and honor, can only offer to his parents the aliments of a Chih or a Ch'iao. Though his high terraces might command a distant view and his dinner table might be laid out to cover one hundred square feet, he still cannot be termed filial. One's aged parents' stomachs are not bags for the loot of thieves, why then always try to fill them with things obtained through disregard of principle? Now if you take unproperly-won things and positions, calamity will follow wherever enters ill-gotten gain. The very lives of your parents are liable to be engulfed in your calamities, how could they hope then to eat meat at the fall and winter sacrifice? Tsêng Shên and Min Tzu had the reputation of filial sons though they never had aliments of ministers or chancellors; while Emperor Hsiang of Chou with all the wealth of the Empire at his disposal became notorious for being unable to serve properly his parents. Therefore, it is not filial piety to offer rich nourishment with scant ceremony and though one may thus deplete all his stores in order to feed his parents, it still will not be filial piety.

(f) The Cancellarius: 10 Those that stand highest in the performance of filial duty wait upon their parents' countenance; next come those who give them security; then those who are careful to preserve their lives. 11 Formerly Ch'ên Yü turned against the Han and was beheaded on the banks of the Chih and Wu Pei by his seditious activities caused the extermination of all his family. More recently, Chu-fu Yen was executed for non-conformity and Lü Pu-shu met death and disgrace through playing too freely with his tongue. All these men were so careless in their conduct that the penalties they suffered extended to their innocent parents. It can be easily seen from their example that empty form is of no profit to one. As culture and substance go hand in hand, so etiquette and nourishment should both be dispensed at the same time, only then can one be termed filial. Filial piety lies in material things, not in meritorious appearance. Preservation of life depends on circumspection, not in running wild with words.

(g) The Literati: He is the most unfilial of all who speaks without sincerity, makes promises but does not keep them, shows no courage in the face of difficulties, and no loyalty in serving his prince. Said Mencius: The officers of to-day, the ministers of to-day are all criminals12 for they all conformed to the prince's whims and connived at his evil acts. Now, you sir, are one devoid of loyalty and faith, bringing confusion into the administration with your artful speeches and seeking to obtain favor with your proposals of a sycophant. Indeed, such as you are not to be tolerated in this world. Unwavering in holding to the unity of principle is the scholar, says the Spring and Autumn, unmindful of anything outside his loyalty to the Right.13 He should concentrate all his efforts on nothing but the performance of his official duties. Thus, it is a crime to speak high, while one's position is lowly, and it is impudence to talk out of turn. The Imperial edict directed the high ministers to take part in this debate and you take time for waging your empty verbal battles.


1. Lun Yü, II, 7 (slightly abbreviated).

2. Mencius, IV, 1, xix, discusses the correct manner of serving parents.

3. I Ching, hexagram 63.

4. 八 十 曰 耊 , 七 十 曰 耄. According to the Shuo Wên (I-II cent. a.d.) the mao is a nonagenarian. The Li Chi, 曲 禮 ch'ü li 7, 27, makes the mao a man from 80 to 90 years of age [Legge, Sacred Books, Vol. XXVII, p. 66].

5. A quotation of unknown provenience. The first quotation of 甘 毳 is ascribed to the Shih Chi in the K'ang Hsi Tzŭ Tien.

6. Mencius, IV, 1, xix.

7. Cf. Mencius, VI, i, X, 6, 乞 人 不 屑 也

8. Cf. Lun Yü, X, 8, the famous chapter descriptive of Confucius' idiosyncracies.

9. 膢 臘 "winter sacrifices." This passage is cited in the K'ang Hsi Tzŭ Tien, explaining lou as the sacrifice of the 8th month. It is apparently not known otherwise. The la is the Han dynasty name of the sacrifice of the last month of the year, giving the common name to this month. For the la sacrifice under its earlier name cha 蜡 cf. Legge, Sacred Books, Vol. XXVII; Li Ki, Books I-IX, p. 431.

10. 史 has been supplied following Chang's edition. The (Lord) Chancellor does not appear as active participant in the debate until Ch. XXIX.

11. "Now filial piety is the root of (all) virtue, and (the stem) out of which grows (all moral) teaching. . . . Our bodies—to every hair and bit of skin—are received by us from our parents, and we must not presume to injure or wound them:—this is the beginning of filial piety." Hsiao Ching, I [Legge, Sacred Books, Vol. III, p. 466].

12. Paraphrase of Mencius, VI, ii, 7.

13. A quotation of which the location cannot be found.

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IATHPublished by The Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities, © Copyright 2003 by Anne Kinney and the University of Virginia