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  • The Twenty-Four Paragons of Filial Piety:Their Didactic Role and Impact on Children's Lives
  • Weimin Mo (bio) and Wenju Shen (bio)

The texts that make up the orthodox canon of Confucianism, The Classic of Filial Piety and its supplement The Twenty-Four Examples of Filial Piety, could be considered the oldest example of children's literature that still has a strong impact on children's daily life.1 The Classic of Filial Piety has been dated by modern scholars to the period between 200 B.C. and A.D. 350 (Barnhart 73). Consisting of a series of conversations between Confucius and one of his disciples, Tseng-tzu, it provides a systematic instruction in filial piety and represents the epitome of the literary classics on the topic (Traylor 63-64). Written in archaic Chinese, which is drastically different both syntactically and semantically and far more compact than the modern language, it employs fewer than four hundred Chinese characters and is divided into eighteen short chapters that children can easily read, memorize, and recite.2 Until the beginning of the twentieth century, Chinese children from well-to-do families started their education at home at private schools for their clan. For around two thousand years, until the downfall of the Qing dynasty in 1911, The Classic of Filial Piety was the first textbook for schoolchildren in China, the work from which they learned both ethics and how to read. Even though in ancient times literate people made up only a small percentage of society, the scholar class in China successfully instilled those teachings into every aspect of life. Moreover, The Twenty-Four Examples of Filial Piety, which embodied the teachings of the earlier book, powerfully reinforced its predecessor's didactic role. Thus The Twenty-Four Examples of Filial Piety has been traditionally accepted as an official supplement to The Classic of Filial Piety, the stories in this supplement were so popular that even nonliterate people became thoroughly versed in Confucian teachings.

According to Confucius, filial piety encompasses all aspects of human social life and is implied by all the virtues associated with human behavior. It is the keystone that organically links politics, ethics, and religion in a way not found in other cultures. The eighteen chapters of The Classic of Filial Piety provide fundamental principles regarding the role of filial piety, and a glance at some of the chapter titles gives some idea about its importance in life of the Chinese. They delineate the duties of filial piety in relation to social institutions and for people in all walks of life: "Filial Piety in Relation to the Five Punishments," "Filial Piety in Relation to the Three Powers," "Filial Piety in Government," "Filial Piety in Mourning for Parents," "Filial Piety in the Son of Heaven," "Filial Piety in High Ministers and Great Officers," "Filial Piety in Lesser Officials," "Filial Piety in the Common People," and so on. In his introduction, Confucius explains that filial piety provides the foundation for an all-embracing rule of conduct:

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. When we have established our character by the practice of the filial course, so as to make our name famous in future ages, and thereby glorify our parents:—this is the end of filial piety. It commences with the service of parents; it proceeds to the service of the ruler; it is completed by the establishment of the character.

(Doeblin 142)

Chapter Ten, "An Orderly Description of the Acts of Filial Piety," describes how filial piety is linked to ethics and politics:

He who thus serves his parents, in a high situation, will be free from pride; in a low situation, will be free from insubordination; and, among his equals, will not be quarrelsome. In a high situation pride leads to ruin; in a low situation insubordination leads to punishment; among equals quarrelsomeness leads to the wielding of weapons. If those three things be not put away, even though a son every day contribute beef, mutton, and pork to nourish his parents, he...


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pp. 15-23
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