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  • The Way of Family DevotionThe Book of Filial Piety
  • Brandon James O'Neil1 (bio)

As my freshman English class stared blankly at our professor following a brief lecture on a novel we had read, she gave us the advice, "Start with the story." A student recommended a few major plot points and soon the conversation blossomed. The Xiaojing 孝經 (Book of Filial Piety)—though a highly didactic classic text reliant on sophisticated rhetorical structures—opens with a frame story, transporting readers into the intimacy of the academy, where a disciple sits near his master and receives specialized instruction. They are the story's only characters: Zeng Shen 曾參, later known as Master Zeng or Zengzi 曾子, and Confucius (hereafter referred to by his pinyin name, Kongzi 孔子).

The Lunyu 論語 (Analects) describes Zengzi's noble self-assessment: "Each day I examine myself three times: have I exerted myself on behalf of others? Have I been honest in my dealings with friends? Have I revised and implemented the teachings of my master?" (1.4). The text contains fourteen sayings attributed to the disciple, many of which bear thematic consonance with the Xiaojing. For example, Zengzi causally ties moral strengthening to proper respect for departed ancestors (1.9), and then later quotes Kongzi on emotional mourning for parents and honor due the legacy of a deceased father (19.17-18). One direct intertextual connection between the Xiaojing and the Lunyu is a tercet borrowed from [End Page 171] the Shijing 詩經 (Book of Songs)—"be strategic, be cautious, like walking on a cliff's edge, like walking on thin ice"—in the former work, quoted by Kongzi and in the latter put into the mouth of Zengzi on his deathbed (8.3).

The Lunyu portrays Zengzi as a disciple who directly quotes his master as the authority on family devotion; that is to say, he demonstrates that a filial disciple defers to the authority of his superior. According to the Xiaojing, when asked if he could identify the Way of perfect virtue, Zengzi claims, "I am not a master, so how could I know what that Way was called?"

It is as if the Xiaojing provides a fuller narrative background for the quotes in the Lunyu, the story of the instruction whereby Zengzi became a master in his own right. His presence in the Xiaojing is not merely an homage to a historical disciple of Kongzi; rather, heunderscores a thematic thread running through the major Confucian canonical texts: virtue is found in knowing your place and then acting appropriately. Indeed, Zengzi became a very model of family devotion, as illustrated in a brief anecdote from the Yuan dynasty text the Ershisi xiao 二十四孝 (The Twenty-Four Filial Exemplars):

Since his father died when he was very young, Shen [Zengzi] devoted all his respect and obedience to his widowed mother. They were a poor family and daily he climbed a mountain to gather firewood while his mother stayed home to weave and sell linen. One morning, after Shen went to the mountains for wood, a guest unexpectedly arrived at their home.

Since Shen was not there, his mother did not know what to do, so she stood at the door watching the mountain, and absent-mindedly put her finger into her mouth and chewed it until it bled.

Shen, even up in the mountains, suddenly felt his heart aching and surmised that all was not well with his mother. He rushed back home, and kneeling at her feet, asked her what the matter was.

She sighed and said, "An uninvited guest arrived, and I chewed my finger. You are such a devoted child that you can sense your mother's pain in your heart wherever you are."

Zengzi, the dutiful son, is the respectful student in the Xiaojing. His body performs only three actions: he sits near his master to tend to his needs; he rises when responding to his master's question; he sits back [End Page 172] down when the master gives his instruction. Aside from these, he is a listener through whose ears the reader attends the master's lecture. The Xiaojing is a short work—fewer than 2,000 characters in Chinese and just...


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pp. 171-183
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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