Friday, April 17, 2009

Stories of Filial Children -- Series One

In Taiwan and no doubt also in China and Hong Kong, one can find many books extolling the virtues of filial children and young adults of the past who have since become famous. These stories have been gathered into anthologies. Among them the most famous is The Thirty-Six Filial Children (Sanshiliu xiao), available in many editions and updated from previous editions that included fewer children, namely twenty-four children.

My intention is to offer now and then some selections from this classic of Confucian literature as well as from another similar book, Xiaodao, The Way of Filial Piety. The stories shall be presented in no particular order.

(1) Min Zhen (Qing Dynasty)

Min Zhen, with the hao Zhengzhai, formerly of Jiangxi and, later, of Guangji County, Hubei, lost his parents when he was twelve.

Afterwards, after he had already reached adulthood, he began more and more to notice how every New Year's others would hang up posthumous portraits of their parents and perform rites in front of him. He realized how he did not have such portraits of his own parents. It pained his heart terribly that he couldn't likewise pay respects to his parents.

So he decided to do something.

He plunged into the study of portrait painting.

He then set about to paint portraits of his parents. His memory of their appearance was fading, but he tried his best to paint them as they had looked. The first paintings weren't very satisfactory, but he kept painting. It took several years before he was able to paint any portrait, in his estimation, that was able to resemble to any degree one of his parents. As his skill deepened, his portraits took on a more and more lifelike quality.

Min Zhen later gathered all these portraits together in an album and thus mourned his parents and kept their memories alive as he reviewed these pictures.

In time he became a renowned painter, and others seeking to develop the craft of filial posthumous paintings would seek him out as a teacher.

He was very well known for doing his utmost to help other bereaved children who were too poor to pay for the accouterments needed to perform filial rites, painting for them posthumous portraits and helping them with burial fees.

Thus, did filial son Min Zhen become known to the whole nation.


from Sanshiliu Xiao (The thirty-six filial children) by Wu Yenhuan. Taipei: Guoli Bianyi Guan, 1979; p. 80.

This story is #35 in the Wu Yenhuan edition of this classic.

(2) Old Laizi (Zhou Dynasty--Spring & Autumn Era)

Old Laizi, a man of Chu (today, Hubei, Hunan Provinces) and a contemporary of Confucius, had been filial to his parents all his life. Thus, when he was seventy, his parents were still in good health.

Now it is not uncommon for one to associate age with death, all the more so when one and one's own child are both old! Old Laizi had anticipated his parents might feel this way, and so to reduce any sadness they might feel because of their advanced age, he refused to utter the word "old."

Moreover, in their presence he donned the colorful clothes and hair ribbons of very small children and would prance in front of his parents to hearten them, to shrink what must have been their unspoken fears of their own imminent mortality. Not only would he dance and sing but also he would pretend to fall down and cry in the manner of small children. Thus, he made them smile and laugh.

From that ancient time until today, his name has become synonymous with filial piety.


from Sanshiliu Xiao by Wu Yenhuan; p. 20.

This story is #5 in the Wu edition.

(3) Wang Shuai (Age of the Warring States)

When the mother of Wang Shuai of Wei was alive, she tended to be of a very nervous temperament and was particularly frightened of lightning and thunder storms. She often depended on her son for comfort.

After she passed away, she was buried in a very quiet, secluded place nestled in the hills among trees. Whenever he would hear the first rumblings of thunder, Wang Shuai would then immediately rush over to her tomb, kneel before it and say, "Mother, your son is here. Don't worry."

Thus he would keep a vigil at his mother's tomb on stormy nights.


from Xiaodao (The Way of Filial Piety), Chen Xiangyang, ed. Taichung: Shengxian Zhazhi She, 1986; p. 60.

This story is from a collection of stories edited by a publishing house affiliated with the syncretic Chinese religion, Yiguandao (or I-Kuan Tao, IKT, "the Comprehensive Way"). Formerly proscribed both in China and on Taiwan, IKT is now flourishing on Taiwan, and its adherents serve as the custodians of some very large temples there, such as the huge, historic Lu'erhmen Temple in Tainan. The faith itself is an amalgamation of Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism. It also maintains a large presence in Southern California.

Of all the reasons I have for being grateful in knowing how to read Chinese--and there are many--being able to read and translate this particular story, a favorite of mine, is one of them.