Imagine all beneath Heaven turning to you with great delight. Now imagine seeing that happen and knowing it means nothing more than a wisp of straw: only Shun was capable of that.
He knew that if you don't realize [sic] your parents you aren't a person, and that if you don't lead your parents to share your wisdom you aren't a child. He fulfilled the Way of serving parents completely until Blind Purblind, his depraved father, finally rejoiced in virtue. Once his father rejoiced in virtue, all beneath Heaven was transformed. One his father rejoiced in virtue, the model for fathers and sons was set for all beneath Heaven. Such is the greatness of honoring parents.
Perhaps a psychopath has no feelings one way or the other about family, which would mean that they aren't a "person" according to Mencius. But the feelings that arise around family are not always positive. Indeed, the language associated with filial devotion always sounds really strange to me---(and I suspect a lot of other people too.) It also sounds odd to me when Christians recite the Lord's Prayer and say "Our Father who art in Heaven---". It's even worse when union leaders talk about members as being "brothers" and "sisters". That is because my father died when I was a child after a long, horrible illness; I also spent a very important part of my childhood being beaten by my older brother; and, my mother had an out-of-control, crazily emotional streak that terrorized me as a child. "Family" has a very strong emotional connection for me---but it is negative, not positive. So I am a "person" according to Mencius, but not one that is terribly "filial".
But it is important to remember that for Confucians like Mencius filial devotion is not just one directional. Parents have an obligation towards their children that is just as important as the child's obligation to their parents. And if the parent fails in that obligation, the child has as much of a duty to instruct the parent as the parent has to instruct the child:
"if you don't lead your parents to share your wisdom you aren't a child. He fulfilled the Way of serving parents completely until Blind Purblind, his depraved father, finally rejoiced in virtue"Think about this passage. Mencius is putting forward Shun as a paragon of filial piety because he patiently taught one of his parents the difference between right and wrong.
So what exactly is xiào? It doesn't seem to be the stereotypical ideal of children "shutting up and doing what they are told". Right now I'm reading a new translation of the Xiaojing by Henry Rosemount, jr, and Roger T. Ames that translates it as "family reverence" because the scholars believed that the English word "piety" carries too many resonances with self-righteous, unfeeling, religious fanaticism. Instead, they believe xiào refers more about the feelings of someone who is in a genuinely warm, reciprocal relationship based on real emotion. It's unfortunate that so many people---like me---have had such bad experiences with our families that the emotions we feel are negative, but to my way of thinking that means that we still long for that connection, not that it doesn't (or shouldn't) exist. I see this as evidence for the basic value of Confucian family reverence, not evidence against it.
This longing for a sense of "family reverence" might begin in the family, but for Confucians it is not supposed to end there. The entire culture of a nation is supposed to function like a family for Confucians. The leader of any grouping---such as the Emperor---is supposed to exist in a dynamic with his subjects much like that of a family. Leaders are supposed to actually care about what happens to their followers, and the followers are supposed to not only be able to engage with leaders when they are acting improperly, they are actually obligated to do so in some circumstances. Shun was expected to gently reprimand his father, "Blind Purblind". In the same way, the court officials of the Emperor were expected to disagree with the Emperor and try to change his opinion when they believed he was acting improperly.
In ancient China this could often be a very dangerous thing to do, as many Emperors were half-mad with power and were quite willing to torture and kill any scholar who had the courage to criticize an imperial policy. But that was the role that a scholar was supposed to play. Indeed, during the reign of the second Qin emperor there was an incident where a stag was brought before the Emperor. The
Prime Minister (who was the real power behind the throne) declared it to be a horse and then asked the court scholars what they thought it was. The ones who were afraid of him, agreed that it was a horse. The others, who had a greater commitment to the truth, said it was a stag. The latter group paid a heavy price for their statements, as not only they themselves, but their families too were punished for their independence.
|Is this a horse? If you say it isn't, you and your family will die. |
But if you say it is, your entire society may collapse. Pressure?
1902 drawing by Frank E. Beddard, c/o Wiki Commons
I've been watching a modern Chinese drama titled "The Legend of Chu and Han", but which on Netflix Canada is called "The King's War". It is based on the collapse of the Qin dynasty and the founding of the Han.
One scene where the director really pointed this out was where Liu was on the march with his army and he fell sick with the flu. His mistress had rolled him up in a quilt and was plying him with hot water to keep him hydrated. A Confucian scholar insisted on seeing him, even though the guards said he was too sick to see anyone. Eventually, he sneaked in to see Liu, who heard him out. After introducing himself, he started talking about how he was going to get Liu's army into some key city without a fight. Liu was not interested (because he felt awful and had heard it all before), so he showed his contempt by taking a pee in the scholar's special, groovy hat. He then make the guy leave and take his hat with him.
This peeved the scholar, but after throwing his hat away, he ran back in and then told Liu that he was really an expert at drinking wine. Instead of having the guy dragged off (which really isn't Liu Bang's style), he asks his girl friend to bring in two pitchers of wine. (Liu is a bit of a drinker.) The scholar downs one without a pause, and then suggests that Liu drink the other. Liu refuses, saying he's too sick to be drinking wine. But he says he'll hear out the scholar.
The scholar says he's friend with the Qin prefect who rules the town and can get him to surrender rather than force a fight. Liu asks why he is interested in helping him. The scholar says that he noticed that on the line of march Liu's soldiers are very careful to not trample the peasant's crops, and, that in general they are careful not to abuse ordinary people. (Not to mention that Liu has put up with some pretty strange behaviour by the scholar himself---even though he's not feeling well.) The scholar is saying that he's spent his whole life trying to find a benevolent ruler to serve, and as near as he can tell, Liu Bang is it.
In the show, "King's War", this is Liu Bang's "secret weapon"---he is able to attract people of real talent, inspire them with tremendous loyalty, and, get them to perform amazing things for him. This contrasts with his main rival, Xiang Yu, who is portrayed in what Westerners would recognize as the "heroic" model of someone like Alexander the Great. He has the strength of a Hercules, is absolutely fearless in battle, and, has the martial arts skill of Bruce Lee. But he lacks ren.
The director of the show actually underlines this point through a scene where Yu orders the execution of 5,000 captured Qin soldiers because they didn't surrender as fast as he said they needed to in order to be spared. Yu places a great emphasis on keeping his word---something that Confucianism says should always be tempered by benevolence. When Yu's uncle find out about this act he is so angry that he slashes Yu across the face with a whip and punishes him with house arrest. He informs Yu that this is a catastrophic mistake to make, because it means that he has no ren---and that there is no way he can become Emperor without it. A leader who cannot build a sense of trust in both his followers and the people that he will act benevolently towards ordinary folk is doomed to fail. It is this lack of trust that has doomed the Qin dynasty, and Yu's actions show why he failed in his competition with Liu. That is why Liu became the first Emperor of the Han dynasty and Yu ends up killing himself after losing.
So what has this got to do with modern life?
I recently read a post on FaceBook about a story in the Guardian about a movement called "the New Optimists". In a nutshell, their argument is if you use objective measurements of things like life expectancy, global poverty rates, death by violent crime, warfare, etc, people around the world have never had it so good. But at the same time, lots of people really feel awful about their lives and the future. How come?
Well, there are lots of good suggestions as potential reasons. For example, just because people on the other side of planet are doing better than ever before that doesn't mean you are. Moreover, just because things have been getting better over the past 200 years doesn't mean that it couldn't all go to Hell in a few years because of something like climate change, nuclear war, or, an economic catastrophe caused by something like a computer virus.
All of these are legitimate concerns, but I wonder if maybe part of the problem is that human beings are suffering the effects of a catastrophic decline in our generalized sense of "family reverence" as defined by Confucianism.
No, I don't mean that we all need to embrace some sort of fundamentalist nonsense like that spewed by groups like "Focus on the Family". Instead, I'm talking about the more generalized sense of emotional connection that Confucians found mostly within the family. The key point of "family reverence" isn't the family, it's the emotional sense of connection and belonging that most often found within families. (Please don't confuse the finger pointing at the moon with the moon itself!) People who cannot find this emotional connection within a family seek it in other aspects of life---for many people it is absolutely essential to their well-being and all leaders ignore it at their peril.
What is this sense of "emotional connection"? Well, like Mencius, I can't really define what it is, I can just suggest examples and ask the reader to think about whether or not I am right when I say that these seem to be indicative of an intrinsic human quality. People during war time often develop very strong interpersonal connections that they hold onto for the rest of their lives. It's also why some people have such a strong emotional connection to the university that they studied at while young. I know that in my case I had very strong emotional connection to the school and Temple where I learned Taijiquan and was initiated into Daoism. I also had a similar attachment to the Green Party where I learned the "nuts and bolts" of political activism. They were both like "families" for me. I also have very strong friendships and a significant other that also provide that sense of emotional connection for me.
I might suggest, however, that for many (if not most) people our modern society undermines and attacks this sense of emotional connection. For one thing, families and friendships are shredded when people are expected to travel all over the world in order to pursue their career paths. Even worse, the temporary nature of jobs means that people routinely get picked up and tossed into a task for a short period of time then discarded like a used wrench---which makes it impossible to develop anything like an emotional connection with co-workers. Increasingly, even that shrinking pool of people who do have permanent jobs are denied the stability of even having their own personal work-space. Instead, they are expected to just grab whatever computer is free at any given moment, or, park their laptop at whatever desk is free. These are called "back pack" offices. (My job just transitioned from one where I had a office to being one of these "migrants", and I can attest to how much it makes me feel like I'm no longer a valued part of the workplace!)
I believe that the alt-right has been very good at manipulating the vague, inarticulate sense of emotional loss that comes from this lack of emotional connection in work, community, and, family by playing up people's sense of emotional connection to patriotism. There are lots of videos to choose from on line, but here's one that illustrates my point.
Oh, one last point. I started off this crazy post with a quote from Mencius where he mentions a guy named Shun and says that he was indifferent to public acclaim because of his devotion to filial piety. I found it hard understand this point. But now I do. If you have a vague need to feel the support of a real emotional community, you will have a real hunger for acclaim. But if that need is being met by a real understanding of ren and have manifested a Sage's feeling towards the people around you, you no longer have that hunger. Not because you have transcended this human desire, but rather because you have satiated it.
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