Kure Tomofusa on nepotism and filiality

The following is a translation from The Analects for the Modern Man (2006) by Kure Tomofusa.

The Magistrate of Shou said to Confucius, “There is a very honest person in our village. When his father stole sheep, he prosecuted his own father.” Confucius said, “In our village, honesty is different from yours. Father defends his children and Children defend their father. Here you may find true honesty.” [Analects 13.18]

I’d like to use this commentary to think about Confucianism’s strong point, filial piety.

When most people think of Confucianism, they reflexively think of filial piety, moreover a stiffly imposed filial piety. In Legalism, to be sure, filial piety is symbolized by bad customs like the Twenty-Four Filial Exemplars. But, recently, filial piety has received notice as a way of thinking to overcome the limits and pathologies of Western individualism. This is the treatment of filial piety as an assimilation of oneself with the whole, of filial piety as symbolizing the continuity of life. In an age where it has become necessary to consider the standpoint of the whole human race, since it is difficult to create a principle for conceiving of humanity from an individualist perspective, this is only natural. We must recognize the absurd spectacle of Western rationalism or individualism being unable to judge the relationship between parent and child.

Parents cannot choose their children, nor can children choose their parents. For that reason, love and hatred are tangled together. The undertaking of that entangled love and hatred– is that not what we call filial piety?

This view is not so far-fetched. When the Analects speak of filial piety, more often than not they are speaking specifically of this social system. Here is an example from the first book:

The Teacher said, “While a man’s father lives, we should evaluate his character by his home life and aspirations. After one’s father dies, we should evaluate his character by his public life and deeds. Three years after his father’s death [when the period of mourning has ended], if his conduct is still in line with his father’s, he can be called a dutiful son.” [Analects 1.11]

This is clearly regarding a social system. The “way of the father” which the son is meant to imitate is furthermore that of the management of a fiefdom, the selection of faithful stewards, and statesmanship. Don’t be tempted to confuse this “way of the father” with knowing when to flip the burgers on the barbecue; such erroneous readings are on the rise these days.

Filial piety is part of this system, and it took form naturally preceding Confucius, as Pre-Confucianism. Taking this as the soil, Confucius was the one who consciously gave it meaning. This meaning-giving could rather be said to give readings to unclear parts of filial piety. The above passage is such; let’s translate it.

The Magistrate of Shou put a question to Confucius. Shou was a province in China, and this magistrate was known for being a wise man, but a haughty one. [Rest of translation omitted; it’s as above.]

Parents could not be expected to rejoice in their child’s crime, nor could a child rejoice in his parent’s crime. With all that weeping and lamentation, trying to protect their kin by concealing the crime is only natural for humans. Confucius stressed people over laws. More important than good government is a virtuous people. This insistence in Confucian government, and the nepotism it generated, was the source of social stagnation. The importance of kinship and the restraints of nepotism warded off social progress. While we must remember that fact, even more than that, we must take note how a curiously strong insistence on the objective character of law arose in 20th century America. Believing that their own troubles were caused by the bad education they received from their parents, some American children have even sued their parents and sought restitution.

Li, Confucius’ son who preceded him in death, of course had an untroubled childhood, but was a perfectly mediocre individual. But for his father, Li was a beloved, wonderful son. “Whether or not he possesses genius, he is still my child.” (Analects 11.8)

There is a passage in the Analects which has eluded intepretation since ancient times:

Meng Wu Bo asked Confucius about filial piety. Confucius replied, 父母唯其疾之憂。 (Analects 2.6)

The following readings have been proposed.

Ba Yu of the Later Han: “One should only be concerned for one’s parents in times of terminal illness. At other times, we must not be concerned.”

Shu Shi of Sòng: “Parents are concerned for their children only in times of sickness, so we must pay attention to our health.”

Jinsai Itoh (1627-1705): “The first duty towards one’s parents is to be concerned for them in times of sickness.”

[By the way, here are some other modern readings: “The main concern of your parents is about your health.” ”Have your parents be concerned about only their health.” “Parents are anxious lest their children should be sick.”]

In all of these readings, though, we see that the relationship between parent and child is not one of choice.

Confucius himself lost his father at the age of three, and lost his mother at the youthful age of 24. In the roughly 500 sayings of Confucius in the Analects there is not a single one about the kind of filial piety which the Teacher himself carried out. Nor do any of his disciples relate a single word about their teacher’s piety.

He was still a child when his father died, but it is thought as well that something must have happened, preventing him from meeting his mother.

Posted: May 3rd, 2013 | Confucius 1 Comment »

One Comment on “Kure Tomofusa on nepotism and filiality”

  1. 1 Azkartu Bidaiatzen said at 11:50 am on August 19th, 2013:

    (Answering to several comments at “GornaHoor” … ) :

    YES , you are right and we fully agree with you , BUT the problem is that we should then come back to the Ancient Archaic Times before monotheisms !! …

    Eating mostly RAW (which as you already must know is healthy ) , living as in those Times like a bunch of “Happy Few” between the Trees in the middle of thick huge Woods …
    We personnaly think that we should never have quitted that intimate , strong LINK with Mother Nature -even if perhaps things are not so simple- , a Living Mood that some specific “civilizations” from the Desert have destroyed : We shouldn’ t have followed such collective suicide -which starts with monotheism, by the way …- , should we ?

    (I write you from the Forest of BROCELIANDE , in Brittany , where we have listened to some fairy HARPISTS who have reminded us with the echoes of their taming Music of that particular LINK between mankind and Nature …

    Pythagore , Heraclit , Empedocles and so many PRESOCRATICS would have not only agreed , but enjoyed the spelling Sounds created by these Harpists playing and singing in the heart of Brocéliande ! … :
    Wish you were (all at GornaHoor) here …