Living a Harmonious Family Life the Confucian Way

A Clarification on Misinterpretations of Confucianism

By Cindy Liew 

Let’s do a quick survey. Turn around and ask your friends, family members or just yourself: “Who is Confucius? What are Confucian family values? Do you consider them restrictive and outdated?”

Probably, most of us will equate Confucian family values to filial piety (孝顺) or a set of strict family tenets—which is quite a big misunderstanding.

Certainly, filial piety is often mentioned and very much emphasised. Confucius’ teachings, however, are not just didactic anchors preaching obedience to parents or husbands, which may sound like platitudes especially to the younger generation.

This is the real question: How should we practise these family values? How would filial piety apply in different scenarios? How should we handle difficult relationships among family members?

‘Analects’ (论语) presents us Confucius’ thoughts on dealing with family relationships and many other issues through vivid conversations between Confucius and his disciples.

Interestingly, Confucius’ advice to his different disciples on the same issue are different—sometimes even the opposite.

This is because his students had different personalities—some were hard-working, some were lazy, some were impetuous, while some were indecisive. Their family backgrounds varied, too.

As such, Confucius’ teachings could be viewed as a set of practical advice that we may refer to when encountering problems.

Confucius lived during the Spring and Autumn period (春秋), which is about 2,500 years ago.

Remember, however, that people at that time could share similar feelings and face similar problems. They, too, might have faced husband-wife or parent-child issues that resemble our dilemmas.

What Makes a Good Parent-Child Relationship

Filial piety is, of course, the bedrock of a good parent-child relationship. However, many people associate it with unconditional obedience to parents and claim it to be Confucian—but it really isn’t.

A good parent-child relationship hinges on both the parent and the child. “The father is affectionate to his son, and the son is dutiful to his father (父慈子孝)” summarises it all.

In Confucius’ view, both the parent and the child bear important responsibilities in family life. ‘Analects’ provides more detailed elaboration on how to shoulder responsibility as a son or daughter.

Many of Confucius’ students asked him about filial duties.

Ziyou (子游) once asked Confucius about being filial. Confucius replied: “Nowadays people consider themselves to be dutiful if they are able to feed their parents. But they also feed their dogs or horses. Without respect, what is the difference between feeding parents and feeding animals?”

What Confucius said sounds very similar to what we are experiencing now. Many of us give a fixed sum of money to our parents monthly, but are we dutiful enough by just doing that?

Yet Confucius offered a different answer to another of his students, Zixia (子夏), for the same question.

Confucius told Zixia: “What’s difficult is to have a pleasant attitude. If one helps parents do things when needed and gives parents nice food to eat, [but does so with a poor attitude], can that be counted as being dutiful?”

Then does being dutiful equate to always following our parents’ instructions to make them happy?

Zengcan (曾参) used to consult Confucius on the very same question, and Confucius asked him in reply, “What sort of saying is that?”

Confucius continued to explain, “If a father has a son who dares to argue with him against his wrongdoings, then the father won’t become unrighteous.”

Parents Should Teach Children to Discern Right From Wrong

While Asian parents are usually stereotyped as being authoritative and didactic in imparting values, the Western approach is often lauded for giving children more freedom.

There is also a growing view that parents should let their children explore and derive their own understanding of morality.

While it sounds good to give children the freedom to explore, it is also a parental responsibility to teach children to discern right from wrong.

When a child misbehaves, we tend to attribute it to the child’s parents not living up to their duty to shape their child’s behaviour.

‘Three Character Classic’ (三字经), written by Confucian scholar Wang Yinglin (王应麟) during the Song dynasty, offers us some interesting views regarding a child’s education. The text was intended for teaching young children and it served as a child’s first formal education at home until the late 1800s.

At the very beginning of ‘Three Character Classic’, the author reasoned why a child’s education is important (translated by Herbert Allen Giles in 1900):

“Men at their birth are naturally good. Their natures are much the same; their habits become widely different. If foolishly there is no teaching, the nature will deteriorate.”

人之初,性本善。性相近,習相遠。苟不教,性乃遷。

The text also famously mentioned: “To feed without teaching, is the father’s fault (養不教,父之過).”

Towards the end, the author set forth the ultimate objective of a child’s education: “Learn while young, and when grown up apply what you have learnt; influencing the sovereign above; benefiting the people below (幼而學,壯而行;上致君,下澤民).”

The whole text is full of such peaceful arguments, as if an elderly is gently encouraging and inspiring his own grandson.

So what caused the “authoritarian” image of Asian parents? It’s probably the way these values are conveyed. Think about it: When your child does something wrong, would you take time and effort to reason with him/her or would you lose patience halfway and force him/her to accept your view?

Meiling Chan (陈美龄), a former Hong Kong pop singer, shared her approach to educating her children during an interview last year, and the video went viral online.

Not only did she graduate from Stanford University with a PhD in Education, but all her three sons also enrolled in Stanford.

Speaking on how she educated her children after they did something wrong, Chan believes that “the best way to educate children is to explain to them clearly (what they had done wrong)”.

“My record was talking with my eldest son for eight hours,” said Chan.

“They (my sons) now think it was the toughest time. They say ‘it would be easier if you had just smacked me. At least I could get away faster.’”

The Role of Women in Confucianism

It is necessary to clarify some misconceptions surrounding what the Confucian school has to say about women.

Many have blamed Confucianism for undermining females, and it is an issue quite often highlighted in academic debates, especially in the context of Korea.

Again, it is another misunderstanding that Confucianism places women at a lower status than men. Such an impression is very often the result of quoting words from Confucian classics without mentioning its context.

An example is “Thrice Following” or “Threefold Obedience”, which is often translated as “A woman should obey her father when she is unmarried, her husband when she is married, and her son when her husband has died (婦人有三從之義,無專用之道。故未嫁從父,即嫁從夫,夫死從子).”

“Thrice Following” has got on the nerves of many, especially feminists. It is often quoted as evidence that the Confucian school considers females subordinate to males in the family.

However, the saying first appeared in a chapter of the ‘Book of Etiquette and Ceremonial’, which describes mourning attire requirements (儀禮•喪服•子夏傳). If “Thrice Following” is meant to state that women should always obey men, why would it appear in such a chapter?

In addition, there are few records of single mothers obeying sons in history. Rather, there are abundant examples of sons, including emperors, being filial to their single mothers.

In ancient times, the Chinese followed a set of detailed and complicated rules and etiquettes to pay respect to the dead. Depending on the relationship between a person and the deceased, the mourning attire would differ—even the number of years that the attire was observed would also differ.

For a lady, her relationship with the deceased would vary depending on whether it was viewed from her father’s or husband’s side.

Knowing this, a more appropriate interpretation would be this: an unmarried lady would have to observe etiquettes on her father’s side; a married lady would have to follow her husband’s side; single mothers would have to follow her son’s side—thus “thrice following”.

There are plenty of other examples of misunderstood quotes from Confucian classics. “Thrice following” is, however, the most commonly misinterpreted.

A Harmonious Family Starts From a Good Spousal Relationship

A harmonious spousal relationship was considered fundamental to harmonious social order. In his commentaries to the ‘Book of Changes’ (易经), Confucius noted the importance of spousal relationships:

“Only with the existence of men and women, can there be husbands and wives. Subsequently there will be parent-child relationships. Thereafter the relationship between the monarch and his subjects can be (properly) established. Henceforth the relationship between up and down can be established. Only then can the ethics (etiquettes) be followed (by people at different positions). Therefore, the way spouses get along with each other has to be lasting.”

有男女,然后有夫妇;有夫妇,然后有父子:有父子,然后有君臣;有君臣,然后有上下;有上下,然后礼义有所错。夫妇之道不可不久也。

Here the “up” is not necessarily superior and the “down” is not necessarily inferior, just like one would not declare the palm to be superior or inferior to the back of the hand.

Traditionally, women usually were not the breadwinners of their families, but they played an equally important role in supporting their husbands by managing the family and educating children.

In modern times, however, many have criticised the traditional family for restricting women from pursuing a more meaningful life and entering the workforce to compete just like men.

Although forcing women to stay at home and give up their careers is killing their freedom, it is dangerous to deem managing families meaningless.

Dong Zhongshu (董仲舒), a Han Dynasty scholar, proposed: “The husband should set the example for the wife. If the husband does not behave righteously, the wife can remarry. Meanwhile, the wife should provide support to her husband. If the wife is not virtuous, the husband can divorce her (夫為妻綱,夫不正,妻可改嫁。妻為夫助,妻不賢,夫則休之).”

In fact, the Confucian school deems the husband and the wife equally important, and both of them have to play their roles in building a successful marriage.

It may appear surprising that Dong Zhongshu mentioned divorce. Did people in the past divorce easily?

Only in a few conditions could “divorce applications” be granted. Such conditions include committing adultery or theft. Reasons such as “both parties no longer have feelings for each other” were not valid.

In the Tang Dynasty, these conditions were written into the law to protect women from becoming victims of easy divorce.

In addition, it was considered unethical for a man to abandon his wife if the wife had no other family members, or she had observed a three-year mourning period for his parents, or if his wife had accompanied him when he was suffering economically, even if subsequently the man became rich.

From Family to Society—Confucius’ Vision for the World

It is clear that the Confucian school has set a moral standard for each individual.

The father is loving; the son is filial; the elder brother is caring; the younger brother is respectful; the husband behaves righteously; the wife is willing to follow her husband (父慈,子孝,兄良,弟悌,夫义,妇听).

With each individual behaving accordingly, families would enjoy peace and happiness. With good moral relationships within the family, a healthy and functioning society can be formed.

Thus, a monarch would love and care for his people, and the officials would be loyal to such a monarch (君仁臣忠). Members of the society would treat their friends as their siblings. It is almost an ideal society to live in.

Furthermore, if every society and every nation is as such, there will be no wars and the world can truly enjoy peace.

At this point, it would not be difficult to appreciate the vision of Confucius—he had a grand design of running the nation through educating each individual to uphold values and virtues.

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