Cai Shun lived in the late Western Han Dynasty. He lost his father at a young age but still had his mother.
To escape chaos caused by war, they fled to Shenjian (located in today’s Henan Province). But the war continued, residents escaped from their homes, and the land was deserted.
Life was difficult and Cai had to beg every day. He saved good food for his mother while eating leftover vegetables or herbs to still his hunger.
One of the rebellion troops, Chimei (Red Eyebrow), later attacked Xuchang (also located in today’s Henan Province). This forced more people to flee, making the life of Cai, and his mother more miserable. He often went very far and obtained little food. When Cai had not returned at dusk, his mother often kept a lookout for him at the edge of the village.
On a difficult day, Cai begged the entire morning but had not obtained any food by the afternoon. Then, he saw an area of mulberry trees, with fruits having fallen to the ground. Pleased by his new finding, Cai picked them up and separated the ripe (black) mulberries from the rest.
As a group of Chimei soldiers stopped Cai, they curiously asked him why berries in the basket were divided by color. He responded, “The black ones are ripe and sweet, and they are for my mother, while the rest is for myself,” Cai explained, “Mother is old, and has poor eyesight. It helps her if I separate them now.”
Moved by his kindness and filial obedience, the soldiers did not harm him, and instead gave him food as well as livestock they had robbed. Considering that they had been obtained unjustly, Cai refused the gift and insisted on giving his mother the berries. Touched by his uprightness, soldiers of the troop missed their families too. Some went to a nearby river, washed the red color off their eyebrows, and returned to their homes.
After the rebellion was ended, life improved, but Cai’s mother passed away. Before burial of the body, however, a neighbor’s property caught on fire, and it was spreading to Cai’s residence. Seeing there was nothing he could do, Cai held the coffin and cried loudly. The fire miraculously changed direction, and the coffin and his residence survived.
Filial obedience was highly respected under the traditional Confucian ideology. The Twenty-four Filial Exemplars, initially compiled in the Yuan Dynasty, was respected and preserved through many generations.