Analects of Confucius Book 4: Confucius on filial devotion


Filial devotion doesn’t require blind obedience to your parents – at least not the version of it that Confucius taught. In 4.18, he says that you may “gently remonstrate” with your mother and father if you think that they are not conducting themselves in the right manner. He does go on to caution, however, that if they choose to ignore your advice, you should “remain respectful” and not let “your efforts turn to resentment.” In the final analysis, maintaining harmony within the family is more important than being right.

In 4.21, Confucius tells you to treasure your time with your parents by reminding you to always keep their age “in mind” and to let this knowledge be “a source of joy and dread.” In 4.19, he advises you not to travel far or at least stick to a fixed itinerary while your parents are alive, presumably so that you can be easily reached if they happen to fall ill while you are away.

Confucius concludes by warning that your obligations towards them don’t come to an end when they finally pass away, noting in 4.20 that “If after three years a man has not deviated from his father’s path, then he may be called a filial son.”

Three years was the traditional period of mourning following the death of a parent, though it was probably honored more in breach than practice given the stringent demands it placed on a newly-bereaved son. Even sons from the richest and most powerful of families would have found it extremely difficult to take so much time out of their official, military, or family responsibilities.

Confucius is said to have followed this tradition after his mother Yan Zhengzai (颜徵在) passed away when he was in his early twenties. His father Shuliang He (叔梁纥) died when he was just three years old.

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