On November the 5th, American Professor Keith N. Knapp delivered a speech entitled “Great Civilization and Tradition-- Filial Children, the Accounts of Filial Children and the Chinese Cultural Essence” at the Institute of History of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS). Professor Knapp comes from the History Department of the Citadel, the Military College of South Carolina, and he is currently also president of the Early Medieval China Research Group.
Knapp has been devoted to studying the Wei, Jin, Northern and Southern Dynasties of China for over 30 years, focusing on the outlook and values of the people of the time. In the eighties he began to probe into Chinese filial piety, with special reference to the Wei, Jin, Northern and Southern Dynasties, after discovering that the way Chinese children get along with their parents in Taiwan differs greatly from the US. In his speech, he mainly expounded on the changes which have occurred to The Accounts of Filial Children and the “24 Stories of Filial Piety”. He claimed that there is direct evidence proving that The Accounts of Filial Children was popular during the Wei, Jin, Northern and Southern Era, when the people valued filial piety a great deal, but the statement that it appeared approximately in the Eastern Han Dynasty needs further verification. During the late Tang Dynasty, however, scholars gradually lost interest in editing The Account of Filial Children, whilst the commoners living in the cities began to appreciate stories about filial children. During the late Tang or the Five Dynasties period, the “24 Stories of Filial Piety” were brought into being, and the primary readers were the common people and children.
The Account of Filial Children was lost during the Song and Yuan periods. The fully extant manuscripts are preserved in Kyoto, Japan, in two versions, The Yomei Accounts of Filial Children and The Funahashi Accounts of Filial Children. In the Song, Liao and Jin eras, the “24 Stories of Filial Piety” also included stories of Buddhism, as well as a good number of stories about filial daughters. The importance of the “24 Stories of Filial Piety” lies in the fact that it reflected the ideals and values of the ordinary Chinese.
During the Wei, Jin, Northern and Southern period, not only did the scholars and dignitaries edit stories about filial children, but the emperor also actively involved himself in it. At the time filial piety was praised so highly that the people would do anything for their parents, even at the cost of their lives. In Knapp’s view, this was because the central authority was weak, so the parents hoped they could enhance the strength of their family by cultivating filial children.
In stories and tales about filial children there are often miracles, which indicates that at the time many people believed in the theories of “Unity between Humanity and Nature” and “Interaction between Heaven and Mankind”. They held that filial piety is an inborn morality, so sincere love toward parents could move the Bodhisattvas.
Nowadays, both in the West and the East, the most important value of filial piety is that it prompts us to think about how to treat our parents, especially when they are aged and need help, Knapp said to the reporter of CSST. In the West there is no such concept as “filial piety”, so it is difficult for westerners to understand it. Every westerner hopes to gain independence, and parents don’t want to rely on their children. Americans seldom reflect on what their parents have done for them, so the long-established concept of Chinese filial piety could serve to remind Americans to think about how to treat their parents. Since parents have often gone to great efforts to bring up their children, their children should pay them back. This is an important aspect of conducting ourselves properly.
Knapp said that filial piety is closely related to social conditions. There are huge differences between Chinese and American society. In China parents may live with their children, but this is not the case in the United States. Even within the same country, things may have changed considerably compared to the past. The specific content of filial piety, and ideas about how to handle the relationship with one’s parents, have therefore varied significantly. What filial piety suggests is that we should sometimes sacrifice ourselves for the sake of our parents, and think a bit more about them and a bit less about ourselves.
Translated by Chen Mirong
Revised by Gabriele Corsetti