Filiality: A Question of Feeling

Confucius was frequently challenged by pragmatists of the “time-is-money” variety as to the wastefulness of ritual. These challengers were not necessarily shallow materialists obsessed with profit; some, like the followers of the utilitarian Mozi, considered ritual a distraction from important activities like feeding the poor and takng care of the sick. Here, even a close disciple, the rhetorician Zai Wo, proposes shortening the three-year mourning period for a parent to one year, because it would be “enough”:

Zai Wo asked: “Isn’t the three-year mourning period [for parents] too long? If the [junzi] does not exercise ritual for three years, the rituals will certainly deteriorate; if music is not played for three years, it will certainly vitiate. Last year’s grain is already gone, this years’ grain has already sprouted. And the seasonal cycle for the use of wood for producing fire by friction has already passed through. One year is enough. ” Confucius said, “Are you comfortable with eating good rice and wearing fine silk [soon after your parents have died]?” “Yes, I am fine with it.” “If you are OK with it, then go ahead and do it. When the [junzi] is in mourning, he cannot enjoy the taste of delicious food, cannot enjoy the sound of music, and cannot be comfortable in his own home, and therefore he won’t do such a thing. Now, if you are comfortable with it, then do it.” Zai Wo left. Confucius said, “How inhumane Zai Wo is! It is only after three years that a child [leaves] his parent’s embrace. The three-year period of mourning is observed throughout society. Wasn’t Zai Wo loved three years by his parents?” (Analects 17.19, tr. A. Charles Muller)

 “If you are OK with it, then go ahead and do it”: Confucius’ reply is brutally sarcastic, but it reveals that the three-year mourning period is not an abstract prescription but a sensitive formalization of real feeling. When a parent dies, is it not a fact that the actual period of mourning lasts a few years? There are the feeling of loss and grief, the longing, the memories of early life together and thoughts of gratitude — but also the feelings of injury, resentment, misunderstandings? — because parents and children spend many years hurting each other and leaving lifelong scars. All these constitute mourning for a parent, because the parental impact on our lives is primal and complex. Even when we live in a society where we have to be functional again after a few weeks, is it not the case that underneath the functionality we feel our mourning like an undertow that carries with it all our daily interactions? Our own society would function better if it could be more open to mourning and make room for it in our working lives.

    Mourning for a parent is also bound up with the knowledge that we are now next in line for death; the main barrier between us and death has fallen. After a parent’s death, a sensitive person finds himself in terra incognita, not sure of who he is any more and where life is taking him. Because of this, most people find themselves speechless after the loss of a parent, and the ability to talk about it comes with time and guidance. With all these thoughts pressing on us, how could we simply find satisfaction in the usual sensory comforts? The rituals of mourning unite us with all those billions of people who have undergone the same mysterious event, and gives us meaningful words and actions to guide us through our perplexity. If they are good rituals, they are built upon a deep understanding of what mourning is, and of its natural course — for all rituals presuppose a course in our feelings that needs to be acknowledged and moved through. 

   If Zai Wo does not have these feelings, then the three-year mourning ritual would indeed be nothing more than an imposition — in which case it seems right to advise him not to pretend, and to go ahead and shorten the period. Confucius thinks that this shows a deficiency in Zai Wo’s humanity — for how could a person fully experience being human if he simply doesn’t feel very much about a parent’s death, if he only has one year’s worth of emotions and thoughts to work through? Are his other relationships even shallower than this? Zai Wo strikes me as being clever but callow, someone with a quick mind who isn’t “there” yet. If he were to lose a parent now, such a person usually finds himself hit harder than most of us — because now he is forced onto a level of human existence that he has spent his life avoiding. For such a person, the markers and signposts of ritual are especially beneficial, because they show him how to be by giving him words and actions that he never suspected he would be needing. And in life’s major passages, do we not always discover ourselves saying and doing things that we never imagined we would say or do?


2 thoughts on “Filiality: A Question of Feeling”

  1. Krishnan,

    This is one exhortation of Confucius which is best left as a poser to which there is no real tangible or logical answer. Certain issues in life are best left to be pondered or contemplated upon, the answer to which is never quite within grasp even though it is right there at our fingertips, like what is love? Like love it must come intuitively from the heart. This ‘li’ or rite and ritual issue is by analogy like the ‘sending a bouquet of flowers to the one you profess to love’ – is that love or a symbolic expression of love?

    It is natural for us to be inclined either to be subjective or objective when looking at this issue of ‘li’ (rite and ritual) in mourning, particularly within the subcomponent of ‘li’ that is the filiality of ‘xiao shun’ i.e. how to be ‘xiao shun’ in mourning the death of one’s parents!

    But truly the answer is not to be found in being either subjective or objective, as in an academic or philosophical discussion or exercise. For it is neither subjective or objective nor ‘not subjective and/or objective’.

    I understand that Confucius was influenced by the fact that a mother would be totally absorbed in the care and weaning of her newborn child for 3 years (for a Westerner – read this as 2 years – as the Chinese reckoning takes into account the gestation period) and therefore in correspondence or conversely we should be totally grieved in mourning for the loss of one’s parents for 3 years.

    My mother died when I was a young boy. According to the contemporary ‘li’ or rite and ritual as to mourning of that time I mourned for my mother for 3 years. My father died when I was a middle aged man. I mourned him for a month; as the contemporary ‘li’ or rite and ritual as to mourning had changed with the times. The new rationale was that we have our 1st birthday one month after birth. Accordingly, we apply a corresponding one month after a death.

    This shows that we should not be obsessed or besotted with the ‘li’ or rites and rituals as enumerated or prescribed by Confucius in his Analects. Like in Chinese we say that we should ‘study’ the ‘spirit’ (the life enlivened) in or of the books not ‘read’ dead books!

    For the grief and mourning for one’s late parents, and indeed any departed ‘loved ones’ should be a matter of the heart, mind and soul. I pray to my late parents everyday. I have a daily conversation with them. In that sense I still ‘mourn and grieve’ for them everyday to this day. That is how we transform a negative to a positive. They are still a daily part of my life, alive in my life, alive in my mourning. Mourning and grieving of a loss is in the ‘missing’ and the ‘longing’. Everyday my parents are alive in my ‘missing’ and my ‘longing’ for them!

    How do you really remedy a ‘missing’ and a ‘longing? For this is the true complexion of mourning that we should discover for ourselves that keep our dead parents and indeed our ancestors alive in us that is in harmony with Confucius’s Doctrine of the ‘Zhong’ (Mean) of the Tao of Mother Nature.

    I ask you. Are not our ancestors ‘alive’ in our DNA? Though dead they are still alive! Alive in us and we alive in them! If we do not mourn and grieve for our parents how do we as their delegates and successors mourn for them to their parents and so on back to the beginning of time? Why then the need for ancestor worship or reverence, if we only see the trees in front of us rather than the whole helicopter view of the forest?

    When we only see the trees in front of us we are only seeing the immediate mourning of one’s parents. But we should be seeing the entire forest! For as that mourning builds and mounts up back in and through past generations it extrapolates to the ‘li’ (rite and ritual) of ancestral worship and reverence that is what is uniquely Chinese – we as the living antiquity that is being Chinese!


    Liked by 1 person

    1. Surely right, Vince! They are all best left as posers, rattling around quietly in the heart for years on end. I agree with all you say. My writings are only spontaneous outpourings opened up by these posers. Mourning never stops, and neither does transformation of mourning — because mourning doesn’t start either! The great temptation of self-conscious Confucians — indeed of any religionist — is to fetishize rituals, because they seem to give something stable in a changing world. Confucius would certainly have recognized that other societies have different li, but some are better than others. I go with Zhuangzi on this.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s