“ While parents are alive, one must not travel afar.
If one must, one’s whereabouts should always be made known”
- Analects, Book II: Li Ren 19
The idea of filial piety has always remained as a significant part of Chinese tradition from ancient China and even till today’s times. It stands not only as a mere concept but more so, something that was an “absolute, metaphysical entity, something so exalted in (ancient Chinese’s) minds” (Holzman, 1998). Perhaps the idea of filial piety can be traced back to Confucius, who emphasized the importance of family ties (Stole & De Vos, 1998). IThe quote above gives us a glimpse of the idea of filial piety – that one should stay close to his parents (perhaps to provide the necessary care and service that his parents need, and that one should also always be accountable to his parents. Throughout China’s history, many stories have surfaced that reflects filial piety, mostly reflecting acts of sacrifice of one’s self for the sake of his parents. One of the more popularized stories of filial piety includes that of Hua Mulan, who served the army on behalf of her aging father. Another story that is well known and very much connected to a Chinese festival is that of Mu Lian, who had to pass through many obstacles in order to save his starving mother in hell. His bravery and piety eventually touched the heart of Buddha, who eventually intervened and allowed Mu Lian to provide relief for his mother. Countless other stories of filial piety that are not necessarily well-known or popularized also exist across ancient China, evident through the archaeological findings that shed light on the ways in which filial piety exists as an integral part of everyday life. In this essay, certain exhibits displayed within the Asian Civilization Museum that portray the idea of filial piety as significant in normative lifestyles will be examined. More interestingly, filial piety is portrayed not only in everyday life, but extends even to death and the afterlife as well, shedding some light on the idea of “ancestral piety” as well. An exhibit will also be used to examine this idea of ancestral piety, and its implications. 2. FILIAL PIETY IN EVERYDAY LIFE
2.1 STONE FUNERARY STELE
As mentioned above, there were countless stories of filial piety that existed across China that we now know of, due to archaeological findings that portrayed such stories. One such archeological finding is that of this stone funerary stele shown above, with the carvings on the stone illustrating four scenes, with the first scene being on the rightmost part of the stone, and the last being on the left. The crucial part of this stone is found in the right most part of the rectangular block:
Stone Funerary Stele. Asian Civilisation Museum
This scene depicts the story of a man named Guo Ju who lived in poverty during the Han dynasty. The scene is further divided into two small parts, with the tree as the marker of division. Towards the rightmost portion of this scene, Guo Ju’s elderly mother is seen holding a pot, while Guo Ju, his wife and son are gathered in front of her. It was told that Guo Ju’s elderly mother doted on her grandson a lot. In the midst of poverty, Guo Ju’s mother often gave whatever little food she had to her grandson. As Guo Ju could not bear to watch his mother suffer some more, he decided to make an extreme decision of burying his son, as seen on the left side of the scene where he is seen digging his son’s grave while his wife carries their son whilst weeping. The story then goes that as Guo Ju was digging the burial pit, he came across a pot of gold and a note that read “Filial Guo Ju will be awarded this gold”; it was apparently the case that the heavens were touched by filial piety.
In relation to modern times, perhaps the scenes that unfold on this artifact may resemble that of a storybook or textbook in modern day times. Just as certain stories are told in modern context...
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