I’ve heard that it was Confucianism that caused China to fall victim to Western Imperialism in the 19th century, and the reason Mao started the Cultural Revolution his last decade was to correct this imperfection.
However, I believe that the collective culture created in China by Emperor Han Wudi (156-87 BCE)— considered one of the most influential emperors in Chinese history—is the reason that China’s civilization survived for thousands of years without suffering the fate of Europe after the collapse of the Roman Empire.
The problem is not from Confucianism but a flaw in the way an element of Confucianism has been interpreted over the centuries. In fact, this flaw is buried so deep in the Chinese psyche that Mao’s disastrous Great Leap Forward and the tragic Cultural Revolution were not stopped because of it.
There were powerful individuals in the Communist Party who did not agree with what Mao was doing but did not speak out when they could have. Some of those individuals even suffered during the Cultural Revolution but still kept silent due to the power of piety.
It wasn’t until after Mao’s death that those same people acted and Deng Xiaoping came to power stopping the madness of the Cultural Revolution.
To criticize an elder in China—even when that individual is power hungry, senile or maybe a bit crazy—is considered similar to Christian heresy during the Spanish Inquisition. Piety means elders must be treated with respect as if they can do no wrong. Is there a way to find a balance and fulfil the duty of filial piety?
In addition, at Answers Yahoo.com, Genxi asked, “Why do Americans lack filial piety? At the international level, filial piety is very common… After all, parents definitely would care and protect their children unquestionably—ideal condition—, but why can’t adult Americans have filial piety toward their ageing parents in exchange?” (the few responses to this question are interesting)
However, anyone that believes Confucianism may define China might be surprised to discover that Legalism, Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Christianity, etc have also influenced the foundation and moral structure of China’s culture. While China has always had a diversity of religious beliefs, filial piety has been common to almost all of them and it worked.
The result, for more than two-thousand years, China was the wealthiest and most powerful, technologically advanced nation on the planet until the 19th century.
As for the United States, back in January 2010, I read a post at Parent Base.com that said any damn fool can be a parent, and although I agree, I thought North America is not a comfortable place to be if you become a geezer.
Our daughter called me a geezer once, which means a man who is (usually) old and/or eccentric, when she was joking around during her early high school years. She was not raised to be a narcissistic self-esteem child but knowing many American children that were raised to have high self-esteem did rub off resulting in that rude comment.
Today, she attends Stanford and the degree of respect she demonstrates for older family members is reassuring. I hope the self-esteem residue wore off.
When I was a child, youngsters were to be seen and not heard, which means we treated our elders with respect, and surprise of surprises, I was born in America and I am a Caucasian of British/Irish ancestry. I’m not Asian or Chinese so I suspect piety was once widespread in American/Western culture but during the 20th century suffered a steep decline.
One exception would be the Amish community in the United States. The Amish are a stark contrast to the American concept of individualism—not only do the Amish encourage reciprocal family assistance but the entire Amish community is responsible for helping each other, including the elderly. According to Reuters, the US Amish population grew 86% to 231,000 in 2008 from 125,000 in 1992 and is set to double by 2026.
However, the Amish are not the norm. After the spread of television, the birth of Disneyland, fast food, MTV, the Internet and the iPod generation, a cancer called self-esteem spread through much of American culture. That self-esteem youth worshiping virus killed off much of the ‘respect’ for one’s elders among many of America’s youth.
In China, what America seems to have lost survives and is the norm. In addition, in Asian countries such as the Philippians, South Korea, Vietnam, Singapore, etc., piety is still strong and is learned in the family—not from a pulpit.
Collins English Dictionary (Harper Collins Publishing) says piety is a devotion and obedience to parents and superiors and says it (piety) is “now rare” (in the West).
In fact, a comment left by an “Aussie in China” on another post verifies that piety is still taught in most Chinese families since piety plays a significant role in the morality of China.
Aussie in China said, “from my experience here, I would argue strongly that there is a commendable level of morality among many of the young Chinese. The issues of morality are well drummed into them at school and at home.”
The decline of the “first of all virtues” in the West first appeared during the 1960s with the spread of the self-esteem movement among American parents. The history of this movement goes back to the late 19th century and by the 1960s, it permeated American culture in addition to many of its private and public schools.
The America of today is not the America prior to World War II, and the United States owes its greatness to that previous generation, which was not raised to have high self-esteem and spurn piety and family values.
One example of this moral decline in the US happened to me one night during the summer of 2008 when a pack of young boys taunted me as they raced in and out of our steep driveway on bicycles.
“Hey, old man,” one boy shouted, “you can’t stop us.”
I called the police and filed a report, and the next day walked the neighborhood door to door seeking support to stop the harassment that had gone on for two years—mostly during the summers when school was out and these children had nothing better to do but run wild without proper parental/adult supervision.
These boys wanted to race their bikes down our steep driveway for a cheap thrill, and I dared to tell them not to do it so they defied me as often as possible.
The reason why I didn’t want them playing in our driveway is because the United States has become a litigation nation and if one of those boys hurt himself on our property, the parents might take us to court and possibly destroy us financially—even take our home from us.
When I talked to the mother of one of these boys, she asked, “What was your reason for not letting them play on your driveway?”
Did I need a reason?
Since the episode with that gang of boys (I’m sure they all had a high sense of self-esteem), that mother who thought I needed a reason to keep them off our driveway, doesn’t talk to me or acknowledge that I am alive if we pass each other on the street.
After all, I ratted out her precious, perfect, wild child and called the police on his pack of young friends. In addition, one of the other boys argued with me the first time I politely asked them to go elsewhere for their thrills.
Of course, as a teacher for thirty years, I’ve heard American parents say, “kids will be kids” to explain this sort of behavior.
However, I do not accept that excuse for defiance, lack of respect, rudeness and unruly behavior. In fact, the way children act is often linked to how parents raise them and children raised by self-esteem obsessed parents are often the worst ones, while children raised to value piety, which means respect and obedience to parents and superiors/adults, are often the best.
In reading a post at Always on the Verge, I discovered a misguided individual that inadvertently advocates a world overrun by noisy children that do what they want whenever they want wherever they want.
The author of the post says, “I have always had issues with this saying (children should be seen and not heard). However, that Blogger called “Webbhouston” does not consider that being quiet around adults is also a sign of respect for those older people that go to work daily to feed the family and pay for a roof over their heads to avoid becoming homeless and hungry.
That, by itself, should be enough for children to learn to keep quiet around adults. Children are not an alien species. They are humans, but when they are born, they are wild animals that parents and adults, such as teachers, tame and train to fit into society.
A cartoon (used for educational purposes only) that dramatically illustrates the decline of piety and family values in America.
I searched for a Blog that talks about teachers being abused by students and found thousands that did nothing but bash teachers. Then I found Who’s to Blame … (a dim light in the wilderness of blame the teacher).
It seems that only a few people in the West care what happens to teachers (Finland may be the only country in the West where teachers are given the respect they deserve and Finland’s education system is one of the best in the world. In Fact, the World’s Happiness Index from Forbes.com places Finland second of 155 countries as the happiest place to live).
Then months after I first wrote this post, which appeared January 2010 as a nine part series, I launched Crazy Normal – the Classroom Expose, another Blog to help fill that lack of support for teachers in the US.
Then there was a second incident I experienced that further demonstrates the loss of piety and family values in American culture.
During the summer of 2007, we had just pulled into a motel parking lot in Southern California after driving several hundred miles. A teen with his girlfriend wanted to rent a room for an hour at the same motel. As we waited to check in, we heard the motel manager say, “No way!”
The boy turned to me, and asked, “Hey, old man, can you give us a ride to the next motel? They will not rent us a room here.”
I’m sure this adolescent was out for quick sex. He probably didn’t even know the girl’s name or care. Nevertheless, the lack of respect was obvious.
Today, it is as if adults are expected to be invisible and silent while youngsters get whatever they want such as a TV, Internet connection and video games in the child’s bedroom.
In most of North America, we have spawned more than one generation of narcissists with no respect for piety or understanding of what family values means and many are now giving birth to the next generation.
More than twenty-four hundred years ago, Confucius dedicated his life to the moral training of his culture. He lived during the Warring States period before China was unified. Living with all of that violence and death, he dreamed of a land where people could live happily and harmoniously together.
To learn more about Confucius and piety, check out this site at the Journal for International Relations. I’m not saying what Confucius taught was perfect but it has served China well for thousands of years and still plays a vital role in that complex culture.
Confucius said, “The reason why the gentleman teaches filial piety is not because it is to be seen in the home and everyday life. He teaches filial piety in order that man may respect all those who are fathers in the world.
“He teaches brotherliness in the younger brother, in order that man may respect all those who are elder brothers in the world. He teaches the duty of the subject, in order that man may respect all who are rulers.
“Those who love their parents dare not show hatred to others.” Confucius taught. “Those who respect their parents dare not show rudeness to others…”
While visiting China, I have never heard, “Hey, old man.”
However, there are always exceptions when it comes to piety. Even in China, there will be the occasional rude individual. The thing is, I haven’t seen or heard one yet, and I have visited China many times since 1999.
I did have a disrespectful, American born Asian student (once) during the thirty years I was a teacher.
I also had a small number of hard-working, respectful students from all ethnic groups—even those that were American born, but those types seem to be a dying breed.
My best students were usually immigrants that came to the United States after living in their birth country for several years where the word “self-esteem” was never heard and parents taught the value of piety instead.
In addition, I had one American born student enter high school as a freshman after being home taught by his Caucasian, conservative Christian parents. He was a great person—polite and he worked hard to further his education.
It was obvious that piety and/or family values had been instilled in this one individual by his parents, a daunting task in a country obsessed with stuffing a high sense of self-esteem in its youth.
Lloyd Lofthouse is the award-winning author of The Concubine Saga. When you love a Chinese woman, you marry her family and culture too. This is the love story Sir Robert Hart did not want the world to discover.
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The Yongle Emperor’s father, Zhu Yuanzhang (Emperor Hongwu) would have seen his son as unfilial, which means not observing the obligations of a child to a parent—even after the parent is dead.
When Yongle opened China, he demonstrated disrespect for his parent. Instead, he should have continued supporting the closed-door policy his father had instituted.
In Chinese society, to maintain a well-controlled country or a peaceful world requires the children to love and respect his or her parents even after death.
In fact, filial piety is not only a foundation of morality in China but also a fundamental basis of Chinese culture.
This also explains why each of China’s current presidents continues supporting the policies of the former president and Deng Xiaoping.
For change to take place in China, it usually comes slowly. Filial piety is the reason the People’s Liberation Army did not remove Mao during the Cultural Revolution and waited until he was dead to act.
Mandarin with English subtitles
However, when the Yongle Emperor acted against his father’s wishes, he demonstrated courage because he knew many in the imperial court would consider him unfilial.
Emperor Yongle commissioned building the great fleet that Admiral Zheng He sailed as far as Africa.
Admiral Zheng He was selected to command because he was an organizer, a diplomat and could be trusted. He was not a merchant or a conqueror.
Although during this time, many Chinese immigrated to Southeast Asia, the Yongle Emperor had no interest in establishing colonies outside China.
In the north, it was a different story. Emperor Yongle had to deal with ceaseless attacks by the Mongolian tribes.
For the first time in centuries, an emperor sent a Chinese army of 100,000 beyond the Great Wall to end this threat and bring peace to China.
When the nomadic tribes retreated, a larger army was raised and sent after them.
In the eighth century AD, all roads in Asia led to Xian. It was the greatest city in the world. Rivaled only by Bagdad and Constantinople.
At this time, foreigners were allowed into China for the first time and they were kept in their own area away from the center of power.
In the western part of Xian in the foreign enclave, there was a great mix of cultures.
To the Chinese, the Tang Dynasty was the most golden of all ages for Chinese poetry.
For the Chinese, composing poetry is one of the central ideas of civilization.
A famous Silk Road poet talked about in the video said that the people of China could face any test as long as their leaders treated them humanely.
The Tang Dynasty ended in chaos and anarchy like so many in China’s history but was followed by an even greater Dynasty.
Four hundred miles from Xian lay Kaifeng. In the 11th century AD, this city was the capital of what is considered the peak of Chinese civilization, the Song Dynasty.
During the Song Dynasty, the invention of printing and inward development changed China. This would guide Asia for another thousand years.
In Kaifeng, as everywhere in China, several decades of Communist rule have not cut the ancient beliefs.
Reverence for ancestors, filial piety, and Confucian virtues are all coming back into the open now that freedom of worship (of the old ways) is guaranteed.
Like its medicine, Chinese cooking is based on harmony and balance – the old themes of Chinese culture. In fact, the oldest restaurant in the world first opened in 1153 AD and is still open for business in Kaifeng.
Father to Son – There should be kindness in the father, and filial piety in the son.
Elder Brother to Younger Brother – There should be gentility (politeness) in the elder brother, and humility in the younger.
Husband to Wife – There should be righteous behavior in the husband and obedience in the wife.
Elder to Junior – There should be consideration among the elders and deference among the juniors.
Ruler to Subject – There should be benevolence among the rulers and loyalty among the subjects.
Look at the last rule. When a Chinese citizen publicly protests the way the Chinese government runs the country, that is seen as an act of disloyalty. You may not agree with what China does, but China has the right to do as it sees fit even if the act is considered inhuman by Western standards.
Lloyd Lofthouse is the award-winning author of the concubine saga, My Splendid Concubine & Our Hart. When you love a Chinese woman, you marry her family and culture too.
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