Loving Your Parents the Hardcore Ancient Chinese Way
There are many Chinese idioms which reference stories that were so obviously fake that they are actually fun to read. Just when I was about to write a post titled “5 Chinese Idiom Stories that Are Totally Real, Duh”, I remembered that it’s Mother’s Day.
Filial piety (i.e. fancy word for “treating your parents and the elderly in your family well”) has been a big thing in Chinese culture since forever. As time passes, stories praising people’s filial piety piled up. In fact, someone in ancient China made a compilation of these stories called The Twenty-Four Filial Exemplars. Some of these stories were cute while some were simply fake and f*cked up. Let’s take a look:
The Cute Ones
The Orange Keeper
When Lu Ji was six years old, his father brought him to visit a family’s friend. The friend treated them to Mandarin oranges. When the father was about to leave with the little boy, two oranges rolled out of Lu Ji’s sleeves. When asked, Lu Ji said, “Mommy loves Mandarin oranges and I want to bring these to mommy.”
Everyone smiled and said that Lu Ji was a good boy who treated his mother well. What a good boy, Lu Ji!
The Human Thermostat
This is one of the more famous stories from the collection, probably because it is relatable.
Huang Xiang lost his mother when he was nine. His father brought him up so Huang Xiang treated his father exceptionally well as a kid. In summer, Huang Xiang would fan his father’s bed; in winter, he would wrap himself in his father’s blanket to warm it. We all know that the fanning probably didn’t do much and the blanket thing was kinda gross, but it’s pretty thoughtful for a kid to think of all this.
The Mulberry Picker
Cai Shun lost his father while he was very young. He and his mother lived in a time where tons of fights were happening across the country. Food was unaffordable to pretty much anyone so Cai Shun and his mother lived on mulberries. One day when Cai Shun was gathering mulberries, he ran into some rebels. The rebels asked why he separated the black berries from the red ones. Cai Shun told the rebels that he was saving the black ones, which are normally sweeter, for his mother. The rebels thought that that’s a cool move and gave Cai Shun rice and a cow’s hoof. Rebels are rad.
The Radder Ones that are Underrated
The Tiger Wrestler
14-year-old Yang Xiang was working with his father in the fields when a wild tiger appeared and attacked his father. That’s when Yang Xiang jumped onto the tiger and strangled it with his bare hands. The tiger stopped biting his father, ran away and nobody died. Not even the tiger.
The Potty Cleaner
Huang Tingjian was a poet in the Song Dynasty. He treated his mother very well and took care of her personally even after he became a high-rank government official. He even washed her bedpan. I think this wholesome masculinity moment deserves a shoutout.
The Stories that Must Be Totally Real
The following stories are so fake they’re actually funny to read:
The Psychic Son
Zeng Shen was famous for loving her mother. One day, when he was out collecting firewood, some guests came over his house for a visit. Zeng Shen’s mom wanted his son to come home quickly, so she bit her finger until it bled. Zeng Shen immediately felt a sharp pain in his heart and knew that his mom was probably hurt (excuse me what??) and immediately returned home. The visitors saw the whole thing, praised Zeng Shen’s for his supernatural powers and laughed at future story readers who believed this bullsh*t.
Spontaneous Fish Farm
Jiang Shi’s mother liked drinking the water of a river and eating the fish caught from the river. However, that river was really far from home. But Jiang Shi and his wife were filial and didn’t mind going to the river every day to fetch the fish and water for their mother (Have they considered moving next to the river instead?).
One day, Jiang Shi’s wife returned from the river late due to bad weather. Jiang Shi immediately concluded that his wife was disrespectful his mom and asked her to leave forever. His wife stayed in a neighbour’s house, spent the night weaving clothes for her mother-in-law and asked her neighbour to deliver them the next day. After learning that her son was an a**hole to his wife, Jiang Shi’s mom asked her son to get his wife back home. When they returned, a fountain suddenly burst out in front of the house. The water from the fountain tasted exactly like the river’s and fish from the river jumped out of the fountain. Later on, two fish magically jumped out of the fountain every day so the couple did not have to travel to the river anymore.
Scary Wooden Dolls
Ding Lan’s parents died when he was very young. He missed his parents so much that he made wooden figurines that looked like his mom and dad and treated them as if they were alive. One day, Ding Lan’s wife got bored and pricked one of the figurines with a needle. And like any horror movies with dolls, the figurine started bleeding and tears fell from its eyes. Ding Lan immediately divorced his wife after this.
Carp for Your Evil Stepmother
This is one of the more famous stories that made me go WTF when I was ten years old.
Wang Xiang’s mother died so his dad, like all dads in fairytales, got an evil stepmother. The stepmother often said bad things about Wang Xiang and as a result, his dad liked him less and less. Still, Wang Xiang took care of his parents when they were sick.
One day, during winter, the stepmother craved carp. So Wang Xiang travelled to the frozen river, took off his clothes and lay on the river, hoping that the river would melt quicker for him to get a carp for his stepmother. Suddenly, the ice melted (probably because the gods couldn’t stand Wang Xiang being a dumb*ss anymore) and two carp jumped out. Wang Xiang then caught the carp and cooked it for his step-mom.
Honestly, These People Just Need to Stop Right Now
The Son Burier
Guo Ju lived with his mom, wife and son. His family was poor and Guo Ju realised that he probably couldn’t feed all mouths in the family anymore. Guo Ju reckoned that he could always have another baby, but he’s only got one mom, so his wife agreed to the plan of burying his son alive. While he was digging he found a pile of gold in the ground with a note that said the gold was from heaven for wanting to treat his mother well. Guo then was able to feed his family with the help of the gold.
The Mosquito Feeder
Wu Meng’s family was poor and could not afford mosquito nets. So during summer, Wu Meng would sit naked next to his sleeping parents so that the mosquitoes can suck his blood instead of disturbing his parents.
I am literally running out of things to say. Please stop.
Straight-up Family Abuse
Min Sun was one of Confucius’s students. His mother died when he was two. The father re-married and got two new kids. The stepmother, as expected, was evil and treated Min Sun terribly. During winter, the stepmother made coats with cotton filling for her two sons and a coat with grass filling for Min Sun.
One day, Min Sun’s father was heading out and asked Min Sun to drive his carriage. Min Sun, wearing only the grass coat, could not move his freezing arms and legs properly and dropped the pulling stick of the carriage. The father thought Min Sun was dumb and lazy and hit Min Sun with a stick. While hitting him, Min Sun’s coat tore open and the grass filling spilled out. The father was shocked to find out that his wife had only given his son a grass coat for winter. He finally realised that Min Sun was being mistreated by his wife and wanted to divorce her immediately. Min Sun begged his father not to leave his stepmom. Min Sun explained that if his stepmom stayed, only he suffered; but if his stepmom had to leave, his brothers would have to suffer with him. The evil stepmom was so touched that she decided not to be evil anymore.
The Lesson Here
Treating your mom and dad well is certainly a good thing if they are also treating you well. In fact, I think that all good people deserve respect.
But what if your parents are dickheads who tell you to get a carp for them from a frozen river just because they want to have fish? What if your parents abuse you? What if no one in the family respects each other?
I hate the quote that goes “no matter what, it’s family”. We didn’t get to choose our mums and dads. We are just stuck with our family from birth at random. Anyone could easily end up with a family of a**holes who do not care for them.
You love your family and your family loves you back? Very well. But don’t ever, ever tell anyone how they should feel about their abusive family. As humans we need to look at everything with context. Filial piety is not always right.
All of the stories mentioned above are taken from The Twenty-Four Filial Exemplars. Some are more dramatic versions of the original, but even the dramatic versions are taken from other Chinese historical text.
By the way, someone in Hong Kong commissioned an illustrator to draw pictures for all stories, but with cats instead of humans. You can imagine how awkward the tiger one ended up looking:
Like what you just read? This post kinda was the Mother’s Day edition of this post, go take a look:
I post about Chinese idioms / historical anecdotes every week. Last week I wrote about a weird job interview and what happened after: