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February 22, 2009


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It's a cold, gloomy day here, but I have been listening to this In Our Time program on the observatory at Jaipur. It's really nice and has me dreaming of Jaipur

And this is one of my favorite L. Subramaiam videos Would love to find a DVD for Adonis but cannot seem to locate anything so am going to see if a friend traveling to India can find something...

Great post, and that's good music, Peony. The observatory is quite something too. Here is some music I think you will like ... Ghazal: As Night Falls On The Silk Road, Lost Songs Of The Silk Road, Moon Rise Over The Silk Road.

And some other albums I like that might appeal to you too: Shiv Kumar Sharma with Hariprasad Chaurasia (Harmony); Kalyi Jag (O Suno: Gypsy Folk Songs from Hungary); Music of Mali and Guinea; Hamza El Din (A Wish); Cesaria Evora (Cafe Atlantico); and this soundtrack from a NatGeo series on Africa.

Also check out the soundtracks in my Kumbh Mela and White Desert videos (chronological credits appear at the end).

Thank you for the recommendations, Namit-- a coincidence but I just bought Ghazal's CD Rain. It hasn't arrived yet, though.... Here is another Subramaniam video-- it's almost hard to believe that it is a violin making the music...I am going to have to track a DVD down for Adonis. The end of this video is so inspired-- I would love to show it to Adonis' violin teacher-- but unbelievably he is "not connected" to the Internet-- I swear it is like the days of the Raj....

Here are some ideas.

Hi Sam,

I thought I made it clear in my Post that 1) to say that duty to parent is the central duty which Confucius' moral theory is founded on is NOT to say that it is the only duty-- that other duties do in fact matter (and yes, that includes friendship and duty between ruler and ruled). I will repeat it again for the 3rd time (since it is always pointless to fight a straw man): there are many duties that are clearly defined-- the point being these are not duties a person can choose or not choose to take on (though the interpretation of how the duty is carried out is a creative and particular process based on context)-- But that _filial duty_ is the base of our moral lives-- and is the foundation of the philosophy.

2) This was also stated clearly in my post and most commentators probably address it as well I think: this is not a blind devotion and part of a child's duty to parent is helping them do the right thing as well-- hence Mencius' Emperor Shun.

None of this above has anything to do with the point of my question though.

It would be as if I said, water is the foundation for our health (about which without it good health would not be possible so this should be reflected in any presentation about health) and you countered that yes, but so is food and exercise. Yes, but no one was saying that those things are also not necessary-- just that without water we cannot live (and that fact is not being emphasized so I am worried). And then if you countered that, well not all water is safe-- then I would say, well then it looks we have reached a dead end in the conversation.

I was afraid we were talking past each other....
Let me try this.
How much filiality is enough? It is easy to say that the parent-child bond is fundamental (though I would say this is not true for all) but the crux of the matter is how that bond is enacted. What I meant when I said my book might dissolve was this: if we hold too strict a standard of filial piety, one that comes anywhere close to the expectations of Confucius himself, then we will find that all modern societies - Japan included - fail; and, thus, Confucianism will be basically inapplicable. For example, the three year mourning period, with rather severe conditions, was non-negotiable for Confucius and Mencius. None of us, in America or Japan or China, come anywhere close to that today. Furthermore, filial piety not so long ago in Japan and China demanded that children follow their parents in virtually all of their major life decisions. Arranged marriages were common. If we choose our own mate now, or not heed our parents choices in the matter, are we beyond a Confucian pale? And care for parents in China and Japan required that they live with their children in their old age, and that they essentially control the household, determining what other relatives would live in the household as well. There was a lot of care work to be done. And, of course, that work was done by women, who had no choice in the matter. Most women then could not gain an education or find their talents outside of that familial care work. Today, with women free to move outside of the home to work and grow, Confucian filial piety cannot be enacted in the manner that Confucians of times past expected. We all fail the Confucian test.
That is the problem. Too demanding an interpretation of filial piety dooms Confucianism to irrelevance. And that is as true today in Japan as it is in the US.

But Sam, who was arguing for too strict a standard of Confucianism? There is a big difference between saying

1) issue x should not be brushed aside

and 2) issue x must be strictly enforced down to the level of detail.

I was only ever questioning 1)

And why was I questioning whether filial piety should not be brushed over?

1) in your words, Confucius has founded a moral theory based on this fundamental relationship between parents and children (which is to say it is both essential and central to the philosophy itself) and
2)Because I am suggesting (not insisting but suggesting) that for an important work seeking to apply Confucian concepts to contemporary American life, this particular concept of taking care of one's parents could be one of the better ones to hold up-- as RELEVANT.

(And, not to state the obvious but I think for Confucius these were guidelines as not all people had children of their own nor did all people have parents to care for. This is about vertical and lateral obligatory relationships within a social context)

Is Japan failing at filial piety? Would the Sage be discouraged at what he sees here in the Land of the Rising Sun? Well, that is really open to debate, and if I was a betting woman, I'd bet the Master would **not** be all that terribly displeased. While there may not be a 3 year strict mourning period, mourning is taken extremely seriously here-- as are the wishes of one's parents. That doesn't mean people do everything their parents say, but caring for parents and caring about parental wishes remains significant here I think. As do rites for the dead. I mean where I live especially this latter issue of rites for the dead is pretty looming in daily life. When we go visit the relatives, we go directly to the altar to light incense and pray to the dead and only after that is done to we greet the living and have tea!!

But, as you yourself said in your book, in our discussion we need to stay with the original texts and so what twists and turns happened in Korea or Japan is more recent times is neither here nor there. As in the ancient texts, no one was ever preaching blind devotion. Good lord, even Emperor Shun was held up as exemplery for *not* doing everything his parents demanded, right? Filial piety is clearly not about being a slave to one's parents.


Just to re-state my original question-- and it is a question-- if one brushes aside filial piety as a central pillar of the philosophy, is that not walking down the slippery path of the New Age road? And does this idea of filial piety (as a base of behavior) not have something profound and relevant to say to Americans too? And finally, filial piety is about one's own parents centrally but it is also about care and respect for the elderly in general. And this is also an important social issue in our times.

About 3 years ago I worked on a large translation project for one of the Japanese govrenment websites (総務省) and as part of the project there was an article about health in Okinawa. Eating habits there have taken a real nose dive and this article was exploring the reasons why Okinawa used to have the highest rates of longetivity in Japan (which along with HongKong top the world in longevity). The doctors posited 3 factors for contributing to what used to be Okinawa's phenomenal longevity: 1)very high fish consumption (higher than mainland 2) black sugar 3) elderly were active parts of community. Ladakh was like this as well. Old people were just very active and important members of society (there was no concept of "retirement") Anyway, this is going off on a tangent but...

I'm not disagreeing with you.
In chapter one, when explicating the central tenets of Confucianism (Humanity, Duty, Ritual), the first thing I write under "Duty" is this:
For Confucius, the best place to start doing good unto others is with those who are closest to you. Our primary duties, in Confucianism, are familial. Our most pressing obligations are those we owe to our immediate family members. The instruction most often mentioned in the Analects, is “respect your elders,” especially your parents. This is a tangible expression of Humanity. One of Confucius’s followers is quoted as saying:

It’s honoring parents and elders that makes people human. Then they rarely turn against authority. And if people don’t turn against authority, they never rise up and pitch the country into chaos.
The noble-minded cultivate roots. When roots are secure, the Way is born. To honor parents and elders – isn’t that the root of Humanity? (1.2)

I address caring for parents in the last chapter, on end of life issues. It figures, too, somewhat, in chapter 5, in the discussion on marriage and family (but mostly as an argument against filiality as having a male heir).
As to the chapters I have already written, how might filiality figure more prominently? I don't believe I am glossing over it.

The concern that I am trying to suggest above (rather badly it would seem) is simply this: any application of Confucian ideas in modern contexts runs the risk of the criticism that modern life is just so different from the ancient world of Confucius himself that any such application must distort (or even destroy) the meaning of the texts. I am not saying that you are saying this. I am simply saying that this criticism can be levied - and has been levied, by others, against the kind of project I am undertaking. And I think this criticism is especially likely when talking about filial piety, which is so central to Confucian thinking but which also seems so much at odds with modern American life, at least in the connotations that it conjures up. Yes, Americans love their parents. But they way that they enact that love is far from the Confucian standard, or so an argument could be made.
As to life in Japan, I will defer to you. But here (PDF!)is a paper (with some econometric mumbo-jumbo) that makes this point:

The data used in this paper are from “The Attitude Survey on Child-care andLong-term Care of the Parents” conducted by the Cabinet Office of the Government of Japan in November 2000. The descriptive statistics show that about 30% of children
living separately from their parents provide long-term care if the need arises, which suggests that many Japanese children supply care. However, detailed examination reveals that this parental care is not motivated by altruism. That is, children give parental
care when their parents are rich enough to enable their children to meet their parents’ demand for nursing.

That doesn't sound Confucian to me....

Hi Sam,

I have been more taking issue with the blog-- and then only after your 1st response did I start thinking in terms of your book. Yes, I had penciled a big star next to those words from your opening chapter..

I also penciled in a note to myself (if you can imagine):

check: filial piety is not mapped on to "american nuclear family values"

I am worried precisely because I think your project IS important. Americans spend a lot of energy exporting their values around the world, but there are great areas for learning from other cultures as well- and your book, in my opinion, is unique-- and important-- for this reason.

So, yes, I have been checking but nothing has drawn my attention in the book-- so far :)

And, regarding Japan, I can really only speak of my own experience (in Tokyo and now Tochigi) and that has been that without exception the people who do not already live with their parents at the very least think about and talk about the future care of their parents; mourning is taken rather seriously and so too are parental wishes. This is not to say who loves their parents more nor is it to say how successfully either group or culture is in care for the elderly-- just that this issue of the elderly and aging parents is more a daily life issue in japan I would say. (Recall though that Japan has an aging population so the burden is greater here it could be argued as well).

In my town, which, granted can be really conservative and what I call hard core virtue--oriented (哭泣), there are all kinds of city goverenment programs to get the elderly active in communities-- work groups and voluntary associations for them; and the push is trying to get young children and the elderly together. We see that in our new town play center which is attached to an elderly facility. I did a translation too about how the gov't would like to see schools built *incorporating* care centers (!!) so that the elderly and the young can benefit from being close to each other (that was just planning--nothing has been done that I know of yet-- but then again I don't really follow these issues as my husband's parents are taken care of by his brother and they all live together there). But not even that long ago I had to attend part of a funeral as a representative of the neighborhood since-- well, matters regarding the dead are just really central in this town. And let us not all forget my no-choice "natural labor" with no options not even for a glass of wine since labor pain is considered the ultimate 美徳. This town is just over-the-top-- that being just the tip of the iceburg--regarding pain and death...

In any event, I guess it is clear by now that in terms of philosophy, I think trying to map the central piller of filial duty onto American style nuclear family values is dubious, but also on a personal level (my opinion) is that the way a person treats their parents says a lot. Americans think so too, I think. I cannot tell you how many times I have heard women say, "You can judge a man by the way he treats his mother."


Thanks Peony. I welcome any comments (offline) you might have on the manuscript.
Oh, and by the way, our trip to NYC was good. The show was marvelous, filled with talented children actors and dancers. Nice story, too.


I'm so glad you enjoyed the musical. It sounds wonderful! I uploaded something I wrote last year about being mourning rituals as I have experienced them in Japan in this post It's only if you are interested-- and in the end is just about my own experience. Though I think both how elaboare they are as well as the way people group together in associations and in "han" is unique to East Asia (I suppose it is not necessarily a by-product of Confucian thought, however). Actually, I think the han 班 are derived from legalist thought (I am guessing...have no idea realy!)

The concept of the han and neighbourhood representation at funerals is something in our collective memory (from the media and our grandparents' stories) but I don't think anyone from my generation has witnessed such a practice in the flesh, at least in Singapore.

I'm not surprised B has the reaction he does. Modern China seems to have a thing for discarding her past and pretending it doesn't exist, at least in the way of traditions and socio-cultural infrastructure.

My history of the period is sketchy, but I think the Cultural
Revolution, Communism and modernising had something to do with it --modern good, traditional ba-a-ad. It is Korea and Japan -- with Korea proclaiming themselves the true descendants of Han/Chinese culture (and in a way they are) and Japan adopting it and calling it
Japanese-ness -- who continue to practice the customs they brought in from China a millennium ago.

I recently had the good fortune to hear from a professional Chinese calligrapher in Singapore, and he says that much of Tang culture which still survives today does so as a hidden strain within traditional Japanese culture. He claims the kimono is modeled off traditional Tang dress. What a fascinating idea!

About ancestor worship vs monotheistic, organised religion, I think you have it down pat. The Judeo-Christian-Muslim deity is not a personal god *who's on your side no matter what*. (The Christians have Jesus, but even then he's "shared" by all believers.) And I think you're right -- at some level, we all need to be selfish, we all need to have something that is ours and ours only, that is on our side no matter what, that loves us unconditionally.(*1) Christianity is extremely idealistic in believing that this inner, exclusive group that is "us" can be expanded to include any and all believers, including utter strangers you know nothing about. In their defence, the first apostles started really small and faced so much oppression they were probably desperate for members.

*1 On a side note, much of what Hollywood produces perpetuates a myth that says we can fulfill this need through a romantic partner, the myth of true love. It's a myth I'm guilty of, so embedded in my sense of identity and my psyche that it is, and it's one of the myths contemporary "Western" culture perpetuates.

Something else to think about regarding why monotheistic religions lead to strife is the historical situation from which the religion was born. The Abrahamic religions have their genesis in the deserts of Israel. The Jews were nomadic tribes, they were in constant migration just to meet the basic needs of food and water: violence, strife and conflict, the natural law of the strong triumphing over the weak were facts of life for the Jews. A religion that they practise would necessarily follow these ideas. When the Roman Empire expanded its territories and introduced Christianity to the people they conquered, the local pagan religions were either eradicated or transmuted into a Christian form. The Judeo-Christian-Muslim deity is an aggressive, warlike one.

Compare this to a religion that came from more peaceful, "privileged" beginnings, Buddhism. When Buddhism encountered other religions in its spread from India, it integrated the other deities and morphed to reflect the characteristics of the religion it encountered. This is why Japanese Buddhism is so different from Tibetian Buddhism, to cite an example. Granted, Christianity maintains "structural integrity", more so than Buddhism, but the price it pays for this is that it is
conservative, constantly defensive, and always on the lookout to expand aggressively.

Perhaps this is the link your German scholar draws. How can the faithful of a religion so characterised attain true tranquility? Any moments of calmness needs be accidental and incidental. Your deity, unlike the ancestors you worship, is not only impersonal, He is also in a constant state of 落ち着きがない。Worshipers live under the shadow of a chauvinistic, emotionally unavailable male parent, who doesn't even align himself clearly with his children, who [i.e., the children] need to love and honour something which is theirs and only theirs. Perhaps.
(I probably over-simplified things.)

Rulers often wage wars to distract their people from domestic problems. I wonder if religious strife isn't some form of this hand-waving in a different form.

There, I said it'd be a quick response, and look what I've gone and typed!

All the way down to Melaka and not Singapore? You might as well have rang the doorbell and left without waiting. *grin* Do let me know if you ever get the chance to visit. I know stuff the tour guides don't

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