Fathers: Regain Your Manliness the Confucian Way

June 15, 2015 Updated: June 16, 2015

Our modern world has put fatherhood in a tight spot. From a 50 percent divorce rate to a career of servitude in the office cell of a corporate master, it may often seem that contemporary fathers have hardly any opportunity to live up to the name.

And society seems to give our mothers a greater share of love: Since 2004, Father’s Day sales have consistently lagged behind Mother’s Day spending by about two times, according to statistics from the U.S. National Retail Foundation.

The ancient Chinese placed a premium on the father’s role in the family. The ancients honored their fathers with a reverence equal to kings and even gods. In legendary times, a character meaning “monarch” contained within it the symbol for “father.” While this may sound extreme to modern ears, Chinese tradition offers some broad lessons to fathers today.

Fathers in Chinese Tradition

As the head of society’s smallest denomination—the family—the father is responsible not just for the physical well-being of his household, but also for inculcating in his children the mores and attitudes befitting the familial roles they too will come to inherit.

Confucius, the famous sage who lived over 2,500 years ago, taught that filial piety, or “xiao,” was the bedrock of a functioning family. It rests on the reciprocity inherent in different social relationships—between friends, older and younger siblings, father and son, husband and wife, ruler and ruled. By recognizing these relationships, people could live and grow side by side in harmony.

Confucius held that paternal love was different from maternal affection; above all, a father must command a healthy respect.

Confucius or 孔子, by unknown author. (Commons Wikimedia)
Confucius or 孔子, by unknown author. (Commons Wikimedia)

A Healthy Distance

While the father had to be kind and loving to his children, there still had to exist a certain distance. Fathers in ancient China did not pretend that they were meant to be friends with their children in the normal sense. It was not the job of a parent to indulge in children’s worlds, but to provide them the means to develop their character and enter the world of adults.

Whether in business dealings or in domestic affairs, the father was cognizant of the example he was setting for young onlookers and gave explicit instruction where appropriate.

A father could not let down the barriers of propriety that defined his role. Though his contact with his children may have been limited, as it is now by the constraints of his vocation, he had to make the best imprint possible upon his progeny.

Don’t Be an Autocrat

This is not to say that Chinese fathers had the last word in all instances. As one first-century Chinese thinker put it:

“All men are children of God and are merely made flesh through the spirits of father and mother. Therefore, the father has not absolute power over the son.”

Since the child has been seeing his father as a role model and bearer of morality, he will also be expected to hold himself to these same principles. This is not the same as blind obedience, which Confucius loathed.

When one of his disciples boasted of having withstood a particularly brutal beating from his father, Confucius was quick to reprimand him: By tolerating the potentially injurious blows, was he not allowing his father to commit wrongdoing?

The role of a child, Confucius taught, must not be to follow his parents blindly, but rather to absorb the character-building lessons learned from them and assist them in their own times of moral weakness. This highlights the importance of leading by example—only when a father represents a strong, upright character will a son be correct in emulating him.

Modern Realities

For the modern father, trying to leave time for your offspring can be a daunting, even seemingly impossible task. While working women are afforded maternity leave and corporate culture has resigned itself to their simultaneous status as mothers, there is little breathing room for the career-minded dad.

In today’s society, where the paternal role has been virtually reduced to that of breadwinner, it is even more crucial that the time spent with your kids be made to count. As every moment a father has with his sons or daughters is formative, he must—avoiding the urge to indulge himself and his children—lead by genuine strength of character and thus be a worthy model for posterity.