Stories From the Students’ Rules: At Home, Be Dutiful to My Parents

By Daniel Teng
Daniel Teng
Daniel Teng
April 26, 2017 Updated: May 13, 2017

The “Standards for Being a Good Student and Child” (Di Zi Gui) is a traditional Chinese textbook for children that teaches children morals and proper etiquette. It was written by Li Yuxiu in the Qing Dynasty, during the reign of Emperor Kang Xi (1661-1722). In this series, we present some ancient Chinese stories that exemplify the valuable lessons taught in the Di Zi Gui. The first chapter of the Di Zi Gui introduces the Chinese concept of xiao, or filial duty to one’s parents. 

Min Ziqian’s filial piety touches his contemptuous stepmother

Regarding filial piety, The Di Zi Gui states:

If my parents love me, 
Being filial is no difficulty.
If they disdain me, 
My filial piety is truly noble.

A moral exemplar of filial piety, or respect for one’s parents, is Min Ziqian from the Spring-Autumn period. Min Ziqian lived in the country of Lu during the Spring-Autumn period (770 B.C–476 B.C). When he was young, he lost his birth mother but his father remarried and had two children with his stepmother.

Min Ziqian respected and cared about both his father and stepmother but his stepmother disliked him. One winter, she made warm winter jackets for her two sons but made Min Ziqian a jacket using the flocculent part from reed which appears cotton-like but doesn’t maintain heat.

It was a severe winter and one day Min Ziqian’s father asked him to drive the carriage, but Min Ziqian could barely hold the halter because he was freezing cold. His dad became very upset with him but Min Ziqian didn’t say a word. Min Ziqian’s father later noticed that his son looked really pale. He touched him and noticed that Min Ziqian was only wearing a thin jacket.

He took off Min Ziqian’s jacket and saw that the jacket was only made of reed, but his other two sons were wearing warm cotton jackets. His father was displeased and decided to divorce his wife for her cruelty. But Min Ziqian burst into tears crying, “With mother in the family, only one child suffers coldness. Should she be gone, all three of your sons would freeze.”

Hearing what Min Ziqian had said, Min Ziqian’s step-mother was deeply touched and started to care for all three sons fairly.

The story of Min Ziqian’s filial piety has been spread widely since.

The importance of sincerely correcting one’s mistakes

The Di Zi Gui states: 

A error made by accident
Is called a mistake. 
An error made by design
Is called evil. 

Mistakes can be corrected
And yourself redeemed;
But hiding your actions
Adds yet a crime to the deed. 

When something is wrong, we need to analyse whether the error was intentional or due to carelessness. In addition, we should not cover it up or find an excuse, but we should sincerely correct the error.

The famous Chinese literary giant, Zeng Gong, had a close friendship with Wang Anshi in the Song Dynasty. One day, Emperor Shen Zong asked Zeng Gong: “What do you think of Anshi’s personality?”

Zeng Gong answered: “Anshi’s writing is as good as that of Yang Xiong in the Han Dynasty. However, because he is stingy, he is not as good as Yang Xiong!”

The emperor said: “Anshi doesn’t care too much about fame and money, so why do you say that he is stingy?”

Zeng Gong replied: “What I mean by ‘stingy’ is that Anshi isn’t willing to correct his mistakes even though he is aggressive and has achievements.” The emperor heard his words and nodded his head to show agreement.

Wang Anshi was famous because of his talents and knowledge. However, he was stubborn and never admitted any wrongdoing.  When enforcing new legislation, he eventually harmed people and was left with a bad name in history.

From ancient times to now, the great sages were not people who didn’t make mistakes. Rather, they made mistakes, but they corrected them quickly. They often examined themselves and criticized themselves appropriately.

As aptly put by in the ancient Chinese saying, “Being able to correct (one’s) mistakes is the greatest thing that nothing else can compare with.”

Do not pursue or indulge in vanity

The Di Zi Gui states that we must not act in any way that is wrong or unfair to others, even if we think that the act is trivial and bears little or no consequence. Our parents would not want to see us doing things that are immoral or illegal. The classic also states that we should not keep any secrets from our parents, however insignificant the secret may be, because it will hurt our parents’ feelings if we do.

Though the matter be small, 
Do not handle it whimsically.
Handling it whimsically 
Harms the code you follow. 

Though the thing be small,
Do not keep it to yourself.
Keeping it to yourself,
Brings sadness to your parents. 

In ancient times, parents were strict in applying these standards and rules to their children, with corresponding disciplinary action. This nurtured many children to become formidable generals without fear of death. Under the guidance of their righteous parents, they became honest officers in China’s many dynasties, serving their people and country without seeking any returns for themselves or their families.

One such example is the story of the Ming Dynasty general Qi Jiguang, and his father, Qi Jingtong.

Qi Jiguang was born into a military family. At the time Jiguang was born, his father, Qi Jingtong, was at the relatively old age of 56. Jiguang was the only son in the family and his father loved him dearly. He personally taught Qi Jiguang to read books and to practice martial arts. However, he was very strict with Jiguang’s moral character and conduct.

One day, when Qi Jiguang was 13, he received a pair of well-made silk shoes. Walking back and forth in the courtyard in his new shoes, he felt very pleased with them. But Jiguang was seen by his father, who then called him into the study and scolded him angrily, “Once you have good shoes, you will naturally dream about wearing good clothes. Once you have good clothes, you will naturally dream about eating good food. At such a young age, you have developed the mentality of enjoying good food and good clothing. You will have insatiable greed in the future.”

Qi Jiguang (1528 - 1588) and his fearless Qi Army defended China's east coast from a raid by Japanese pirates (wokou) during the Ming Dynasty.
Qi Jiguang (1528 – 1588) and his fearless Qi Army defended China’s east coast from a raid by
Japanese pirates (wokou) during the Ming Dynasty.

“When you grow up, you will pursue delicious food and beautiful clothes,” Jiguang’s father continued. “If you were to be a military officer, you would even embezzle soldiers’ salaries. If you continue to be like this, it will be impossible for you to succeed in the undertaking of your elders.”

Qi Jingtong learned that the silk shoes were a gift from Qi Jiguang’s maternal grandfather. However, he still ordered Jiguang to take off the shoes, and he instantly tore them into pieces to prevent Jiguang from developing the bad habit of indulging in luxury. Once, the Qi family needed to renovate over a dozen of their rooms that were in very poor shape. Qi Jingtong hired several artisans to perform the job. Because the family would need a presentable place to host officials from the royal court, he asked the artisans to install four carved flowery doors in the main hall, and Qi Jiguang oversaw the installation.

The artisans regarded the Qi family as one of nobility and thought that it would look too frugal if there were only four carved doors. They talked to Qi Jiguang privately, “Your elders are generals. For such a noble and wealthy family, all doors throughout the house should be carved, flowery doors, which would be twelve such doors in total. Only this grade of setting will match the social status of your family.”

Qi Jiguang thought their suggestion was reasonable and brought it up to his father. Instead, Qi Jingtong scolded him strongly for his extravagant and ostentatious idea.

He cautioned Qi Jiguang, “If you pursue and indulge yourself in vanity, you won’t be able to achieve great things when you grow up.”

Qi Jiguang accepted his father’s criticism and told the artisans to install only four carved doors.

Qi Jingtong also taught Qi Jiguang that the purpose of studying liberal arts and practicing martial arts was not to pursue personal fame, personal achievement or personal wealth. Instead, it was for the well-being of the nation, the society and the people.

By learning from his father’s teaching, discipline, and exemplary conduct, Qi Jiguang sought frugality and felt content with moderate food. He was diligent and earnest in his studies and practice of martial arts. Later, he became a famous general as well as an outstanding strategist of the Ming Dynasty, and fought against the invading minorities. His name is forever imprinted in Chinese history.

Qi Jiguang had learned that showing off, indulgence, attachment to one’s own appearance, acquiring wealth, achievements and status—these attachments are all for the purpose of seeking flattery and praise, and are all manifestations of vanity. The root of vanity is the attachment to one’s ego. It will surely ruin one’s noble aspirations, and this person is doomed to fail in major undertakings. If one is enthralled by such illusive honor and—driven by such a mentality—fights with others, he would be a person of lamentable character.

Care for parents till the end, without leaving behind regrets

The Di Zi Gui states that we should take care of our ill parents, and attend to them day and night without leaving their bedside. When our parents have passed on, we should always remember them with gratitude, and feel sad for not being able to repay them for raising us. We should commemorate our parents’ anniversaries in memorial ceremonies with utmost sincerity, and serve our departed parents as if they were still alive.

When a parent is ill,
Taste their medicine.
Attend to them day and night,
Without leaving their bedside.

Fulfill the funerary rites;
Perform the ceremonies sincerely.
Serve the dead
As you would serve the living.  

Such moral exemplars of serving one’s parents are Emperor Wen of the Western Han Dynasty, and the teacher Wang Pou from the Three Kingdoms Period. 

Emperor Wen tastes his mother’s medicine

Emperor Han Wendi (Western Han Dynasty) tastes his mother's herbal medicine first, to ensure it is not too hot before feeding it to his sick mother.
Emperor Han Wendi (Western Han Dynasty) tastes his mother’s herbal medicine first, to ensure it is not too hot before feeding it to his sick mother.

During the Western Han Dynasty in China, after its founding patriarch Liu Bang died, the throne was passed down to his son, Liu Heng or “Liu the Constant”. Liu was given the name of Han Wendi, “The Learned Emperor of Han”. As a ruler, he practiced rigorous, just governance, and he loved the citizens, moving and inspiring them to self-improvement through education.

While managing the extremely complex and demanding affairs of the state, Emperor Wen nonetheless still found time to serve his mother with respect and filial devotion. He was neither careless nor tardy in his treatment of his mother.

Once, his mother suffered a serious illness. As soon as Emperor Wen had completed his various governmental matters, he would immediately leave the state chambers and return to his mother’s bedside to nurse her with tender care. She was sick for a full three years, yet his care was constant and untiring. He waited on her night and day throughout her illness, without relaxing his vigilance in the least. He never grumbled or resented the toil and tedium.

The emperor’s care of his mother was thorough to the last detail. He would wait by her bedside without closing his eyes, often forgetting to change his robes for long periods out of fear that he might be remiss in his nursing care. As soon as the servants had prepared any dose of medicine, the Emperor would first sample the remedy himself, to make sure it was neither too hot nor too weak. When it was fit to drink, the Emperor would personally spoon-feed the medicine to his mother.

Many years passed, and the Learned Emperor nursed his mother throughout, earning the praise of all the citizenry. An outstanding leader, he was also a most unusual, filially devoted son, and he set the standards of behavior towards parents. The people of China respected him, and were deeply influenced and transformed by his model of virtue. In turn, they practiced filial respect towards their parents, and treated them well. The Learned Emperor’s name, Han Wendi, has been passed down through a thousand ages to the present—people still admire his model of virtuous, self-less conduct.

Wang Pou protects his mother from thunder, even after her death

Wang Pou was a filial son who lived during the Three Kingdoms Period. Wang’s mother dreaded the sound of thunder, so whenever the sky filled with dark clouds and rain was on the way, Wang Pou would run to his mother’s side to comfort her and to calm her fears. If her son was not at her side, the old woman would feel unbearable alarm.

After his mother passed on, Wang Pou buried her in a neighbouring graveyard. Even though the old lady was no longer alive, every time a storm approached, Wang would run to the graveyard and kneel by his mother’s tombstone with tears running down his cheeks. “Don’t cry Mother, your son is nearby!”, he would call, just as if his mother was alive. As long as the storm lasted, Wang remained near the grave, circling around it countless times to protect his mother’s spirit and keep her from fear.

Later, when Wang Pou became a teacher, every time he read a passage on the emotions felt by devoted sons and daughters for their departed parents, Wang’s own feelings would overflow, and he would cry with deep longing. After seeing this, his students would carefully remove any texts that talked about the love that children have for their parents.

Wang Pou always emphasized in his lessons the necessity of repaying the kindness of one’s parents while they are still alive. He was considered a model for filial behavior, and his constant regard for his departed mother moved the hearts of all those who witnessed it.

Daniel Teng