The Virtue of Respecting Elders as Told in the ‘Three Character Classic’
The Three Character Classic, or San Zi Jing, is the best known classic Chinese text for children. Written by Wang Yinlian (1223–1296) during the Song Dynasty, it has been memorized by generations of Chinese, both young and old. Until the 1800s, the Three Character Classic was the very first text that every child would study.
The text’s rhythmic, short, and simple three-character verses allowed for easy reading and memorization. This enabled children to learn common characters, grammar structures, lessons from Chinese history, and above all how to conduct oneself.
It is said in the Three Character Classic:
He who is the son of a man
when he is young
should attach himself to his teachers and friends,
to learn propriety and decorum.
Xiang, at nine years of age,
could warm (his parents’) bed.
Filial piety towards parents,
is that to which we should hold fast.
Rong, at four years of age,
could yield the (bigger) pears.
To behave as a younger brother towards elders,
is one of the first things to know.
In the last two articles of this series, we learned about the challenging yet important role of parents in raising children.
But it takes two hands to clap, and children too must learn the challenging yet important duty of respecting one’s elders.
Respecting elders is deeply ingrained in Chinese culture. It takes many forms, including filial piety toward our parents, obedience toward our teachers, and deference toward senior citizens.
But why should we make the effort to respect to our elders? The following well-known folktale provides a compelling reason.
‘Come Back in Five Days!’
Zhang Liang (3rd century BC – 186 BC) was a brilliant military strategist from the Western Han Dynasty. His contributions enabled Liu Bang to unify China under the Han Dynasty, and he was known as one of the “Three Heroes of the early Han Dynasty.”
According to legend, Zhang Liang’s historic achievements would not have been possible if not for his great tolerance and respect toward one elderly man.
One wintry day, the young Zhang Liang was walking over a bridge when he saw an old man standing at the head of the bridge. The old man intentionally threw one of his shoes off the bridge, and said to Zhang, “Boy, fetch my shoe for me.”
As odd as this was, Zhang did not hesitate as he walked down the river bank and retrieved the shoe. But when he tried to pass him the shoe, the old man offered his foot to Zhang instead. “Now help me put on the shoe,” he ordered.
Despite the old man’s inconsiderate demands, Zhang meekly and respectfully obliged. The old man laughed and said, “My boy, you are certainly worth teaching! In five days, wait for me here at daybreak.”
Five days later, just as the sun was peeking over the horizon, Zhang returned to the bridge. But he found the old man already waiting. “How can you keep your elders waiting?” the old man scolded. “I’ll give you another chance. Come back in five days, and don’t be late!”
Five days later, Zhang arrived at the bridge again before the sun was up. Yet he found the old man waiting for him again. “Why are you late again?” the old man fumed. “Come back in five days!”
Five more days passed, and Zhang took no chances—he was already waiting by the bridge at midnight. A few minutes later, the old man arrived. Smiling, he handed Zhang a book. “This is a rare and valuable manual. I have not been able to find a suitable young owner for it until now. Use it wisely!”
The old man turned out to be Huang Shigong, one of the four legendary wisemen on Mount Shang, and the book Zhang received was a precious military strategy manual—The Art of War by Taigong. Zhang studied the book assiduously and mastered its content, eventually establishing his place in history as a gifted military strategist.
“He who is the son of a man, when he is young / should attach himself to his teachers and friends, to learn propriety and decorum.”
Our elders have the benefit of years of experience and wisdom that we should respect and learn from. Some of their experience arises from mistakes they have personally made, and their knowledge can protect us from making the same mistakes.
Moreover, with their depth of experience and knowledge, our seniors are often able to identify the wheat from the chaff. The wise old man, who was testing Zhang’s tolerance and determination, saw that Zhang was far above the ordinary, hot-headed, lazy youth. Zhang’s admirable character made him confident that Zhang was the right person to impart his valuable knowledge to.
Respecting elders requires the virtues of tolerance, patience, sacrifice, and maturity. Like Zhang Liang, those who possess these virtues in abundance are equipped to go far in their lives.
Respecting Parents With Filial Piety
All elders should be respected, but when it comes to one’s own parents, one is expected to go beyond fundamental obedience and show filial piety.
The Confucian philosopher Zeng Zi once said, “The body is given by the parents. How can we not be respectful with things given by our parents?” Our parents gave us life, and returning that gift with filial piety is our moral obligation.
Filial piety is such an essential virtue in Chinese culture that there is an entire Confucian text dedicated to it. People are expected to be filial to their parents, and those who do well are upheld as role models.
The Three Character Classic cites the example of Huang Xiang, who lived during the Eastern Han Dynasty. The young Xiang was known for caring dearly for his parents. After his mother passed away when he was nine, he was even more filial to his father, doing everything possible to make his father’s life easier.
During the hot summer, Xiang knew his father had trouble sleeping due to the heat. So, every night before his father went to bed, he would fan his father’s pillow and mat to cool them. In winter, he would lie in his father’s chilly bed to warm it up for his father.
Xiang’s story is one of twenty-four in the classic Confucian text, The Twenty-Four Filial Exemplars. The text also contains other role models of filial piety, such as Wang Pou, whose mother was afraid of the sound of thunder when she was still living. After she died, whenever Wang heard thunder, he would rush to her grave to comfort her.
Another example is Wu Meng, whose family was too poor to afford mosquito nets. As such, during summer nights, Wu would strip and sit near his parents’ beds to allow the mosquitoes to feed on him, in the hope that they would not disturb his parents’ sleep.
According to Confucian belief, the virtue of filial piety goes beyond simply providing for one’s parents. It includes bringing honour to their names through one’s own accomplishments; showing love, respect and support; advising them kindly, including dissuading them from moral transgression; and honoring them after their deaths.
“It may be easy to provide food and money for the parents, but difficult to do so with respect. Even if it can be done with respect, it is difficult to do it naturally. Even if it can be done naturally, it is difficult to do it throughout one’s life. True lifelong filial piety is conducting oneself carefully even after one’s parents pass away, so that their names would not be tarnished,” said Zeng Zi, in the Classic of Rites.
Respecting Older Siblings
Within the family unit, besides being filial to our parents, we should also maintain kinship among siblings.
Like most people, my childhood was not without fights with my siblings – over toys, snacks, insults, and scuffles, among other things. But how many of us behaved as well as Kong Rong did when he was four years old?
Kong Rong was a politician and descendant of Confucius, who lived during the late Eastern Han Dynasty (A.D. 25–220). Growing up, Kong Rong had several older brothers and sisters. When Kong Rong was four, his family received a gift of a basket full of delicious pears, and his father kindly asked him to come and be the first to choose a pear from the basket.
Kong Rong promptly selected the smallest pear.
His father asked, “My son, why did you pick such a small pear and not a bigger one?”
Kong Rong replied, “I am the youngest, so I should have the smallest pear. My brothers and sisters are older than I am, so they should have the larger pears.”
Despite his tender age, Kong Rong knew that he should yield to his elders, including his older siblings. His kind and respectful nature made him greatly endeared by his family.
We often expect older siblings to care for younger ones, but younger siblings should also be taught to respect their older brothers and sisters. By having mutual care and consideration for each other, siblings can foster a peaceful and accommodating culture within the home.