Bad sons

Over at A Ku Indeed Chris asks about Mencius  4A28, in which Mencius commends Shun for transforming his father.

He (Shun) considered that if one could not get the hearts of his parents he could not be considered a man, and that if he could not get to an entire accord with his parents, he could not be considered a son. By Shun’s completely fulfilling everything by which a parent could be served, Gu Sou was brought to find delight in what was good. When Gu Sou was brought to find that delight, the whole kingdom was transformed. When Gu Sou was brought to find that delight, all fathers and sons in the kingdom were established in their respective duties…This is called great filial piety”

Chris asks

So is Shun (or Mencius) serious? Is a son not a son if he fails to transform his father/mother? Are the virtues that embody “being a son” incomplete if they are not mirrored by the virtues involved in being a dad? (I presume this holds in the reverse direction for sons, too).”

Rather than focus on what Mencius is trying to proscribe here I am more interested in what Shun lore tells us about the construction of early Chinese ideas of the family. Shun was one of the mythical sage-kings of Early China, famous both for being chosen by Yao to take over the kingdom despite not being Yao’s son, and also famous able to influence both his own (worthless) father and and Yao’s nine (worthless) sons and make them better people. Mencius talks a lot about him and I suspect part of the reason is that while he is famous for being filial a lot of what he does (influencing Yao’s sons better than Yao can, influencing his father rather than vice versa) is in fact usurping the role of the father that he is not entitled too. A big chunk of Mencius 5a is Mencius explaining away Shun’s odd behavior for the benefit of his disciples.

In The Flood Myths of Early China Mark Edward Lewis points out that there is “a recurring pattern in early Chinese myths in which exemplary  men have wicked fathers and themselves produce evil offspring.”1 The fathers and sons made matched pairs, the fathers being perfect without any need for education and the sons being beyond the reach of education. Lewis says that this opposition between fathers and sons was necessary in a world where the father’s authority was not to be transmitted to the son. Later, as the lineage began to be developed great efforts were made to separate sons from fathers so as to impose hierarchy on the family. There is a whole section on sons who should not be raised. Some were unacceptable because they were animalistic (3 or more children born at once) and beyond improvement by human education. Other were too similar to their fathers and thus brought forward his inevitable usurpation of the father’s role.2

So, at least for Lewis, Mencius is not using Shun to describe filial piety, but rather trying to explain away the unfilial behavior in a story that is not really about filiality and moral influence, but rather is about the extremes of human posibility3 and the need to impose hierarchy on the family. Mencius is struggling to put a “modern” reading on a much older storywith different concerns.


  1. p.81 

  2. Lewis does a lot more with this. It’s a really good chapter. 

  3. As Lewis points out, the Sages are themselves not really human, almost all of the them having animal charachtaristics and being in many ways outside socieity. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *