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« Where have all the Confucians gone? | Main | Twenty Years »

October 17, 2011


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Hi Sam,

Thanks for the careful, deep, and thought-provoking reply! I have worked up an answer about the Analects, disagreeing with much of what you say; but I haven’t yet started to think about the Mencius.

When you said "child-rearing is central to the Confucian project of creating and reproducing ren - 仁," I took this to mean that Confucianism holds the view that the way people train and educate their own children is central to society’s project of producing 仁in the next generation. That is, I took it to mean not that the very fact of raising children (the fact that one feeds them, teaches them language adequately, etc.) is central to the reproduction of 仁-- for while that is a necessary condition of the reproduction of virtue, it bears the same relation to vice. And I took it to be about something distinct from the cherishing of children, except insofar as Confucianism considers the cherishing of children in light of its impact on the character of the children – as you argue in this post that it does.


(I guess you don’t mean to be suggesting that Confucius might be addressing his own young son here.)

I think “小子” is (among other things) simply a friendly term for one’s students, as at 5.22, 8.3, 11.17, and 19.12 (and possibly 17.19). In at least two of these passages (5.22 and 11.17) it pretty clearly refers to adults playing roles in public life.


I take this to mean “one’s parents have no [potential] anxiety/sorrow except one’s illness.” You say “it seems the default assumption is that parents do worry about children … because they are responsible for their up-bringing.”

I think there’s no sign of that assumption here. There are more salient reasons to worry. Parents rely on sons for support, honor, continuation of the family, etc.; and thus rely on both the health and the character of their sons.

Further, if Confucius is talking mainly of the filial piety of adults, as I tend to assume, then there’s positive reason to think that the assumption you mention is not operative here. For the parents of adults have no outstanding child-rearing responsibilities toward them.


Your quotation is from one of Confucius’ remarks in 17.21. Here is that remark in full: 子曰:“予之不仁也!子生三年,然後免於父母之懷。夫三年之喪,天下之通喪也。予也,有三年之愛於其父母乎?”

The remark strikes me as a sort of shocked sputter rather than a major piece of position-taking. But setting that aside …

The point seems to be that it is un-仁 of Zaiwo not to return funerary care for his parents’ early parental care. That is, the fact that he does not make that return shows a current lack of gratitude, justice, filial piety, or what have you: that is, the virtue that would normally be a key causal link between the early care and the long mourning.

It doesn’t seem to me that the picture is that early care, by means of a sense of gratitude, leads to long mourning, which helps support a broader filial piety, which helps generate 仁.

Rather, the early care seems to play here a role like that of an act of borrowing in the virtue of paying one’s debts: it creates an occasion for the virtue or the opposing vice, allowing Confucius to make an inference about Zaiwo’s current character. There is no suggestion here that it promotes the virtue, though of course it might.

True, typically, occasions for a virtue are necessary means for training the habit that is the virtue (does any Confucian ever say so?). But also typically (or necessarily?), occasions for a virtue involve temptations in the opposite direction; and typically, once the occasion for mourning arises, one’s filial dispositions are long set.

Here’s the best argument I can think of (I’ll call it the Case) that the passage suggests at least something about the moral effect of cherishing. When Confucius says of Zaiwo, “予之不仁也!”, his point isn’t that Zaiwo isn’t 仁; his point is that Zaiwo is the opposite of仁. The implicit assumption is presumably that anyone in the middle between the opposite extremes would respond to early care with long mourning. Hence for normal adults the early care would generate the long mourning. This view presents the long mourning as an expression of the most minimal current virtue. But what it suggests is that children, who are mostly arguably in some sense between virtue and vice, would respond to increments of care with increments of filiality, so that early care would tend to promote filiality. And Youzi says in 1.2 that filiality is the continuing root of 仁. So early care tends to promote 仁. That is to say, early care has some effect in promoting 仁; it is not yet to say that parental care for children has the main or a central role. It is not to say that care is a main part of child-rearing,nor that child-rearing is a main root of 仁.

The Case, is an argument for the conclusion that the weak and uncontroversial idea that parental care has some effect on one’s degree of filiality can be inferred from the passage to be Confucius’ view (which is not to say that he meant to suggest it). I don’t see in the passage even a faint suggestion or evidence of the stronger view. And there’s a difficulty in thinking Confucius had the stronger view as he made this remark. It’s that any indication here that early care tends to promote filiality comes by way of the idea that early care tends to justify filiality. So it would be hard to separate the idea that early care is the main cause from the idea that early care is the main justification. But insofar as he thought it’s the main justification, he would presumably think that people whose parents didn’t properly cherish them are under significantly less obligation to be filial. I suppose that’s why traditionally people have mainly thought that it’s the mere fact of creating the children that obligates filial concern for parents.

A problem with the Case as an interpretation of Confucius’ ideas or assumptions about 仁 in the conversation of 17.21 is that, as I argued in PEW Oct.2008, the idea that filiality is the root of 仁 is something Youzi brought to the group after Confucius died. (That doesn’t matter insofar as the larger topic is Confucianism in general rather than what the speaker actually meant in some passage in the Analects.)

I don’t agree with you that filial piety is “clearly the Confucian virtue most emphasized in the Analects.” A very large claim is made for it in one passage in almost the most prominent possible spot, but that’s different. Confucius himself makes a comparably large claim for 信, and 信occurs in more than twice as many passages as 孝 (32 v. 14). Even 勇 appears in almost as many passages as 孝 (12). Other biggies are ritual propriety, wisdom, and 仁.


The Analects is not, of course, a treatise like the Nicomachean Ethics. Perhaps its failure to touch on child-rearing is just a matter of chance or of the disciples’ interest, or, as you suggest, perhaps they simply take the central importance of child-rearing to highest virtue as common sense (like the idea that in general one oughtn’t to murder or steal or beat people up).

I’m inclined to think, they thought of it as a grand and difficult lifelong task to develop and maintain high virtue in oneself (cf. 2.4). So they might have seen the idea that child-rearing is central to producing 仁 as a slighting of 仁: as though one were to say that playing with blocks as a child is central to becoming a great architect.

I wonder what Confucius and his contemporaries would have said if they had been asked to what extent developing highest virtue depends on childhood experiences, or more generally to what extent a person’s character depends on childhood experiences. One can certainly imagine that to one or both questions they might have answered “not much,” or “not much, a few years into adulthood.”

Even if they did take it as going without saying obvious that child-rearing is centrally important, one would certainly not expect them to think the best methods also go without saying. So if they thought child-rearing is important, and especially if they thought its importance is so plain as to go without saying, one would expect them to discuss methods, and to have been interested enough to recall and record what was said.

For they were interested in the process of developing high virtue. And at least one of them had a child.

You write, “the many statements on filial devotion are themselves instructions on child-rearing. They are aimed [also] at … telling [parents] how they should raise their children to behave. When should instruction on proper filial behavior begin? … waiting until fifteen to seriously work on a child's moral education is a losing proposition...”

I’m not sure what exactly is your line of thought here. Possibly this circular argument?:

1. Confucius probably thought character is importantly formed by child-rearing, so that parents have a major responsibility for the moral education of their children.
2. Confucius probably thought his descriptions of filial piety amounted to instructions to parents (describing one target for their efforts).
3. Those descriptions are evidence that Confucius probably character is importantly formed by child-rearing.

Aside from the self-consciously child-rearing efforts of parents, there may also be thought to be natural character (cf. the Case sketched above) and the general cultural climate (as expressed in 禮).

Thanks for this. Lots to think about here... and I am swamped with other work just now (which I would love to set aside but...). It will take me a bit to give these remarks the thought they deserve and respond...

Of course, Sam! Thanks for the heads-up. I also expect to take a long time thinking through the Mencius.

Let me give some brief replies here (for I am still thinking through some of your points...)

I accept your point. But it's interesting that the term 小子 is used to refer to adults, as in 5.22 (as glossed by Mencius in 7B37), who seem to need his instruction or, at least, his presence to model for them better behavior. They needed attention just like 子 need attention, instruction....

I still think there's something here - and the detail of your refutation suggests that this is worth thinking about more. The underlying point is that parents do care for their children. And this is put in direct relationship to the obligation for mourning. Why choose to make that connection in this regard. If child-rearing matter not at all (which may not be you position), why not say we should mourn for our parents because care of the elderly is the root of 仁? While the line about Zaiwo might well be sputtering, it might be so precisely because this is such an obvious thing. Of course we should treat our parents the way they have treated us. It it the prior treatment they afforded us that, at the very least, deepens our obligation to treat them properly.

And let me add here another passage to the mix: 8.6:


A&R have it as:

Master Zeng said,"A person to whom you can entrust an orphaned youth or commission the command of a sovereign state, who in approaching great matters of life and death remains unperturbed - is this an exemplary person? Such is an exemplary person indeed!"

This would suggest that someone who has skill in raising the young in exemplary. Now, maybe this means certain people have some sort of natural instinct for taking care of orphaned children. But what in the text would keep us from understanding this as meaning that the experience of child-rearing, in general, is a means of cultivating exemplary behavior?

Sorry I can't do more just now...have to run to catch a ride home (my teenage daughter has the car...a downside of rearing teenagers!)

Two days: you call that a delay?!!


“I still think there's something here - and the detail of your refutation suggests that this is worth thinking about more. The underlying point is that parents do care for their children.”

(The question whether Confucians think parents care for their children was never at issue, yes?

“And this is put in direct relationship to the obligation for mourning. Why choose to make that connection in this regard. If child-rearing matter not at all (which may not be you position), why not say we should mourn for our parents because care of the elderly is the root of 仁? While the line about Zaiwo might well be sputtering, it might be so precisely because this is such an obvious thing. Of course we should treat our parents the way they have treated us. It it the prior treatment they afforded us that, at the very least, deepens our obligation to treat them properly.”

To the first of your two questions here, my answer above was that early loving support is a benefit, a grace that obligates response, so that inadequate response can be disgraceful. I think the latter is the simple and obvious reading of Confucius’ remark. I think it’s quite different from the idea that early loving support helps shape character. Both views are largely uncontroversial, but I see no sign in this passage that the latter crossed Confucius’ mind that day, much less that he intends to suggest it.

The idea that [Confucius thought] child-rearing doesn’t matter at all even for character formation is more extreme than anything I suggested. But I do think that prima facie, a peculiar unconcern with the moral effect of parenting choices is a distinctive feature of the Analects. I think that might be explained (away) by the political focus of Confucius’ project; he was concerned with public service, not so much with ethics generally or ethics-for-everyone.

To your second question, I think there’s no sign that Confucius himself thought care for one’s family elders is the root of 仁. It’s Youzi who says that. The idea harmonizes very well with the other ideas we have from Youzi, and doesn’t fit the Confucius of the Analects. And there is good reason to think Youzi never studied with Confucius, but rather joined the group after Confucius died (and briefly led it, and permanently reoriented it).

Regarding Confucianism more broadly, my ill-informed sense is that its main eye is on people’s obligation to care for their parents. It’s not that Confucianism wholly neglects parents’ duties to their children; -- but whereas we might see parents’ concern for their children as a prime model for unconditional concern for others, giving little emphasis to children’s early concern for parents, the traditional Chinese or Confucian view is that unconditional concern for others is better modeled by children’s proper concern for their parents. I think when Chinese monarchs referred to themselves as “小子”, they meant to suggest not dependency and a need for care, but rather the selfless respect and devotion of a public servant.


“A person to whom you can entrust an orphaned youth or commission the command of a sovereign state, who in approaching great matters of life and death remains unperturbed … Such is an exemplary person indeed!"

One reading of the first part – the list of two tasks – is that that the list is meant to suggest the whole range of possible responsibilities, from least to greatest. That seems to me the obvious and natural first guess about what’s meant. Of course it isn’t absolutely the only possibility, and one could think of more extreme items on either end (though A&R’s “translation” obscures this point at the high end). But it seems to me that the weight of probability is that the passage means to emphasize the relative simplicity and unimportance of the task of caring for an orphan.

And so we might say:

To the question whether the Analects gets in line with the universally uncontroversial view that childrearing (at least after about age 10, or whatever 六尺 suggests) has something to do with character, this passage offers some slight support. As for the idea that, if asked, Zengzi would say that childrearing at that age is central to the development of 仁, the passage seems to lean against that idea, if it leans at all.

But I don’t concede that much. For I think it is easy enough to conceive caring for an orphaned youth as a task requiring a responsible person, without thinking of it in terms of the training of virtue. Especially if the orphan stands for a minimal task, the idea may simply be providing food and shelter and refraining from abuse and exploitation. Also I wonder whether the picture has to be that the man would be taking in the orphan as an adopted son, rather than simply as one among many dependents. The latter would be my guess, but I don’t know what were the familiar practices of the day.

I’m sorry; I haven’t yet cracked the Mencius to look for relevant passages. I expect there might be materials there for an interesting set of recommendations about childrearing toward 仁.

Of the passages you mention, as you read them, only one of them seems to touch on the the topic at issue (the moral impact of how we raise children): the passage that says that a loving relationship is an obstacle to moral training, which should therefore be farmed out to someone else. As you point out, it is unclear at what age this is supposed to happen. The passage does not touch on the moral impact of childrearing before that age.

There is perhaps some echo here of the only passage in the Analects that might address the topic of the moral impact of how we raise children: 16.13, in which a conversation with Confucius’ son leads someone to conclude that “a gentleman maintains a distant reserve from his son” ( But this passage is likely to refer to relations with sons once they are no longer children, so that it may not in fact touch on childrearing as you meant it.

My sense of Mencius is that sometimes he emphasizes the impact of social environment on our moral habits and sometimes he emphasizes our innate inner compass and freedom from environmental influence. Fair enough. But I do not see that he had worked out a way to reconcile these emphases (and I’m not sure whether, on this and many other topics, he spoke mainly for effect). Anyway I think it is fair to suppose that he thought a loving relationship with parents tends to help young children start off in the right direction. (The example of Shun might suggest that the activity of the parents is not the key. But in the Mencius we meet Shun only as an adult; and as Dan Robins has pointed out, it’s not clear to what extent those passages are just Mencius struggling with some akward commitments of a traditionalist pose.) Still, starting people in the right direction might not be a very big deal – how important it is depends on how much of a start we’re talking about, and how big a journey. Freedom from environment aside, Mencius sometimes says that when our social environment changes, our habits can change; which suggests that getting a good start is neither essential nor a guarantee.

Regarding the influence of social environment toward 仁 in a person, it might be interesting to go through the Mencius and see whether there are any implications about the relative importance of (a) the person's being treated with loving care, and (b) the person's being surrounded by examples of 仁.

There must be interesting early Confucian material on child-rearing:

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