The Twenty-four Filial Exemplars
The Twenty-four Filial Exemplars, also translated as The Twenty-four Paragons of Filial Piety (Chinese: 二十四孝; pinyin: èrshísì xiào), is a classic text of Confucian filial piety written by Guo Jujing (郭居敬) during the Yuan dynasty (1260–1368). The text was extremely influential in the mediaeval Far East and was used to teach Confucian moral values. It is virtually untaught in schools today, although adults may be familiar with it.
Some of the stories in The Twenty-four Filial Exemplars were taken from other texts such as the Xiaozi Zhuan (孝子傳), Yiwen Leiju, Imperial Readings of the Taiping Era and In Search of the Supernatural.
There were earlier precedents of The Twenty-four Filial Exemplars. A Buddhist bianwen titled Ershisi Xiao Yazuowen (二十四孝押座文), which was among the manuscripts discovered in Dunhuang's Mogao Caves, is the oldest extant text related to the The Twenty-four Filial Exemplars. During the Southern Song dynasty, the artist Zhao Zigu (趙子固) drew a painting, Ershisi Xiao Shuhua Hebi (二十四孝書畫合璧), about the The Twenty-four Filial Exemplars. During the Yuan dynasty, the scholar Xie Yingfang (謝應芳) mentioned in Gui Chao Ji (龜巢集) that a certain Wang Dashan (王達善) once praised The Twenty-four Filial Exemplars and the Classic of Filial Piety. During the Qing dynasty, Wu Zhengxiu (吳正修) mentioned in Ershisi Xiao Gu Ci (二十四孝鼓詞) that the Twenty-four Filial Exemplars were very well known.
After the release of The Twenty-four Filial Exemplars, revised editions of the text and other similar works were published. Some of these include: Riji Gushi Daquan Ershisi Xiao (日記故事大全二十四孝; Complete Diary Stories of the Twenty-four Filial Exemplars), Nü Ershisi Xiao (女二十四孝; Female Twenty-four Filial Exemplars), and Nan Nü Ershisi Xiao (男女二十四孝; Male and Female Twenty-four Filial Exemplars).
The philologist Yang Bojun mentioned the development of The Twenty-four Filial Exemplars in Jingshu Qiantan (經書淺談). After the book was compiled by Guo Shouzheng during the Yuan dynasty, a new illustrated edition with drawings by Wang Kexiao (王克孝) was released, and this made the book even more popular. Towards the end of the Qing dynasty, Zhang Zhidong and others edited and expanded the book and released it as Bai Xiao Tu Shuo (百孝圖說; Illustrated Hundred Stories of Filial Piety).
The concept of filial piety has played a strong role in Chinese culture since ancient times. There was also a tradition of filial mourning, in which a person had to temporarily put aside whatever he/she was doing when his/her parent(s) died and remain in mourning for three years. There were sayings such as: "When a ruler wants a subject to die, the subject must die; when a father wants a son to die, the son must die" and "A loyal subject should be sought from a family with filial sons."
However, in modern times, some stories in The Twenty-four Filial Exemplars are regarded as examples of blind filial piety that should not be learnt from. These stories include: Guo Ju burying his son for the sake of his mother; Wu Meng allowing mosquitoes to suck his blood, believing that they would not bother his parents if he did so; Wang Xiang lying naked on ice in the hope of thawing the ice with his body heat so that he could catch the fish beneath the ice.
There are also some stories which were heavily criticised and even regarded as contradicting Confucian principles. One example is the story of Cai Shun being rewarded by the Chimei rebels for his filial piety: The story paints the rebels in a positive light when they were actually being disloyal to their country by rebelling against the government. Another example is the story of Laolaizi behaving in a childish manner to amuse his parents: The writer Lu Xun mentioned that Laolaizi's story is an insult to the ancients, and has a bad influence on future generations.
|#||Title||Protagonist||Historical setting||Brief summary|
|1||His Filial Piety Moves Heaven and Earth (simplified Chinese: 孝感动天; traditional Chinese: 孝感動天; pinyin: Xiào Găn Dòng Tiān)||Shun
|Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors era||This story was set in the childhood of the mythical Emperor Shun. Shun's mother died when he was young so his father remarried and had another son with Shun's stepmother. Shun remained filial to his father and his stepmother and loved his stepbrother, even though they tried to kill him. His filial piety moved the gods and they protected him from harm and made the animals help him in his farming chores.|
|2||He Tasted His Mother's Medicine (simplified Chinese: 亲尝汤药; traditional Chinese: 親嘗湯藥; pinyin: Qīn Cháng Tāng Yào)||Liu Heng
|Western Han dynasty||Liu Heng (Emperor Wen of Han) was known for his filial piety to his mother, Empress Dowager Bo. When his mother was ill, he personally took care of her and paid careful attention to her needs. When medicine was served to her, he insisted on tasting it first to ensure that it was safe for her to consume.|
|3||He Felt Pain in His Heart When His Mother Bit Her Finger (simplified Chinese: 啮指痛心; traditional Chinese: 齧指痛心; pinyin: Niè Zhǐ Tòng Xīn)||Zeng Shen
|Spring and Autumn Period||Zeng Shen was born in a poor family and was known for his filial piety. Once, when he was out gathering firewood, some visitors showed up at his house. His mother bit her finger and hoped that he would sense something and come home quickly. As she expected, Zeng felt pain in his heart and thought that something had happened to his mother, so he immediately rushed home. When he reached home, his mother told him the reason.|
|4||He Obeyed His Mother and Wore Thin Clothes (simplified Chinese: 单衣顺母; traditional Chinese: 單衣順母; pinyin: Dān Yī Shùn Mŭ)||Min Sun
|Spring and Autumn Period||Min Sun's mother died early so his father remarried and had two other sons. Min was ill-treated by his stepmother but he never bore grudges against her. During winter, his stepmother prepared a coat made of reed catkins for him, but prepared coats made of cotton for his stepbrothers. One day, Min followed his father out and was instructed to drive the carriage. However, as the coat was too thin, Min was unable to withstand the cold so he shivered and was unable to focus on the task at hand. He accidentally caused the carriage to get stuck in a ditch. Min's father was furious and started beating him until his clothes tore and the reed catkins came out. It was then when Min's father realised that his son was being mistreated, and he was so angry that he went home and wanted to send away Min's stepmother. However, Min pleaded with his father to spare his stepmother, saying, "If she stays, only I suffer. But if you send her away, me and my stepbrothers will suffer." Min's stepmother was so touched that she regretted her actions and never mistreated Min again.|
|5||He Carried Rice for His Parents (simplified Chinese: 为亲负米; traditional Chinese: 爲親負米; pinyin: Wèi Qīn Fù Mǐ)||Zhong You
|Spring and Autumn Period||Zhong You was born in a poor family. When he was young, he often travelled a distance away from home and carried back a sack of rice to feed his parents. He ate only wild vegetables. Many years later, when he became an important and wealthy official in the Chu state, his parents had already died. He often recalled his past and lamented, "I can never eat wild vegetables and carry rice back for my parents anymore."|
|6||He Fed His Parents with Doe's Milk (simplified Chinese: 鹿乳奉亲; traditional Chinese: 鹿乳奉親; pinyin: Lù Rǔ Fèng Qīn)||Tanzi
|Spring and Autumn Period||Tanzi's elderly parents were losing their sense of sight and believed that doe's milk could cure them. Upon hearing that, Tanzi covered himself with deer's skin and got close to a doe to obtain its milk. He repeated the process every day. Once, a hunter mistook him for a real deer and almost killed him, but Tanzi revealed himself and explained the situation to the hunter.|
|7||He Dressed Up to Amuse His Parents (simplified Chinese: 戏彩娱亲; traditional Chinese: 戲彩娛親; pinyin: Xì Cǎi Yú Qīn)||Laolaizi
|Spring and Autumn Period||Laolaizi was a hermit who lived in the Chu state. He was known for being very filial to his parents. Even in his old age, he still dressed up in bright coloured clothes, played with toys, and behaved in a childish manner to amuse his parents and keep them happy.|
|8||He Sold Himself for His Father's Funeral (simplified Chinese: 卖身葬父; traditional Chinese: 賣身葬父; pinyin: Mài Shēn Zàng Fù)||Dong Yong
|Eastern Han dynasty||Dong Yong lost his mother at a young age so he lived with his father, who also died not long later. As he could not afford to give his father a proper funeral, Dong sold himself as a slave to a rich man, who paid for his father's funeral. One day, Dong met a homeless woman and married her. She helped Dong weave 300 rolls of silk within a month. Dong sold the silk and used the money to buy his freedom. On the way back, the woman revealed that she was actually the Heavenly Emperor's daughter and was sent to Earth to help Dong gain back his freedom. Now that her task was complete, she returned to Heaven.|
|9||He Buried His Son for His Mother (simplified Chinese: 为母埋儿; traditional Chinese: 爲母埋兒; pinyin: Wèi Mǔ Mái Ér)||Guo Ju
|Eastern Han dynasty||Guo Ju lived with his mother, wife and son. He was known for being very filial to his mother. However, his family was poor and Guo became worried when he realised he could not provide enough for both his mother and son. After discussing with his wife, they made a painful decision to bury their son for the sake of his mother because they could have another child again but Guo could not have his mother back if he lost her. While Guo was digging, he discovered a pile of gold and a note which said that Heaven had granted the gold to him. With the gold, Guo was able to provide for his whole family.|
|10||The Fountain Bubbled and the Carps Leapt Out (simplified Chinese: 涌泉跃鲤; traditional Chinese: 湧泉躍鯉; pinyin: Yǒng Quán Yuè Lí)||Jiang Shi
|Eastern Han dynasty||Jiang Shi and his wife were both very filial to his mother. They lived a distance away from the river. However, because Jiang's mother enjoyed drinking the river water and eating fish caught in the river, the couple did not mind travelling long distances daily to collect water and catch fish to please her. When Jiang's mother said she preferred more company, the couple invited their neighbours to join them during meals. One day, due to bad weather, Jiang's wife did not return in time from her trip to the river. Jiang thought that she was being disrespectful to his mother by keeping her waiting, so he drove his wife away in anger. Jiang's wife stayed in a neighbour's house and spent the night weaving clothes for her mother-in-law, and asked the neighbours to help her deliver them the next day. When Jiang's mother learnt the truth, she ordered her son to bring her daughter-in-law home. On the day Jiang's wife came back, a fountain suddenly burst out in front of the house and the water from it tasted exactly like that from the river. Besides, two carps also leapt out of the fountain every day. From then on, Jiang and his wife no longer needed to travel to the river to collect water and catch fish.|
|11||He Picked Mulberries for His Mother (simplified Chinese: 拾椹供亲; traditional Chinese: 拾椹供親; pinyin: Shí Shèn Gòng Qīn)||Cai Shun
|Xin dynasty / Eastern Han dynasty||Cai Shun lost his father when he was young so he lived with his mother, to whom he was very filial. During those chaotic times, food prices were high so Cai and his mother ate mulberries to sustain themselves. One day, while Cai was out gathering mulberries, he encountered Chimei rebels, who asked him why he separated black and red mulberries and placed them in different baskets. Cai replied that the black ones (which tasted sweet) were for his mother while the red ones (which tasted sour) were for himself. The Chimei rebels were impressed by his filial piety and gave him some rice and a cow's hoof.|
|12||He Carved Wooden Figures of His Parents to Serve Them (simplified Chinese: 刻木事亲; traditional Chinese: 刻木事親; pinyin: Kè Mù Shì Qīn)||Ding Lan
|Eastern Han dynasty||Ding Lan was orphaned at a young age, but he missed his parents so much that he carved wooden figures in their likeness and treated them as if they were alive. One day, when Ding was out, his wife, out of curiosity, used a needle to prick one of the figures. To her shock, the figure started bleeding. When Ding returned home, he saw the figure bleeding and tears flowing from its eyes, so he asked his wife what happened. After learning the truth, he was so angry that he divorced his wife and drove her away.|
|13||He Hid Oranges for His Mother (simplified Chinese: 怀橘遗亲; traditional Chinese: 懷桔遺親; pinyin: Huái Jú Yí Qīn)||Lu Ji
|Eastern Han dynasty||When Lu Ji was six years old, his father Lu Kang once brought him to visit Yuan Shu. Yuan treated his guests to mandarin oranges. Lu took two and hid them in his sleeve. While Lu and his father were preparing to leave, the oranges suddenly rolled out of his sleeve. Yuan laughed, "You came as a guest. Must you hide the host's oranges when you're leaving?" Lu replied, "My mother likes mandarin oranges so I wanted to bring them home for her to try." Yuan was very impressed with Lu's filial piety.|
|14||He Laboured to Support His Mother (simplified Chinese: 行佣供母; traditional Chinese: 行傭供母; pinyin: Xíng Yōng Gòng Mǔ)||Jiang Ge
|Han dynasty||Jiang Ge carried his mother on his back and took care of her along the way as they travelled from Linzi to Xiapi. When they encountered robbers on the journey, Jiang tearfully pleaded with them to spare him and his mother. The robbers were so touched by Jiang's filial piety that they spared him and his mother, and pointed out a safe travel route for him. In Xiapi, Jiang worked hard to ensure that his mother could live comfortably.|
|15||He Fanned the Pillow and Warmed the Blanket (simplified Chinese: 扇枕温衾; traditional Chinese: 扇枕溫衾; pinyin: Shàn Zhěn Wēn Qīn)||Huang Xiang
|Eastern Han dynasty||Huang Xiang lost his mother when he was nine years old so he lived with his father and was very filial to his father. During summer, Huang fanned his father's pillow to ensure that his father could sleep comfortably at night. In winter, he wrapped himself with his father's blanket to warm it.|
|16||He Cried at His Mother's Grave When He Hears Thunder (simplified Chinese: 闻雷泣墓; traditional Chinese: 聞雷泣墓; pinyin: Wén Léi Qì Mù)||Wang Pou
|Three Kingdoms period||Wang Pou's mother was afraid of the sound of thunder when she was still living. After she died, whenever Wang heard thunder, he rushed to her grave to hug her tombstone and comfort her.|
|17||He Fed Mosquitoes with His Blood (simplified Chinese: 恣蚊饱血; traditional Chinese: 恣蚊飽血; pinyin: Zī Wén Báo Xuě)||Wu Meng
|Jin dynasty||Wu Meng was already known for his filial piety when he was still a child. His family was poor and could not afford mosquito nets. During summer nights, Wu stripped and sat near his parents' beds to allow mosquitoes to suck his blood, in the hope that they would not bother his parents.|
|18||He Laid on Ice in Search of Carp (simplified Chinese: 卧冰求鲤; traditional Chinese: 臥冰求鯉; pinyin: Wò Bīng Qíu Lí)||Wang Xiang
|Eastern Han dynasty / Three Kingdoms period||Wang Xiang's mother died when he was young. His stepmother disliked him and often spoke ill of him in front of his father, which resulted in him losing his father's love. However, Wang still remained filial to them and he personally took care of them while they were sick. Once, during winter, Wang's stepmother suddenly had a craving for carp. Wang travelled to the frozen river, undressed, and laid on the icy surface. The ice thawed and Wang was able to catch two carps for his stepmother.|
|19||He Fought a Tiger to Save His Father (simplified Chinese: 扼虎救亲; traditional Chinese: 扼虎救親; pinyin: È Hǔ Jìu Qīn)||Yang Xiang
|Jin dynasty||When Yang Xiang was 14, he once followed his father to harvest the crops. A tiger suddenly appeared and attacked his father. In desperation, Yang jumped onto the tiger and attempted to strangle it with his bare hands. The tiger released his father and ran away.|
|20||He Cried and the Bamboo Sprouted (simplified Chinese: 哭竹生笋; traditional Chinese: 哭竹生筍; pinyin: Kū Zhú Shēng Sǔn)||Meng Zong
|Eastern Han dynasty / Three Kingdoms period||Meng Zong's father died when he was young so he lived with his mother. Once, when his mother was ill, the physician suggested that she drink soup made from fresh bamboo shoots. However, it was in winter then and there were no bamboo shoots. In desperation, Meng went to the bamboo forest alone and cried. Just then, he heard a loud noise and saw bamboo shoots sprouting out of the ground. He was so happy that he collected them, went home and made soup for his mother. She recovered from her illness after drinking the soup.|
|21||He Tasted His Father's Faeces and Worried about His Father (simplified Chinese: 尝粪忧心; traditional Chinese: 嘗糞憂心; pinyin: Cháng Fèn Yōu Xīn)||Yu Qianlou
|Southern Qi dynasty||Yu Qianlou was appointed as the magistrate of Chanling County. One day, after he held office for less than ten days, he suddenly had a feeling that something had happened at home, so he resigned and went home. When he reached home, he learnt that his father was seriously ill for two days. The physician told him that the way to check his father's condition was to taste his faeces. If it tasted bitter, it meant that his father was fine. Yu then tasted his father's faeces and found that it tasted sweet, so he became very worried. At night, he prayed to the gods and expressed his willingness to die in his father's place. However, his father still died a few days later. Yu buried his father and mourned for three years.|
|22||She Breastfed Her Mother-in-Law (Chinese: 乳姑不怠; pinyin: Rǔ Gū Bù Dài)||Madam Tang
|Tang dynasty||Madam Tang was the grandmother of a jiedushi called Cui Shannan (崔山南), so this story probably took place in Cui's childhood. Cui's great grandmother, Madam Zhangsun, was very old and had already lost all her teeth. Madam Tang took care of her mother-in-law and breastfed her for years. When Madam Zhangsun was on her deathbed, she summoned all her family members and told them, "I can never repay my daughter-in-law's kindness. I just hope that all of you will treat her as well as she treated me." After Cui grew up, he followed his great grandmother's words and treated his grandmother kindly.|
|23||He Gave Up His Official Career to Search for His Mother (simplified Chinese: 弃官寻母; traditional Chinese: 棄官尋母; pinyin: Qì Guān Xún Mǔ)||Zhu Shouchang
|Song dynasty||When Zhu Shouchang was seven years old, his mother (his father's concubine) was driven away from home by his stepmother (his father's first wife). When he grew up, he became a government official and served in office for years. However, he missed his mother and hoped to reunite with her, even though they had never seen each other for over 50 years. When he received clues of her whereabouts, he gave up his career and travelled far in search of her, and vowed never to give up until he found her. He was eventually reunited with his mother, who was already in her 70s then.|
|24||He Washed His Mother's Bedpan (simplified Chinese: 涤亲溺器; traditional Chinese: 滌親溺器; pinyin: Dí Qīn Nì Qì)||Huang Tingjian
|Northern Song dynasty||Huang Tingjian was very filial to his mother and took care of her personally even after he had become a government official. He even washed his mother's bedpan.|
- (郭居敬尤溪人。性至孝，事親，左右承順，得其歡心。嘗摭虞舜而下二十四人孝行之概序而詩之，名二十四孝詩，以訓童蒙。) Wang, Qi (王圻). Xu Wenxian Tongkao (續文獻通考) vol. 71.
- (坊間所刻《二十四孝》，不知所始。後讀《永樂大典》，乃是郭守敬之弟守正集。) Han, Taihua (韓泰華). Wushi Weifu Zhai Suibi (無事為福齋隨筆) vol. 2.
- (至元朝郭居業始將伊古以來孝行卓著者集24人，名二十四孝，以昭後世。) Pan, Shoulian (潘守廉). Ershisi Xiaotu Shuo Bing Shi (二十四孝圖說並詩) preface.
- (元代郭守正將24位古人孝道的事輯錄成書，由王克孝繪成《二十四孝圖》流傳世間；清末，張之洞等人將之擴編至《百孝圖說》。應園先生邀請為其86歲父親慶壽，陳少梅完全依照元代王克孝《二十四孝圖》內容繪製了《二十四孝圖》卷，與之相比，徐操創作的《二十四孝史》則更具個性化。) Yang, Bojun. Jingshu Qiantan (經書淺談).
- (夫國以簡賢為務，賢以孝行為首。孔子曰：‘事親孝故忠可移於君，是以求忠臣必於孝子之門。’) Fan, Ye. Book of the Later Han vol. 26.
- Note that loyalty is an important value in Confucianism.
- (正如將‘肉麻當作有趣’一般，以不情為倫紀，污衊了古人，教壞了後人。老萊子即是一例，道學先生以為他白璧無瑕時，他卻已在孩子的心中死掉了。) Lu, Xun. Chao Hua Xi Shi (朝花夕拾).
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