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The text of The Twenty-Four Filial Exemplars (Èrshí Sì Xiào 二十四孝) has stood for generations as the prime folk document on what filial piety is all about. The collection is not by any means part of the Confucian canon, and indeed tends to attract little but scorn from Chinese intellectuals. But until the Communist government sought to suppress the text as part of its campaign against tradition, there was probably not a bookstore in China that did not have copies available. After that campaign, in the course of the 1980s and 1990s new editions came flowing back into Chinese bookstores, and it is nearly universally available once again. The tales are known individually to most Chinese, and the collection has spawned many imitators containing other stories, usually overlapping with these. Many people imagine countless similar stories to be part of the original twenty-four.
The author of the Twenty-Four Exemplars was Guō Jūjìng 郭居敬, a Yuán 元 dynasty (1260-1368) man who lived in Dàtián Xiàn 大田县, north of Déhuà 德化, in Fújiàn province 福建省. He was apparently widely known for his filial piety, and took the occasion of the death of his father, and his compulsory retirement from public life for a period of mourning, to publish the tales we read here. His collection records the feats of filial children —nearly all male— towards their parents —mostly elderly mothers— from the age of the primordial Emperor Shùn 舜帝 down to his own era.
The numbering of the tales used here is traditional, but is not observed in all editions. Similarly, the brief summary titles (each four characters in Chinese) are quite traditional (and not universal).
This on-line edition includes the original text with its direct translation. The Chinese text is provided in simplified and traditional characters and in transliteration. The transliteration follows the annotations on a relatively careful Taiwan children's version published with phonetic side-script on the characters, although I am responsible for the word division.
The present translation was made by me in 1973, and first appeared in the 1986 volume cited below. I have made minor editorial changes from time to time in the subsequent years. I am grateful to Mrs. Shiu-kuen Fan Tsung for her criticism of the original translation and for her assistance in interpreting some passages which I found obscure. The responsibility for remaining errors is, of course, my own.
The illustrations accompanying the bilingual display are from an anonymous poster intended as an uplifting decoration for schoolrooms, temples, offices, and homes, and sold by a street peddler in Jiāyì City 嘉义市 in southern Taiwan in the 1980s. It reproduces a style used for vernacular educational woodcuts in late imperial times and up to the present.
In addition to the translation, the stories are available as slightly expanded retellings, in which I have sought to include a little of the additional overlay that a traditional story-teller might use to make the tales flow more smoothly.
The illustrations accompanying the retellings are in nearly all cases from reliefs at the great Guāndù Gōng 关渡宫 Temple in Taipei, one of the most elaborate collections anywhere of modern Chinese religious stone carving. Where my photos of these did not come out or where the reliefs were inaccessible, I have substituted drawings from various periods as reproduced in YÁNG Hūn 杨焄 2006 二十四孝图说。上海：上海大学出版社。
A very slightly earlier version of a 9-page (134 K) English-only pdf file suitable for printing is available. (Link)
To place these tales in a broader context, some readers may find it useful to consult a brief introduction to the traditional Chinese family link, an overview of terms used in Chinese philosophy link, or a collection of Chinese popular tales link, all available on this web site.
I have published three articles on filial piety:
The references are:
- 1986 Folk filial piety in Taiwan: the twenty-four filial exemplars.
- IN Walter H. Slote (ed.) The psycho-cultural dynamics of the Confucian family: past and present. Seoul: International Cultural Society of Korea. Pp. 47-106.
- 1998 Filial piety in Taiwanese popular thought.
- IN Walter H. Slote & George A. DeVos (eds) Confucianism and the family. Albany: SUNY Press. Pp. 267-284.
- 2004 Pop in hell: representations of purgatory in Taiwan.
- IN David K. Jordan, Andrew D. Morris, and Marc L. Moskowitz (eds) The minor arts of daily life: popular culture in Taiwan. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press. Pp. 50-63.
For a broader account of the importance of filial piety stories in imperial China, see Keith Nathaniel Knapp's Selfless Offspring: Filial Children and Social order in Medieval China (Honolulu: U. of Hawai'i Press, 2005).
The picture of the filial son pushing his parents in a wheelbarrow is from E.C. Phillips 1882 Peeps into China. London: Cassell. P. 38.
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